Today, I did some weeding, and amongst all the weeds I found a dozen little lettuces, green ones speckled with burgundy, fruit of our own earth. These ones I will treasure, cause they've arrived on their own, back in the groove of nature, second generation at Tapanui Downs, their parents having come to us in a seed packet.
I'm starting to get back in the groove of nature too. After three years living in the country, where the moon has started to get back into me, and where I use my instincts, not the clock, to tell the time, I am beginning to remember what I didn't know I'd forgotten.
I always wanted to be a gardener. I had my own garden when I was little. I have one hazy little picture of that first garden. I can definitely see alyssum, but not the other plants, and plenty of dirt.
There were other memories or family stories regarding the garden. One was mum's story about the tulips. She and the neighbour were in the middle of talking about how nice they were when I, assisted by my little brother, pulled off all their heads.
This is common problem for gardening mothers and fathers. Last spring, we had a few precious pink tulips. The temptation for Patrick, then two-years-old, was of course, innate, and off went a head. We kept the others, cunningly planted in a container, up on toddler free zone. This spring, as I watch them valiantly struggling to fully manifest themselves, I anticipate the day they bloom, along with the inevitable. Patrick is even more interested in picking flowers this year, but he still goes for the crunch and pull technique.
Every morning I go around the garden, looking for surprises. This is the third year we've been gardening here, and I have really looked forward to this spring because in the autumn, I got all the seed heads I could find and spread them around. Delphiniums, nicotiana, godetia, pansies, calendula, sunflowers, stock, whenever I found a dried head, I gave nature a hand. I concentrated them in spots of the garden which had not been fruitful last summer, due to lack of sun or poor soil.
Now, I'm waiting and watching and I guess I don't expect miracles, although I do believe in them.
I've scattered seed in bad soil and sunless spots regardless of whether the plant likes that kind of spot before, and waited a long time for nothing, or not much. I made my first attempt to garden as an adult several years ago, inspired by the giant sunflowers with heads-the-size-of-dinner-plates I'd seen in a next door neighbour's garden. I went round to the local plant shop, bought a packet of seeds, and planted them under the kitchen window so I could watch their giant heads growing up past the windowpane.
Nothing happened, so I went out to have a look and there were only two rather piddly looking plants doing not much. I waited and waited and eventually, at about 30cm high, one produced a flower the size of a plate from a child's tea-set. I was horrified and pictured myself returning the seed packet. "These are not giant sunflowers. There must have been some mix-up".
Fortunately I didn't. Now I realise the seeds were the real thing, with magnificent potential, but they had neither sun nor even good light, nor nutritious soil and probably not much water either.
The nor 'west winds are setting in - one or two a week at the moment. Hot, dry, strong winds which suck the moisture from the plants and from the soil. This year, I've been physically and mentally preparing for a repeat of last summer's drought, by letting the hardy plants multiply, and making sure there are no bare patches of dirt for the sun to bake. Getting some pea straw for a mulch is becoming urgent. I was sold on mulches last summer when I saw how long the soil stayed moist under the lawn clippings when the rest of the land was parched. (But now I will only use lawn clippings from grass that hasn't gone to seed, cause this year they cast too many hardy seeds).
How quickly the plants grow to meet each other, creating a shady, lush environment beneath their leaves, like being on the floor of a rainforest. I resisted the temptation to put the baby plants close together this year, filling up the garden, remembering the lettuces clogging up fresh air space beneath tomatoes the first year we put in a vege garden, and resulting in some rot.
In the absence of a mulch, I've been weeding selectively. I like weeding because it gets me on intimate terms with every inch of the garden, bringing it alive for me. However, some of the weeds act as guardians for emerging seedlings, and also keep the ground covered, helping to retain the moisture. It also seems to me that all plants, whether or not we call them weeds, have a purpose. Because Nature is perfectly designed, and more intelligent than humans generally seem to grasp.
I swear the two hollyhocks, which have been making slow progress so far this spring, have grown six inches since yesterday. The delphiniums, however, don't seem to have leapt ahead overnight. After steady and rapid growth for the last month, they have slowed down.
I have a few theories as to why the hollyhocks have taken off and the delphiniums settled down. Firstly, the moon is full, and as we know, the moon has a mysterious power upon the earth.
Secondly, I've learnt this spring that the different plants have their own inner clock. I presumed that, aside from the obvious early spring bloomers like daffodils, that stocks and delphiniums, calendula and so on, would all emerge from the ground at the same time, even if they didn't flower simultaneously. What happens when you plant a tray of seedlings? So far, I've only seen them come up at the same time, but now I can't be sure of that.
Tapanui Downs had no flower beds or vege gardens when we moved in, but there was heaps of raw material to work with. There was a little flower box surrounding the sunny corner of the verandah and two or three empty wooden garden boxes. There were two big half full compost heaps adjoining the chook house and many established trees and bushes, including treasures like a dark red fabulously scented climbing rose, along with camellias, rhododendron, lilac, walnut, flowering cherries, a cabbage tree, walnut and quince.
This being our fourth spring, there are seasonal rituals becoming established. Today's was filling the vases with intensely fragrant lilac. Every year, as the wave of yellow in the daffodil paddock breaks and subsides, and the first cherry opens its pale pink thick and frilly blossoms, I start watching the lilac bushes, waiting for the blooms and the heady scent which reminds me of my grandmothers.
The parade of annual bloomings, which begins intermittently in August, gradually builds to a surge as spring thickens. It's an abundance like having more money than you can spend and more food than you can eat. During the winter, I am sustained by the single beacon of winter sweet.
A gale force nor'wester hammered the valley for a day this week leaving all the tall plants, including the delphiniums, in the path-side garden along the house flattened, some still in tact, others with broken stems.
