What began as a fresh and neatly paved area transformed over the years into a lived space of success, failure and memory. By Margaret Simons.

Cultivating memories

A possum suspended on a thin branch, obscured by leaves in the night.
The author and the possums in her garden have reached a suitable compromise.
Credit: Shutterstock

The chill is here. The autumn flush, which gives me a last brave surge of leafy greens and beans, is nearly over. Now is the season for clearing up the legacy of growth, for memories and for making cups of tea and plans.

Last weekend I took the clear-up to the backyard. I hosed and swept under and around the plant stands and between the pots, finding the detritus of the year.

There was, of course, a heap of possum shit. Also a desiccated rat corpse. This was mixed with the leaves from the neighbours’ melaleuca tree, blown-in wrappers from Big Macs sold in the fast-food outlet that borders my property to the rear, about six clothes pegs, several buttons, three black plastic pots from Bunnings, an old pair of pantihose once used to tie up the honeysuckle, a tea light and a key that does not fit any lock in my house. So much for the leavings of the year.

Nearly 20 years ago, I moved back into this house after a decade away, during which I had given birth to two children and acquired a husband and a dog, in that order. We did a renovation to make the poky two-bedroom inner-suburban home I had bought as a single woman into a place to raise a family.

Thanks to a good builder and architect, it mostly went well. We rented nearby and visited each evening to watch the progress. Today, there are memories attached to every brick, each windowpane and stroke of paint.

There was the day they discovered our grumpy neighbour had a deck illegally attached to the brick wall we were about to demolish. The day they found a giant rock in the excavation, adding to the cost we would already struggle to meet. I cried that day.

We thought we would save a bit by doing the brick paving in the back courtyard by ourselves. As we watched the new extension rise out of the mud, as we packed our belongings and prepared to move in, we both began to regret this decision and to doubt our abilities.

The back courtyard was a sea of mud and rock, unstable, ugly and intimidating. Could we really cart sand, source second-hand bricks, cart them in, level everything and lay the paving neat and true?

We asked the builder to stay a bit longer, charge a bit more and do the job for us.

Other people’s competence, their trade skills, are a wonder. The wasteland was brought to order, brick by tamped-down brick.

It was about this time of year when it was done, but warmer. I had bare feet when we walked out into the finished backyard. The bricks were red and warm, laid in what I believe is called a running bond pattern. The gaps between them were filled with white sand, the remnants still dusting the surface and, soon, my toes. It was beautiful but dead. There were no growing things. The builder had left us two raised garden beds, both filled with rubble.

The neighbours’ melaleuca was at this stage a sapling barely peeking above the fence line.

In the years after that, my husband and I divorced, then he died. Then the dog died. And the children grew up and left home, leaving me in this fine and quiet time of life when regrets are pointless and plans encompass only the medium term.

As I hosed and swept away the mess of the year, I thought about all the things I had grown and killed in that backyard.

The mandarin tree started poorly, despite the new soil we carted in. I had been told, but had never believed, that if you talked kindly to your plants, they would do better. I never tried it.

But one winter, when the tree was about five years old, I talked bloody murder. I told it that if it did not bear fruit I would hack it down, dig out its roots, cut it into little bits and mulch it. That winter the tree bore a massive crop of mandarins unsurpassed in sweetness, and it has done the same every year since.

The bay tree and the makrut lime, both meant to provide leaves for stews and curries and pastes, grew massive, and today require annual pruning to stop them taking over the space.

About 10 years ago someone bought me an avocado tree, even though I had neither the light nor the space for such a thing. Amazingly, it is still alive, hiding behind the cascades of lemon verbena. I don’t think it has grown in a decade. I am still waiting to see if it will work.

Then there was the fig tree, which I tried to grow, in a pot, because I love figs. Each year it formed fruit that would drop before ripening. I discovered it had the viral fig mosaic disease, named for the crazy patterns on the leaves.

Sensible gardening books say there is no cure for fig mosaic. They say to kill the tree, throw out the soil and start again. But the hippie-ish gardening books, which I prefer, are more hopeful. Cut it right back, they say. Feed it good stuff, including an occasional dose of human urine. Speak to it tenderly, and it can recover.

I tried that for six years running (minus the tender talk) and it didn’t work. Then I tried threats. They didn’t work either.

I gave up last spring and called my son to demand his help. We tipped the pot up and cut the roots free with a hacksaw, then hauled the tree out of the back gate, through the McDonald’s car park past people in cars eating fries, to the footpath and the pile of hard rubbish. It joined a mattress I had slept on since before my divorce, an office chair that broke the day I finished a book, and the shattered remnants of the pot my daughter made in primary school.

Over the years, I have brought in far too many plants in pots to sit on top of the brick pavers. Meanwhile, the melaleuca tree in the garden next door now leans over my garden and almost equals my house in height.

It contains a nest of possums. In the evenings, from my living room window I can see them run back and forth, doing flying leaps from the tree to my sundeck, where they eat some things but not others.

You can buy various sprays to deter possums, but the only thing that works are barriers so impenetrable and ugly that they take away much of the point of having a garden.

So I have adjusted what I grow out there to possum appetites. I can’t grow snow peas, but they leave the bush beans alone. They eat some of the succulents, but not others. They like broccoli, but not tomatoes.

Meanwhile, they shit everywhere.

The white sand between the brick pavers has long since been washed out and replaced by a mix of possum shit and melaleuca leaves. Weeds thrive in the cracks. I give them a lick of flame with a fire wand from Bunnings.

I have a different dog now. She hates to shit or piss at home, but in the afternoons on those days a walk is not going to happen, she will reluctantly go down the spiral staircase to the bricks, sniff around, circle several times and eventually crouch. The piss spreads out across the bricks and soaks into the crevices like melted butter into crumpet.

A few times, I have bought bags of paving sand from Bunnings and tried to resand the area. It has never worked satisfactorily. I am told that to do it properly you have to get a pressure cleaner and hose out the dirt in the crevices. In other words, start again.

That would mean moving all the pots.

That would require a mental shift and a hard-eyed assessment of what is working, what should live and what should die.

If I do this, or hire someone else to do it for me, the back courtyard will return to a clean, neat, white-sanded space. I am not sure if that would be cause for grief or celebration. Perhaps it would be both.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2023 as "Cultivating memories".

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