There is something incredibly cathartic about the acts of planting and caring for plants. For me, it was a seminal moment when we put the first plants in at our ‘city’ house in Christchurch recently. Planting embodies hope because it implies a belief in a future into which the plants will grow. It is a hope for a future in which we may, or may not, participate – many plants outlast their owners and carers. I have an underpinning belief that I should leave properties I occupy a better place than when I took them on, and planting is a very important part of that.
Modern building practice pays scant attention to the connection between house and land – it is more likely that houses are trying to make their own, loud statement. Landscape gardeners are brought in to roll out ready lawn and plant series of identical plants in gravel-mulched beds, preferably big plants so the garden is ‘done’. But a garden is never ‘done’, it is a living entity which is integrated into that 4th dimension, of time.
My Dad was an inveterate, and consummately skilled gardener. You could see the way he cared for his plants when he showed them to you. Dad would carefully search in the earth with a matchstick to look for the leaves just starting to emerge. He would lift up a hellebore flower to show you the delicate markings inside and marvel at the green, or the purple – I understand now I grow my own, but I didn’t really get it when he showed me. Once Dad retired he would happily spend 8 hours a day in the gardening, there was always more to do. He kept physically fit and, I am sure, had a meditative practice in his gardening. He didn’t listen to a radio or do anything other than garden, while he was gardening. He watched and enjoyed the cycle of the year, from spring growth, to summer flowers, perhaps not quite as much enjoyment from raking up autumn leaves, to dividing the perennial border ready for spring again.
Today we did some social planting, together with other members of the local Gibbston Community Association. We wished we could harness that energy for our own land – over 30 people turned up and 175 plants went into the ground very quickly. As an added bonus, some of the group retired to the Gibbston Tavern for a chat afterwards. There were so many positives to get from this activity – meeting others in the community (meeting people in the country can be hard because everyone drives everywhere so you don’t run into them accidentally) and increasing the amount of native plantings in an area largely denuded of native vegetation.
We have seen the benefits on our land of the 3000+ plants we have put in. Increasing numbers of tui and bellbirds come in spring; when we arrived there were no tui. Increasingly, plants grow without continual attention as the numbers of trees and shrubs in the landscape shade the soil and cut the wind. It hasn’t been an easy road…we figured out that we and others have put around 1.5 continuous person years of labour into the land!
The hardest part of planting, particularly in Gibbston, is that one feels continuously under attack. Possums eat trees and fruit, cute little quails gobble up seedlings and produce, and rabbits devour pretty much everything. Rabbits are particularly bad this year, two mild winters in a row have encouraged them on their path of exponentially increasing populations. It is incredibly discouraging to find that, as your tulip bulbs leaf, they are being eaten off by hungry rabbits. Yesterday afternoon was consequently spent making wire cages to protect all the bulbs – no young plant ever goes in the ground here without one, or possible two layers of rabbit protection.
I have had to steel myself against my Beatrix Potter-advised young self. Hedgehogs (Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and her fresh laundry) are no longer to be admired for eating slugs and snails, but are to be destroyed because they have a very nasty habit of eating the eggs and chicks of native birds. I do still find it hard, however, when I find I have caught a hedgehog in a possum trap. Rabbits (Peter Rabbit – Mr McGregor was on the right track trying to catch Peter when Peter ate McGregor’s vegetables) are a downright, destructive pest. One or more rabbits are finding their way into my vegetable garden and I cannot figure out how, having checked the fenced perimeter. Our friend Tony has tried to help by shooting 32 rabbits on the property and we are reduced to putting Pindone poison in bait stations. However, I don’t think there is any ultimate winning possible in a rabbit war aiming for eradication and, even though we are rallying additional troops, we are starting to tire.
The national and international ‘wars against COVID-19’ are similarly tiring and our goals may be similarly elusive. Perhaps we should be migrating from war analogies, to conflict resolution…there are many who advocate against the use of war analogies in relation to illness for a plethora of reasons. Conflict resolution allows for and promotes multiple paths to a mutually agreed end point, rather than setting ‘us’ against ‘them’, with a dichotomous win/lose outcome. I can’t help feeling that a conflict resolution approach might allow us to map and understand the multiple options available to us and the multiple benefits and costs for all dimensions of the COVID-19 problem, in a way that our war scenario are currently hiding from us. However, while I wait for our government communicators to come to the same conclusion, I will put my stake in the future ground by continuing to garden.