Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pretend the long grass is the sea

Michael Mccoy's Garden Gardens for Pleasure
I'm nuts about gardens. I love to wander through them; I think about them all the time. When I can't sleep at night, I take myself for an imaginary ramble through a large garden. Awake, I walk everywhere, and find hidden pockets of glory, or even single trees, around my suburb. I cannot get enough of gingko leaves, or lime green euphorbias, or even homely rapa or chicory growing in lieu of a lawn. Just knowing that lots of people are out there Growing Things thrills me.

And I love garden things. Not glossy garden shop accessories, but the old laundry sinks that have become pots; the rusted out bike entwined by a creeper; the faded hammock shivering in the breeze. In one of my favourite short stories, a couple drink beer at the bottom of the garden in an old rowboat surrounded by long grass.

Pity about my own garden. It's dry and dusty, weedy and tired. I make noble vows about working in it for ten minutes a day, and plant out seedlings bought in optimistic moments, but some days it feels like a complete no-hoper.

That's why I need garden books. They are my ticket to dream. But the dreaming becomes ridiculous when I look at gorgeous books of French gardens set on hillsides. Too much beauty makes me despondent. Too much misty rain and photos of mud and I am gripped with envy. I need encouragement and enthusiasm fit for a small dry inner urban block, not the dreams of Northern Hemisphere princes.

Michael Mccoy's Garden, by a Victorian garden writer, is perfect. McCoy writes about developing his own garden on a suburban block over the course of a year. He writes about the labour of digging up lawn and shovelling compost; his backaches and failures; and his delight when things go right. He is an enthusiastic plantsman, detailing the virtues of this plant or that; and he charts the development of the garden with stunning photographs that I return to again and again. These photographs celebrate both the individual plant and the striking combination. They are photos to wander through, an invitation to dream, and yet the concepts are simple enough to influence the way I plant. In my garden, thanks to this book, feathery cosmos flowers pink against rigid grey euphorbias, and I get a thrill every time I see the combination.

Influential too is an older book, Surviving in the Eighties. The first part of the book is about small animal husbandry, and is full of fascinating if, to me, utterly useless information such as how to raise a herd of goats or incubate chickens. But Part Two of the book, Surviving in the City, profiles half a dozen gardens crammed with plants. The focus is on growing one's own food, although many non-food plants are mentioned; and it is startling how much a gardener can squeeze into a city block, whether it's just tomatoes and herbs, or espaliered trees. There are vigorous discussions on how to deal with gardens soured by generations of cats' piss or heavy pollution, or the pests that develop in areas with very few trees. The writing is enthusiastic and opinionated; it makes me feel that I, too, can grow tomatoes and green leaves and have great fun doing so. In fact, this book is responsible not only for my garden full of rocket and rainbow chard, but for the seven espaliered fruit tree saplings I planted last year. I dream of apples yet.

Even if I don't have a prince's budget or a garden on a French hillside, I still treasure whimsy. I love hammocks and outdoor showers, hidden garden rooms and rowboats sunk into grass. Gardens for Pleasure answers this need. It suggests themes such as Night, Butterflies, Reading, Resting, and Tea, then suggests ways to develop a garden around each theme in small, medium or large gardens. Many ideas are do-able, and its plant lists are useful, but it is really a book for meditating on. While few of us will go to the effort of building a small one-person sized island in a pond (in the Resting Garden), the book evokes questions about what we enjoy in a garden; how we might like to rest, or read, or sip tea there; and how we might develop a garden, or even a nook of our garden, in a way that matches our taste and budget. Gardens for Pleasure contains no glossy photographs. Instead, it is so beautifully illustrated that even my five year old curls up with it to scheme and dream of the garden she would like us to have.

Speaking of which, does anyone have an old rowboat?

> Blog title quotes Lisa Merrifield 'What I did with what I knew' in Splash (Ringwood, Vic: Viking, 1998); Michael McCoy Michael Mccoy's Garden (Glebe, NSW: Florilegium, 2000); Michael Boddy & Richard Beckett Surviving in the Eighties (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1980); Brodee Myers-Cooke Gardens for Pleasure (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1996).

No comments:

Post a Comment