My fingernails are ringed with a pigmented brown and I have a woodlouse in my hair. This clematis will be the death of me. Four years ago, when we got Dudley The Destroyer, he shredded the garden. In a serious dedication of time, resources and energy, he dug up fully established shrubs and slowly crunched a young hazel tree into sticks; I was clearing hazel carcass off the sofa for weeks. But now, now it’s four years later.
Last year I decided, probably as a consequence of the pandemic, that I would bring our garden back from the dead. It’s hard to explain the damage two large dogs, in a tiny garden in a country devoid of sun and warmth, can do, but if you imagine the terrain of Tatooine and toss in a bit of a dog toilet smell, you wouldn’t be too far off. I had never gardened in my life, and my extent of experience could be summarised in a single plant grown from a rajma seed in class III Science.
You don’t need to be a trained psychologist to pick up on the themes—as death became a daily topic of conversation (especially in the news, with the morbid fascination with a death toll) I was focusing on life and growth. Or you could surmise that I was, when made to stay home, isolated and anxious, and decided to channel my energy into a wholesome activity. But really, if you would like my thought process, I just wanted a non-ugly garden.
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I wouldn’t say I was brought up particularly close to nature. I grew up in Chandigarh, so I was more acclimatised to seeing green than my friends from Delhi or Mumbai, but apart from a short-lived sand pit obsession as a toddler, I was never interested in the outside world. Some kids can rattle off the names of different types of bugs, or plants, but I was not one of them. I sometimes weighed in on what I thought was pretty, eloquently telling my mother, “Oooh pretty!”, with a little point, but I was, as ten-year-olds today say, a noob. My family was into gardening the way middle-class Indians are, buying plants and then pointing to tell mali bhaiya where to put them in.
Last year (and counting), I did not have the luxury of the point and order style of gardening, so not only did I have to acquire a life’s worth of gardening knowledge, I also had to, gasp, get dirty. I was dreading it, but sitting on my decking now, it’s almost laughable. I spent my first few weeks literally, I mean literally, in shit. Clearing dog and cat shit tucked in corners, spreading horse shit onto the plants, digging it into the soil.
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When they say jump into the deep end, they don’t generally mean into the literal shittiest part of gardening, but what can I say, other than that was absolutely the right way to do it. But then, then I moved on to the fun stuff. My mother and my nani were both very invested in their gardens, and there were colours and smells that I associated with home. That formed a backbone of my planting scheme. I picked sweet peas and salvias, daisies and jasmine. I pored over books and watched a lot of Gardener’s World (I love you Monty) and I built a little home. It hit me then.
Lockdowns hit a week before I was meant to fly to India to see my grandmother. As I type this, it’s been two years since I’ve last been home, and I have struggled with it. I often find myself writing about searching for home, and I think that’s a theme most immigrants share. When you can’t be home, you recreate it using the bits you have—the sights, the smells, the tastes. I chase it with food and now I’m chasing it in the garden.
Gardening is a well-regarded activity, and it famously offers big benefits. For me, I didn’t find too much solace in slowing down and being ‘one with the earth’, but I did find a lot of comfort in the control gardening offered me. The biggest draw for me was the ability to push beyond what I was used to doing, of what I had ever thought I would do. It was actually being able to get through piles of literal excrement, and come out the other side with flowers. It was the reward offered at the end of back-breaking work, and the fact that with a little (lot) of hard work and love, I could bring things back. It was the world as it should be.
At some point four years ago, Dudley smashed a clematis, but last year we found a small vine sticking out by the fence. I mulched it, watered it, tied it, fed it some more, and this year, I have buds! There’s no promise how much it will flower, or if even one bud will open, but I think we could all do with a story of a comeback kid right about now.
The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.
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