How Does My Garden Grow?

February 8, 2021 — 15 Comments

My mother’s gardens around the world bloomed in abundance. The five-acre garden in the centre of Kuala Lumper, where the Twin Towers now loom over the city, is the one I remember best. Huge rain trees under one of which a King Cobra could often be found, much to human and canine consternation. A mangosteen grove, home to all manner of frightening things that I knew must lurk behind coarse trunks and amongst decaying leaves and fruit on the ground, led to the perimeter fence where I rarely ventured. But oh, the fruit, juice dripping from the plump, white flesh hidden deep beneath a thick purple skin, was heavenly and worth the risk of who knows what. And row upon row upon of my mother’s pride – orchids – purple vandas, striped yellow tigers, whites and pinks. Red hibiscus – bunga ray – the national flower of Malaysia, and canna, boisterous in their yellow and orange and red finery but also home to snakes who relished the damp ground. And frangipanis. 

Mum had two and half gardeners to help her. One permanently pushed a mower, one helped with the garden itself and the half came in each afternoon to help tend the hundreds of pot plants. I showed no interest in the mechanics of gardening but loved the beauty.

My foray into horticulture did not take place until, as an adult, I was again in the tropics. We lived in Bangkok, on Soi Attawimon. The garden was an expanse of grass which bordered one edge of a fishpond. An ornate wat, high on a pedestal placed in the corner was, morning and night, adorned with joss sticks and offerings to the temple gods by Es, our house girl. Cannas and crotons rimmed the house. 

Frangipani trees have always been a favourite, perhaps because their many-forked branches invited climbing, despite my irate mother shouting at me to get down. I don’t think Mum was concerned about a broken arm or leg, rather more the imminent snapping of her tree. Whatever the reason, I like both the delicacy of the flowers, whether white, pink, or yellow, and their fragrance.

And so I decided to plant a frangipani. Bangkok used to be known as the Venice of the East. Klongs, canals, threaded their way through the city before many were filled in and tarred over. The knock-on effect, apart from dreadful traffic jams, was a severe flooding problem. Each tropical deluge merged our pond with the garden, snakes and koi, swimming freely. The upshot of this flooding was a dense red clay below the topsoil. Heavy digging.

The Chatuchak weekend market provided the tree, about three foot tall. I can’t remember why I didn’t wait for the man who mowed the lawn to dig the hole. Most likely my normal impatience. Whatever the reason, I regretted it. 

“Madam?” Es, her voice hesitant, looked at me from the shade of the veranda, concern etched across her smooth face. “Madam, not good.”

I glanced up. “What?”

“Not good.” 

Es had a green thumb for herbs, and I expected a horticultural lesson.

“Cannot plant.”

I looked at the hole, painstakingly dug. “Why not?”

“Tree for wat, not house.” Her tone was adamant.

“Why?” I asked, sweat dripped from my face to my drenched tee shirt.

“Call lân tom. Sad flower. By wat,” she repeated.

I looked at her gentle face and all arguments fled. Who was I to ignore a cultural taboo?

I waited until the mower man came and he dug the next hole. By Es’ wat.

Thereafter, in various countries around the world, I have asked before digging. Each time we have moved on, I have been sad to leave my garden and I wonder how my gardens grow.

Thirty-five years later, on an island in the Caribbean, I have a garden I’m not leaving.

From a tan-tan and coralita jungle over which two coconut palms presided, emerged a quarry of  rotten rock, glass and Chaney, the shards of crockery from bygone eras. From that has come, with a lot of sweat, some blood but no tears, a garden that offers respite, calm and abundant pleasure.

Loathe to remove the palms, sanctuary to wasps, bananaquits and iguanas, I agreed to their removal after my husband’s magic words, “falling coconuts on grandchildren’s heads”. I missed the sound of the fronds in the trade winds, I did not miss the downward thump of nuts landing. 

We had a plan. The garden we have is nothing like the plan. Rather it has evolved. Our only hard and fast proviso demanded a garden for birds, butterflies and bees. We have all three, and even on occasion play host to a gluttonous night heron who, with great patience and stealth, steals fish from the pond.