I tied them up loosely with muttoncloth and staked them, hoping they would survive and mend. (One I taped up with packing tape and it continued to thrive).
When the wind dropped the rain came down. It has been raining a couple of days every week this spring. The TV weather judges the weather as good only if the sun is shining. Nothing like a garden and a drought to teach you love for rain.
My favourite delphinium, the first to come up, was among the plants to take a beating in the wind, and the same day, Patrick pulled its head off. The first stalk of mid-purple flowers are due to open in the next week, now short of the top several layers.
Tapanui Downs is going up for sale this summer and I've been gardening with that in mind. I've set the garden up to be self-sufficient, getting it ready for the next gardener, hoping there will be one, one who loves it as much as I do.
It's an old farmhouse, rundown with all kinds of foibles. A water pump that, in the first year we were here, broke down every month or so. We were without water for three days in the week before Patrick was born and I had to wash in the creek. I'm sure Patrick enjoyed it. In the winter, the sun reaches the house for only the middle of the day, being gone from the furthest reaches of the huge front lawn by 3pm, when the other side of the valley is still in sunshine. Like just about every house built by transplanted English people of last century, it is built to the road, not the sun. When I think about what must have been in their heads building this house where they did, right under a hill on the shady side of the valley, I think maybe they were attracted to the now spongy but otherwise non-abundant spring behind the house.
MAYBE however, they loved sunsets. What is a cold and useless verandah in the winter transforms into the best summer verandah, providing with its concrete floor, a cool haven, and in the evenings, a place from which to watch the sky. All through the long summer, all those who have lived here have gathered on the verandah before dinner to sip wine or drink tea. And over the course of three summers, that hilly horizon has given us some wild light shows, from classic hot pink and orange sunsets and moody, coloured nor'west arches to crystalline starry multitudes set in a pitch black sky.
Coming home after dark one night, I had a starlight tour of the garden which I had not seen for three days, and which had been treated to buckets of rain. As I had begun to deduce, the sudden and spectacular growth of the two delphiniums earlier on had a very natural and scientific cause. I had treated them alone to a good watering the day before they sprouted, and then a few days later, to test the emerging theory, I soaked the ground around one delphinium. Like magic, it too grew six inches overnight. Now back home, doing the starlight tour, I was not to be disappointed. Everything had flourished, not only in height but in leaf size. The violets had leaves three times the size of that I remembered.
The way I've gone on about this garden, I am sometimes ashamed when I get a reality check and see other people's gardens, gardens about which their gardeners are very modest. And I think about the huge gardens I see on Maggie's Garden Show or read of in house and garden magazines. Most of this acre of land is in lawn which takes Francis four hours to mow (according to his exacting specifications). The actual proportion of this space in flowers or veges is about five percent. In a tiny garden, it would look grand, but here, it is a bit like a lone starfish on a long pebbly beach. People don't notice, unless they care to.
To me it is an infinite wonderland which I can't keep up with. Last year, there were three of us to tend it. Timothy stuck to his tomatoes, pumpkins and strawberries, with an interested eye extended to the exotic peppers, chillies and eggplants. An unfinished university degree in horticulture has for Timothy manifested itself in a tendency to specialise on one or two varieties, working on creating the super-ideal tomato, or perhaps even a serendipitous freak above and beyond the great tomato archetype envisioned by nature. So single-minded was Timothy, he could walk past the rockery created by Lucy and me, and even though it wilted, water only his pumpkin. Even the potatoes he was in some sense responsible for finally offered up a pathetic harvest due to lack of water and interest in general.
Lucy, on the other hand, tends toward propagation. She learnt to garden in our mother's nursery specialising in sub alpine natives. In the two springs Lucy spent at Tapanui Downs, she nursed into the open air dozens of different varieties of veges and flowers, starting them in seed trays in the back of her station wagon and the abandoned antique Landrover which proved to be excellent glasshouses. Another of Lucy's specialities was keeping decorated journals full of records and handy information; drawing up wall charts showing what jobs to do in May and what to do in August, etc.
Before she left to work in a West Australian nursery, she created a special compost heap, done to specific proportions for the sake of science. She was gone by this spring, and Timothy, another compost aficionado, has gone bush for the white-baiting season. I have inherited Lucy's compost which has become beautiful soil, as rich and pleasing as big black chocolate cake.
When Lucy and Timothy arrived here to live, and got the garden started, my speciality was to sweep paths, trim edges, weed and water. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known where to begin. This spring, however, it's been my own garden, and my vision to fulfil.
I'm a little overwhelmed by the multiplication of lettuces, and the fact that we will never in a million years be able to eat them. When I was deciding which seeds to raise, I thought the house could be sold by the time the late maturing vegetables were ready. Besides, all I felt like eating at the time was lettuce and spinach, along with dill and coriander, plus a few beans. This is even though I know that however much I long for that first fresh salad, by Christmas I'll be over the thrill, and still picking leaves off the first three lettuces.
Anyway, the endless cabbage and cauliflower of winter were still in my mind when I did the seed planting, letting liberal sprinklings fall from the packets into each little furrow because I wasn't sure how many would actually germinate. But dozens of the lettuces came up, and then I discovered all the seedlings in the garden, and now I have to spread the lettuces further and further afield. So I have begun digging up gardens in the hidden corner bounded by hedges, grapevine, and the cherry dell, a corner which I didn't intend using this spring and which has been swallowed up by grass.
Nature has, however, provided a little more variety for whoever gets to harvest the garden, by throwing up several little tomato plants. Furthermore, arrived in the mail by courier the other day were ten tomato plants sent by Timothy's mother, whose uncle bought the seeds home from Italy after World War II. Some have been planted in the garden, waiting for Timothy's return from whitebaiting, and others in containers, ready for shifting.