Gardening

A reflection on the lilies of Galilee, the orchid of the building site and the karmic power of poo bags. By Margaret Simons.

A quiet winter of neglect

Vanilla planifolia is a member of the vanilla orchid family.
Vanilla planifolia is a member of the vanilla orchid family.
Credit: TommyK / Alamy

Consider the lilies of the field. Or in this case, consider my vanilla orchid – a plant used to tropical warmth but now outside in a pot suffering the desolation of a cold, wet, Melbourne winter. And consider my dog.

I have been renovating, which means my light-challenged back garden has become a builder’s yard. There are cans of paint and groundsheets and plaster dust and rolls of that foam sheet stuff they put on your floors to prevent scratches.

I can’t reach the garden beds, even if I wanted to. The truth is that the chaos, and anxiety, of home upheaval has sapped my motivation. All that, plus a dose of Covid that has left me coughing at the mildest exertion.

Fortunately, neglect is an option for gardeners at this time of year, at least in the southern states. Gardening programs and books recommend using this time to sharpen and oil your tools. Then, with your secateurs supposedly in tip-top condition, you can prune the roses and the deciduous fruit trees, set up compost heaps using your newly polished space and generally potter around tidying things up and pretending to be useful. You can also sit inside by the heater and read seed catalogues, which is what I have been doing.

The world of plants is mostly in hibernation. The busywork obscures the fact we are not needed.

The Sermon on the Mount, from which the verse about the lilies of the field is taken, is meant to be a lesson about not being anxious – because everything will look after itself. As The Beatles said, Let it be. The sermon claims that God has everything in hand – which is impossible to believe given the current state of the world. Therefore, considering the lilies of the field actually makes me even more stressed.

The Gospel According to Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

The lilies were probably the scarlet marathon or “red Turk’s-cap lily”, which would have been in flower when Jesus was meant to have given this sermon. It grows abundantly in Galilee.

But the argument doesn’t really hold up. It seems to overlook poverty, starvation, homelessness and what is prosaically, in our own times, called the cost of living or war or Putin’s recession or whatever.

Nevertheless, there is my vanilla orchid.

I had to clear all the pot plants out of the living room to make way for the builders. The greenery that usually crowds my living room has been sitting out on the verandah as a renovation meant to take a month has stretched into winter. The monstera, of course, is doing just fine, but I expected the vanilla orchid to die. It belongs, after all, in Mexico, not Melbourne.

I grew it from a tiny seedling, as a bit of a challenge. My gardening book tells me that vanilla orchid care is “very specific and each requirement must be met exactly”. It is best to use a greenhouse, or a room with carefully controlled heat and light. Only the most attentive nurturing will result in a flower, and then a seed pod from which one can harvest the tiny black specks that taste so good in custard and cake.

For two years, I have tended my vanilla orchid. I potted it in special mix and moved it from place to place in my living room to follow the warmth and provide the recommended partial shade. I watered it with care, dirtying my fingernail most mornings by poking the potting mix to check it was sufficiently moist. The vanilla orchid rewarded me by growing quite fast, trailing its glossy green leaves. It did not flower.

Then I put it outside for what I thought would be a late-summer interlude, while the renovations happened. The builder got Covid, the plumber got Covid, the tiler got Covid – and here we are in June, approaching the shortest day of the year, and the orchid is still out there. The extent of my care over all this time has been to shove it under a chair to protect it a little from the cold.

But here’s the thing. It looks just as healthy as it did when it was being petted inside. Of course, no flowers – but quite a few more leaves. Which makes me wonder. Am I gardening when I care for my plants, or just getting in the way of what would happen in any case? By the same token, when things die perhaps it isn’t my fault after all.

I am not a Christian, but I love the gardening metaphors in the Bible. Sowing and reaping and a season for all things. All of that. But I also like the Buddhist idea of karma – like it, rather than believe in it. Karma is the “law of justice” that determines who we are, our basic nature. Or so they say.

In this, the low point of the year, I have been putting such justice to practical effect. When I take the dog to the off-leash park in the early morning, it is still pitch black. I have put a little LED light on her collar, and I can see her running and bouncing around ahead of me, weaving her way hither and thither in the predawn world like a firefly on springs. Then comes a particular kind of stillness. The light stops moving – or perhaps there is a slight vibration. This kind of stillness is surely common to all mammals. It means she is having a crap.

I walk over, plastic bag in hand, to collect the shit. But in the dark it is impossible to tell the difference between a fallen leaf and a dog turd. I use the torch on my iPhone and scan the grass. It doesn’t help, and I surely look ridiculous. Meanwhile the dog’s LED light is back to bouncing and weaving. There are many dog-park sins, but failing to pick up one’s dog shit is one of the gravest. I have decided to make reparations by picking up other people’s dog shit, wherever I find it.

The central belief of gardeners is that they have a modicum of control over the way things turn out. That they can turn wilderness into something cultivated and good. Gardening is an exercise in power, a form of self-belief. We play God over our little patches of earth, and hope that we are leaving the world no worse than we found it – perhaps a little better.

My vanilla orchid has taught me that it didn’t necessarily need my care. But I have a roll of poo bags in my coat pocket, and I seek to level the karmic scales – to at least not add to the quantum of shit in the streets.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Winter is coming".

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Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author.

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