A Grandmother’s Garden

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There is a huge dead tree in the garden beyond my back fence and I have mixed feelings about it. Mostly it is a stark and depressing reminder that it must once have been beautiful, its low sweeping branches casting welcome summer shade over the lower part of my garden and my neighbours’ gardens on each side.

It looks very like an oak tree: was an oak tree. I find myself using the present tense when I think or write about it, as if it were still alive; with its all-pervading presence, and its still intact dome dominating the skyline, it does seem so.

An oak tree and an heroic one at that. It has that classic shape and it must be at least fifteen metres high, and its spread is vast, overshadowing the garden where it grows, grew.

When I first moved here, I hoped that it would be felled as it was just too sad to see it each day at the far end of my garden. I hoped that someone would buy the derelict old house and rescue both it and the garden. But it is almost three years now and the house is still vacant, unsold, unrescued, and what must once have been its lovely garden, like the house, looking more forsaken as each day passes.

I sometimes walk past the front, hopeful that I will see signs of someone there — someone other than the man with a mower and a blower who keeps the grass cut and a semblance of order. I watch for a ‘For Sale’ sign to appear and someone looking to buy it. But so far, no sign, no buyer, no gardener who will garden there and bring the garden back to life.

The garden at the front is intriguing. Amongst the weeds, I have spied some treasures there. Across the front are, I think, the remnants of a hedge of Lorraine Lea roses: occasionally, valiant salmon-pink buds struggle up between the weeds and sunburnt Boston fern fronds and blossom there. Now that it is winter, there are arum lilies in the overgrown garden beds, all unfurling in their neat Chinese-scroll like way. Early in the spring, there are hundreds of delicate, green-tipped snowdrops, and a little later the rough grass that was once a lawn is a sea of old fashioned fragrant freesias. Later again, tucked away in a corner, a wonderfully gnarled old camellia — a japonica, I think — is dotted with small dark, dark red flowers.

Once, I ventured up the driveway to the garden at the back of the house and found an ancient trailing hoya; it had climbed to the top of a tree that, like the oak, was dead and only a skeleton. I have always associated hoyas with my grandmother and realised when I was standing there that day that this could have been her garden.

There was a coprosma there (long-time gardeners like me call it a mirror bush), a tough old thing and one of the few plants still thriving in that desolate place. A cotoneaster, another survivor in hard times, and like the coprosma rather frowned on these days because of its invasive qualities. A misshapen lemon tree, barely alive. A plum tree devastated by the possums that live in the roof of the house. And, not surprisingly, overhanging a neighbour’s fence, every grandmother’s favourite fruit for jam-making: a quince tree. If I had looked further in the undergrowth, I am sure I would have found a choko vine, that tasteless lumpy fruit-cum-vegetable that saw many families of my grandmother’s time through the food scarcities of the Depression years.

Coprosma, cotoneaster, plum and quince trees, hoya … yes, it could have been my grandmother’s garden — anyone’s grandmother’s garden — but it is a sad place now and I have not been back.

I have mixed feelings about the old tree because it is invariably alive with birds. It is a landing stage and gathering place for the local populations, each species claiming it at different times of the day. A blackbird sings from its highest point at dawn and dusk. What I think are noisy miners swoop down from it after their insect prey in the late afternoon, performing heart-stopping aerial feats in their chase. Every so often jewel-like lorikeets take over the topmost branches, heralding their arrival with their high-pitched shrieking; then, suddenly, their brightness will be supplanted by a solitary, sombre black and white magpie, who I hope will perform his flute-like warbling and make me think of hot drowsy days in the Australian bush. On sunny days, spotted turtle-doves sit there in intimate twosomes, reminding me that there is still romance in the world, but they are timid in the face of the common mynas that cruise in in gangs of four and five, and they hurriedly fly away. Sometimes there are no birds at all, and only cloud patterns amongst the stark branches.

One night, I saw a powerful owl perched there, silent and still and watching. People use the word ‘awesome’ very freely these days; it has rarely had truer meaning for me than that night when I gazed in awe at that huge, fabulous bird.

Now I only half hope for a buyer for the old house because, of course, the tree and old garden will go; there will be a new garden there, perhaps a garden of native plants that will suit the local bees, or, — and I hope not — a garden of architectural plants so fashionable these days — yuccas and their like. This grandmother’s garden will be only a memory and the local birds will have to find a new place from which to survey their domain.

. . . . . . .


Here are the botanical names for the plants I have mentioned above: Arum lily: Zantedeschia aethiopica; Mirror Bush: Coprosma repens; Snowdrops: Galanthus amaryllidaceae; Choko vine: Sechium edule; Quince: Cydonia oblonga.




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