Failing at order, Harvey McQueen

Obviously of peasant stock, I enjoy grubbing in my own particular patch of soil, pottering and planting around every home I have occupied in my adult life. I am in Stephanie Parkes’ words “an amateur gardener”, a term she uses in her cheery little book. Her garden and everything in it delights her. After landscaping “our two cats showed their appreciation of the transformation by chasing each other round and round the circular lawn and up the various trellises” — my experience exactly, our pair thinking the new raised vegetable garden was a jungle gym especially created for them. Eminently sensible, Parkes plants “a lemon for gin and tonics, a lime for margaritas and the orange for vitamin C (of course)”. A good read on a cold southerly day.

My Banks peninsula upbringing bent me towards growing vegetables. Farm men all had great vegetable gardens. They owned one manual, Yates Gardening Guide, just as their wives had one recipe book for the kitchen, the Edmonds Cookery Book. Simple days. In season ample peas, carrots, tomatoes and spring onions were eaten straight from the soil, washed under the outside tap. The men did not spray much, though they dug a lot. Neither did they prune much in the large orchards their ancestors had established — substantial and succulent plums, apricots, cherries, apples and pears, along with stands of raspberries and gooseberries.

Not for them le jardin potager, where according to Diana Anthony it is infra dig to “grow straight rows of carrots and spuds any more and in any case such mundane edibles are out — designer veges are in”. They all had a store of advice. Put a hive in the orchard. Rotate crops. First radishes go in when the kowhai blooms. Plant shallots on the shortest day and pull on the longest. Garlic? Don’t be silly. “Who’d grow that continental muck?” Now my gardening year begins when I plant rows of garlic cloves on the nearest weekend to the midwinter solstice.

The word muck was operative. I was sent under the woolshed to rake out the sheep droppings which were spread liberally throughout the vegetable patch, the womenfolk making sure their beloved flower gardens got their fair share. I recollect the colour, but was never asked to work in those gardens — wartime conditioning for a straight division of labour. No lore from them either, though I did learn the names — freesias, snapdragons, carnations, love-in-the-mist, pretty nancy. Foxgloves were a weed. I got pocket money for grubbing or spraying them. Mint and water-cress grew near or in the stream.

Women planted cuttings, men planted seeds. Flowers were for decoration (and hand-made wreaths), vegetables for food and the twain were kept separate in the soil. If my stepfather could see my present garden, he would frown at parsley under the roses, borage rampant everywhere and forget-me-nots blooming amongst the leeks (not to mention the garlic).

At Akaroa district high school horticulture was part of the curriculum. We shovelled huge amounts of horse-dung on to the rose beds which year after year won prizes. We learnt how to prune the prickly things too. At university, however, my gardening interest went dormant, with one exeception: the hostel, Rolleston House, was next door to the magnificent botanic gardens where I strolled, swotted and courted. Its spring daffodils and rhododendrons sank into the memory banks along with the exotic splendours of the hothouse and the formality of the rose garden.

For my generation marriage meant taking on responsibility for a garden — a rite of passage as important as owning my first car. I put my childhood vegetable lessons into practice and began to explore flowers and shrubs. Early on I discovered garden centres — places as tempting as bookshops. But I failed to make the connective leap to books about gardening.

When my mother asked what I would like for a birthday present I opted for a new edition of Yates and it is still useful. Shortly after my second marriage, when my wife asked if I would like some gardening books, I said no — with a scholar’s unfair scorn of coffee table books (except on art), a countryman’s conceit that he knows it all and just plain ignorance. I had walls of poetry, history and fiction. Did we need books about something so fundamentally practical? I knew about compost, aphids and derris dust.

One day at a friend’s place I browsed through a volume on herbs, became a convert and went out and bought the book. After all, I possessed several books on the Reformation and two biographies of Robespierre — why not a few on roses. Now alongside the poetry on the browsing table there are two or three gardening books. Dipping into books about gardening is good for the soul — one keeps forming such good intentions. I don’t live beside the sea but I enjoyed dipping into Jacqueline Sparrow’s book and imagining if I did what I could grow and would the interesting plant survive on a Wellington hillside.

Gardening connects you to the seasons. The challenge is that, while climate is predictable, weather is not. Today’s society usually tries to ignore nature, especially the elements, but the garden is a constant reminder of human fragility. This appeal spans the centuries and it’s part of the attraction of Diana Anthony’s delightfully titled A Sense of Humus: A Bedside Book of Garden Humour. Gardeners down the ages have laughed and complained at their foolish and failed attempts at order, only to try again, confident in their ability to harness the forces of growth and rejuvenation. Anthony brings reader and gardener together in a pearl of a book, a book to savour and return to frequently.

Not only does it raise many chuckles; it contains good advice — for example John Evelyn’s sage words in 1644: “Above all, be careful not to suffer nettles, dandelion, groundsel (and all downy plants) to run to seed; for they will in a moment infect the whole ground: wherefore whatever work you neglect, ply weeding at the first peeping of ye spring.”

