Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I just finished a book called ‘French Dirt’ about a garden in the south of France. The author was full of enthusiasm and really wanted to express his relationship with his land, yet struggled with his prose. I have the same experience, it is difficult to convey what a garden is, what it does. Yes, of course on the surface things grow and one waters and weeds. But below that how does one say what being in the garden is? I find my fingers typing superlative after superlative, yet it’s not enough and my writing becomes so light and fluffy it’s candy and gives me toothache. I think of the gardeners I know, my grandfathers especially: calm men, patient, still.
Gardening is life, it’s experience and I don’t have the words to describe it. I can say what I did, what worked, what didn’t, how rich and abundant and wonderful it is, what a sense of loss and lack of control I endure when it doesn’t do what I think it should. All this experience which cannot be taken personally. The gardener provides – no; the gardener serves the needs – no; the gardener is there while the garden grows. Because, weather permitting, the garden will grow, what it will grow and how it will grow may be what the gardener wishes or not, but it will grow. We are there to help and direct and be present. Be present.
People say that I am a calm, patient sort. But underneath I’m a raging impatient control freak. I take things personally, I worry. With my garden I can’t do these things. Yes I can worry and I have been known to get up in the middle of the night with the rain lashing the roof to put umbrellas over young plants, or get distracted at school if I remember I didn’t shade the transplants when the sun is beating down. But while I can say I am responsible for the garden, it’s not me who makes it grow. You’d think being a teacher for all these years would have taught me this lesson already. My garden is only 4 months old but it’s a wonderful teacher, and it teaches constantly, subtly and thoroughly.
So what is this gardening thing? It’s a big long lesson. Ach, that still isn’t enough to say what it is. Some poet said, ‘you are closer to god in a garden than anywhere else on earth’, maybe that’s what I’m trying to describe, and perhaps that’s why it’s beyond words.

Gardening is still new for me, this is really the first piece of land I’ve worked, have had time to work. There has always been herbs and salvias and small pickings, but this is the largest garden I’ve had, and the most commitment I’ve been able to give. I’m blessed with a year round growing climate, 12 hours of light a day, rain, sun, humidity – I’m living in a greenhouse. There are still issues – too much rain, too hot a sun, too many insects, fungus, lack of rich topsoil . . . and not much knowledge or available resources.
The other foreign gardeners I know struggle to produce familiar fruit and vegetables, cucumbers, hybrid tomatoes, carrots, onions, even lettuce. They bring the seeds from visits home. I don’t want that kind of garden, I’m enough of an interloper without bringing foreign plant species – which are also far more susceptible to fungus and insect damage. The local gardeners I know are Caribbean and have a diet far more exotic and tasty than the normal rice and beans. The plants in their gardens come from Africa via Jamaica: aki, gandul, mantioc, Jamaican rose, cinnamon. My garden is as much a mix of natives and non natives as this region. It’s all trial and error, all up for grabs. What ties it together is that it’s tropical.
In the whole garden, I have counted 56 different edible and medicinal plants and trees, and the list is growing.