In the shade of the lilac

June 16, 2004

An absolutely gorgeous four-petalled intense yellow-orange flower with feathery leaves has come up next to the raggedy purple-pink poppies under the lilac tree. I didn’t notice it at first, I was bending down to smell the scent of the poppies and then suddenly there it was. I spoke out loud to myself in surprise: ‘Oh! Where did you come from?’

I’ve reached the stage of having to be careful what weeds I pull up, since I no longer have a clear indication of what anything is, even these marvellous poppies themselves were saved at the last moment when small when it suddenly dawned on me after pulling up others like them that these leaves looked like poppy.

A garden is much more interesting where everything grows from nothing, where it changes and provides surprises, and things you never planted appear.

My new upstairs neighbour recently tore up my front garden one Sunday morning while I was asleep, having told me nothing of her plans. Doubtless she considered it to be full of weeds, and rudely arrived too late to see the splendid Spring display of grape hyacinths with their blue light like a bluebell wood. I used to watch new things emerge and let dandelions and rose-bay willow-herb go to seed, much to the annoyance of some residents I overheard who thought my garden was seeding the street with weeds. Property prices and all that, must have a well-manicured front garden in suburbia.

I drew my curtain back that Sunday lunchtime to find the front garden all dug up and sparsely planted with flowers straight out of pots from the garden centre, bought already blooming, the receipt from the cash till doubtless still on the kitchen table (Woolworths now state that their plants are ‘guaranteed to grow or your money back’). Instant garden out of a packet.

I looked at it for a moment, shocked, thinking how different people have different ideas of what constitutes a garden. It was too ridiculous to be anything to be upset about, I simply hoped I had made sufficient impact on the back garden not to have it torn up by a Sunday gardener of dubious taste. Even the wild sweetpeas have started growing over her as-yet unopened back door, as if fearful of summary judgment as not quite garden-centre standard. I train them away a little so as not to tempt fate. I make them look slightly more tended for than I might.

Needless to say she has not watered any of her plants in the front garden or otherwise sprayed her territory beyond this little fling. The flowers are dying and though I find it sad to see I also think she needs to see the fruit of her own handiwork, so I’m leaving it. I have felt embarrassed to see the woman next door splashing a little water on it for her in the sweltering heat, evidently taking pity on its demise coming so soon after she said to me how lovely it looked, not thinking that what she was really saying was ‘compared with how you had it’. This to her is proper gardening, unlike the wilds that grew there under my shelter before. I take a long view. Perhaps the newly planted lavender, a good choice for a busy lifestyle which doesn’t mind a drier soil, will survive and spread and look lovely when it has been surrounded by dandelions.

The grape hyacinths, bulbs still attached to their seeding heads, had escaped the bin as my other next door neighbour had said he would put them in his garden when he saw her digging them up. He knew I liked them, he was saving them for me. They sat dejected by the wall, earthed up as trash. It was two days before I noticed them and realised what they were. I have planted them under the lilac in the back garden and have been sitting out in the late afternoon emptying seeds from the drying seedpods into an empty yoghurt pot.

There was something about sitting there in the shade of the lilac engaged in this peaceful activity that struck me as like tending a grave. And reminded me too of sitting alone outdoors as a child as far away from people as I could get in a bike-ride examining pine needles and beetles with a kind of sadness of heart mingled with wonder.