And intelligent opinions: “Barbecue, a form of sacrifice where meat is burnt on an alter to induce heavy rain… It appears that as soon as the sun comes out men are seized by the urge. In gardens all over the globe rusty ironmongery is dragged out of the shed and dusted down. Mountains of otherwise edible chops and sausages are frazzled on the outside while remaining dangerously raw inside… On the Richter scale of domestic disruption, a barbecue must run neck and neck with joint attempts at interior decorating.” This passage cheered me immensely. I had just turned our barbecue into a herb garden. But, like eating quiche, I felt I had let the side down.

Anthony is a mine of information. She says that, according to Homer, the Greeks fed their horses on parsley before going into battle to give them strength. Next time I head off to the Ministry of Education I will chew a mouthful, with some rocket as well for double strength.

Somehow books about herbs remain obligatory. Gillian Painter’s two are good value. And, as usual, Anthony has an opinion about herbs: “You can’t fail planting herbs. Every single one of them is fashionable, regardless of how large or floppy they are, or how invasive their root systems. The more obscure their origins, the more they are sought after. That they are more or less useless on the home front for medical or culinary purposes is irrelevant — they will do wonders for one’s avant-gardener image.” She has firm views on being an avant-gardener (“haughtycultural one-upmanship”), though I thought she was bit tough on plain old garden statuary. We can’t all afford an Italian country mansion but the aim is the same.

Rosamond Rowe’s enjoyable book (also well titled) describes her attempt, despite frequently being laid low by ME, to create more than a garden around her Hawke’s Bay “Sunshine Cottage”. It is a haven for wildlife as well. There are the trials, tribulations and occasional heartbreak of her menagerie of animals, Digby the Captain Cooker pig, Buffy the goat, Mavis the watch-magpie, broody hens and wild ducks, pukekos, a mystic white heron and the eels she tames and names in the small lagoon at the edge of the garden.

Rowe’s account of her struggle to break in her “half-acre paradise” is both moving and humorous. On a warm day, a “tad self-conscious”, doing what the Greek botanist Theophrastus advocated in 250BC (gardening advice is as old as civilisation), “hat and sunglasses not necessarily a desire to be incognito” she strode around dipping the hearthbrush into a bucket of cow manure and water “flinging droplets over the lawn, the borders, the rockery, the vege garden, the orchard and the paddock. The drops sparkled in the sun as they arc-ed through the air before falling on the vegetation and I was just beginning to feel a spiritual oneness with my piece of earth when I caught sight of a man on the causeway, watching me with open mouth. Tossing him a greeting as nonchalantly as the situation allowed, I carried on … ‘I thought only priests did that sort of thing,’ he called and walked on, shaking his head.”

George Clarke wrote home in 1827 that New Zealand enjoyed “one of the most salubrious climates in the world”. The quote is from Bradbury’s collection. A historian by training, I picked it up with high expectations. The illustrations did not disappoint, with some lovely old photographs and drawings, but the essays varied. Some were rather dense in style and they were not well linked, though all were informative. Susan Bulmer’s opening sentence, that our landscape reflects over “1000 years of Maori gardening as well as nearly two centuries of European agriculture” opened up new vistas. As a late starter, I was probably looking for a general Kiwi horticultural history written for the amateur gardener surveying the forest rather than the individual trees, Keith Sinclair-style before the era of specific monographs.

When I was young native plants grew only in the bush. Now their general acceptance into our gardens reflects a growing national confidence. To my delight, a pair of tui regularly visited our flowering kowhai all this spring, reviving childhood memories of large numbers crashing and chuckling as they sipped the nectar. Andrew Crowe’s books are useful not only in identifying the various native plants but also in growing them. His quickfind guide to planting is excellent, as is his life-size leaf guide to native trees — a good beginner’s book for anyone, adult or child, who wants to know more about our indigenous flora. His four little mini-books, with their simple keys, are designed to fit easily into a knapsack. Unfortunately, they are so tightly bound they defeat their purpose.

Living Earth is based on the TV series — a colourful book jam-packed with good gardening hints and information based around “one basic idea — if you want to save the world the best place to begin is your own backyard”. I am not sure I will tackle the wild weed salad or home-made cheese but the garlic incesticide looks simple. I do want to shift some shrubs and it gives plain step-by-step instruction. And it is good to know that New Zealanders eat more bananas per head of population than any other nation. Trivia cheek by jowl with useful information — that’s what amateur gardeners like. Among other things, this book has a good index, which is not true of them all.

Sue Lin’s book on spring bulbs provided me with a piece of glaringly obvious knowledge that explains several successes and failures. Bulbs originating from the northern hemisphere tend to do best in areas with a severe winter, whereas those from southern Africa do not mind a warmer climate. So that’s why I have trouble growing snowdrops in Wellington in an effort to reproduce those childhood banks around the farm.

Towards the end of her book Rosamond Rowe recalls a saying: “The future is not about making predictions, it is about creating new visions.” An apt statement about gardens and the human beings that labour to produce them. Now I’ll go and pull some radishes for lunch.

Harvey McQueen is a poet, anthologist, educationalist and gardener. 

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