Our planting, to a true horticulturalist, might seem haphazard but it works. Portlandia rubs shoulders with lemon grass and duranta. Natal plum nestles next to gardenia. Lantana (a weed to my Australian friends) plays nicely with ixora. Plumbago and jasmine share purple and white space. Cuban palms reach skywards, their trunks adorned with orchids. Hamelia and snow-on-the-mountain nudge the fence line with Ginger Thomas, the national flower of the Virgin Islands. A few we’ve bought – one, a bottle brush, in a nod to my Australian heritage. Some plants were in the garden – a China rose hibiscus, milk and honey lilies, mother-in-laws tongue although, it must be said, my MIL’s words were never sharp.

Plant sharing is a way of life on St Croix and so, as I wander from the patio to the pergola to the perch on the peak, I am reminded each step of the way of friendships made. Parakeet flowers, poor man’s orchid, hibiscus and gingers from Emy, cacti from Pat, orchids from Susan, all manner of unnamed seedlings from Rosalie, jatropha from Don, and from Toni and Isabel respectively a yellow and crimson frangipani.

How does my garden grow, the one I won’t be leaving? Very well, thank you!

15 responses to How Does My Garden Grow?

  1. 

    Well done, Apple. I remember the garden before you bought the house. What a gift to yourselves and STX!

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  2. 

    This is so refreshing to read on a busy work day for me! As a renter all my life, I have always taken whatever potted plants that survive the storms, with me when I move and I have moved 16 times on this island in my 43 years. This may see tedious but my sisters and I always loved my Grandmother’s Garden in back of her huge house on Lowry Avenue in Minneapolis, complete with paths, sayings on stands, bird baths, ornaments, archways, etc., a magical place to visit as young girls growing up. We all three, well mine are in pots, keep plants around us all the time with my two sisters having the official gardens with theirs in the ground. Both look much like Grandmothers; I will keep on trying. Thank you!

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  3. 

    I just LOVE the transformation! Brava and bravo, you two!

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  4. 

    Just beautiful, Apple! Memories of both KL and Bangkok flooded back to me – and I sure do miss mangosteens!! Enjoy your lovely garden. x

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  5. 

    This story evokes my tactile, visual, and olfactory senses. Thank you for sharing!

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  6. 

    Just love this testimonial, Apple. I envisioned it all by your rightful description of how does your garden grows. I walked every step along the way while switching back to my childhood and how plants beautified our islands. I particularly agreed with how you’ve matched your plants and how it may appear haphazard. I St. Croix, we’re pretty much laid back and don’t fuss about the order of things. Yet, we still enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.

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  7. 

    What a beautiful story and wonderful description of your gardens both past and present!

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  8. 

    How lovely to read about your garden., As I sit here in the village of Great Bradley,Suffolk, a blanket of snow covers our garden, At this time of year I always look out on it and think it will never recover, Lock down worries fill my head, the care of my mother, will I see my first Grandchild due to be born in May, how will we all recover? We will all I am sure be feeling similar things no matter where we are right now.
    Then I opened my e mail and for a moment I am transported to another part of the world, your description of your gardens, the photographs all lift my spirits and I start seeing the sunshine , the brave shoots putting their heads above the snow and I am reassured that soon things will change, colour and warmth will return, life will go on, maybe not quite as before, as you say, the plan will change and maybe the result will be better than we originally thought. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful thoughts and insight to your part of the world and your beautiful garden. Time to get on with the realities of life now, but oh what a wonderful break.

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  9. 

    Lovely, thank you! There is such peace in tending a garden – I have tomatoes ripening this week! And to respond to your prompt, Pete Seeger answered: “Inch by inch, row by row”, is how we make our garden grow. Good advice for the physical and metaphorical gardens, alike.

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  10. 

    Short mention of the world’s most gorgeous lemon grass bush. World’s most gorgeous.

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  11. 

    I really enjoyed the descriptions of all your gardens, the sights, sounds and tastes! I’ve taken up gardening during this pandemic, and find it to be a soul-satisfying hobby. I’m learning every day, and have managed to successfully grow some veggies too!

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  12. 
    Rosalie Allaire February 9, 2021 at 7:55 pm

    Thank you for taking me on a splendid walk through your little private paradise. I too love plants and gardens and look at each beautiful neighbor with joy and excitement! They have so much to share with us if only we stop to ….. enjoy. Many thanks!

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  13. 

    Hello Apple, thanks for sharing you great garden with us. Here in Texas everything is frozen over and hopefully some things will survive. Otherwise things are great…great hearing from you…
    Horace

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  14. 

    What a wonderful description of your garden.
    I wish I had a green thumb…and a warm and lovely spot to plant in.
    Maybe this spring??? You are giving me inspiration.

    Like

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