Only now, in the throes of this fourth Covid lockdown in 18 months, am I coming to grips with my somewhat tangled relationship with gardens and gardening.
My mother and, later, mother-in-law, were both magnificent gardeners, who – given the same space and cheap labour – could have given that great country house landscaper Gertrude Jekyll a run for her money. But for me, it didn’t start well.
At an age when one could be excited about a vivid packet of “cottage garden mix” seeds for a birthday, I was allotted a garden bed three feet square that I edged with stones and for which I had high hopes. Unfortunately, it was up against an eight-foot fence on the eastern boundary, overhung by an ancient pōhutukawa to the north and its rich Devonport volcanic loam was greedily claimed by a magnificent blackboy peach tree. I remember a couple of scrubby hollyhocks but no riot of exuberant colour ever emerged.
“I think the answer lies in the soil,” was immortalised by that bucolic sage Arthur Fallowfield (aka British comedian Kenneth Williams) in the late 1950s, early 60s radio comedy series, Beyond our Ken. The vowels mangled in a slow, West Country dialect, it gave pause while the hoary ancient generated an ever more earthy dialogue in answer to any question, however arcane. It was a catchphrase much bandied about in our Devonport childhood.
Yet here, in real life, the so-omnipotent soil was failing me that first, seminal time. I transferred my people-pleasing efforts to digging over the vast terraced tomato bed in spring which got me more Brownie points and carried on into later life with a young family and dreams of a Good Life idyll.
Here alas, the same hard labour on a thin, weedy and clay-based former farm block on Waiheke was nothing less than a hostage to fortune. Cubic metres of compost disappeared like snow and it was a race between rabbits, ducks, weeds and the neighbours’ goats to ravage seedlings and fruit trees, sometimes within hours.
Nature was not just fickle but inexorable and when the summer aphids cloned themselves into millions and swarmed up the roses, chewing the life out of them, I gave up. Horticultural metaphors, and old farmer Fallowfield’s “saarl”, could and would teach one all of life’s big, hard lessons and I wanted no part in it.
Then came Covid with its ability to stop us in our tracks, to empty the skies and the roads and our busy, chattering minds. We get to shake the box on how we live and give thought to resilience and a more wholesome future.
We’ve had to give up some of the “busy”; to have that pause between question and answer to look deeper before we rattle out the first thing that comes into our heads and then plunge into more doing.
In this new space, I found myself gardening with the same subliminal and unstinted absorption that I’ve always had from doing the things that really matter: winter refits on boats, tracking down a big news story or particularly telling feature, Christmas (always) and a scattering of great parties over the years. Even, during this lockdown, when finally melting enough chocolate to make Linda’s Legendary Chocolate Cake for a consolation lockdown birthday party.
I knew I wasn’t giving gardening proper attention – it’s usually a sign that something isn’t important enough yet. And now, it seems, it is. Gems from decades of long-forgotten attempts are coming to light – a path of recycled bricks under the loam, a horde of riverstones piling up for re-use, kowhai, nikau and kahikatea seedlings poking up exquisite new foliage under the canopy trees.
And, judging by the growth industry in plants and gardens gearing up around the country, I’m not alone in re-evaluating the role of our often capacious and under-used gardens for food production, hospitality, outdoor family life and for nature.
A solace, yes, and also a clearing of the decks for action.
This week, Waiheke farewells Awaawaroa’s pioneer farmer Colin Gordon, who has been among the last of the strong, clear-seeing men and women who worked (and often played) hard in service to their land, their families and their communities.
It takes love and generosity to nurse vegetable gardens through the seasons, to plant trees you’ll never see grown, to grub paddocks of weeds because you must – a legacy of resilient living that may get us through the coming turbulent times.
In the meantime, this is Waiheke’s season for gardening and in the misty damp, a charming little Japanese hand-grubber biting into the soft earth and winkling out the weeds, I’m prepared to concede that many of the answers to the great flow of life may, indeed, “loy in the saarl”. • Liz Waters