My mother loves to tell a story about how, when I was five years old, she took me to the Myer book department* to buy me a book I’d been longing for: The Secret Garden. The 1975 BBC miniseries was screening after school on the ABC, and I had fallen in love with the story of a sour, unloved orphan girl living in a grey mansion, who uncovers a walled-off, near-dead garden and nurtures it back to life, opening herself to the world at the same time.
I don’t know why I loved that book so much; only that I did. Maybe it was the girl’s seemingly magical ability to restore a hidden, neglected world to life, by the powers of her careful attention. Maybe it was the sullen sick boy she helped to restore at the same time, in the same way. Maybe it was her personality makeover, as she learns to care about something outside herself and is transformed in the process.
As an adult, I’ve always liked the project of a garden – though for a long-term renter, a garden is especially precarious. To garden means to invest in something that could wither away, or be taken away from you, at any moment.
But, despite losing a few gardens in my life, I can’t quite give up on them.
Fairfield. The jasmine that curled hopefully around the base of the porch rails, on its month-by-month way to framing the path to our front door. The cheap and cheerful jumble of bright flowers in the beds between our hard-rubbish-rescue-couch on the porch and the lawn that sprawled towards the IGA carpark opposite.
Our landlords were kind – more than kind. Despite their symmetrical beauty and their two houses and their two pre-school kids, they seemed nostalgic for our lives. We were twenty-something best friends and a toddler in a haphazardly furnished share house: a multi-coloured tent and a blackboard easel in Felix’s bedroom; strobe lights in Jason’s (he said he was conducting an experiment to see if they would drive him mad); a desk and a futon and an Eraserhead poster in mine. They were a thirty-something married couple who insisted they were once like us, though I couldn’t see it in their ruffled sleekness. She tried to feed us when we hand-delivered our rent; he brought us a welcome bottle of wine when we moved in (while my female friends marvelled at him). We thought this was a cosy long-term arrangement that would span years, until their mortgage dictated that they sell the house they lived in and move into ours – after renovating it, of course.
She almost cried when she told us we had to leave. She told us not to worry about the blue-painted fingerprints on the white weatherboards in the back, or the weeds in the patch of dirt behind the house that we’d never quite tamed. They were knocking it all down to start again, anyway.
My best friend left a few weeks after we moved in to our next house, in Williamstown – one I never settled in long enough to nurture a garden. Though I managed to kill an olive tree in a pot, Felix’s birthday present from his godmother, during my brief time there.
My boyfriend of six months broke up with me for the first time in what would be two years of leaving and returning while I lived in Williamstown. A flat and two houses later, he would become my husband.
My ex-husband thought I was wasting my time with gardens, that I’d only have to leave them, or would kill them with neglect. But he didn’t feel like that in the beginning.
Our first Yarraville house was the only one we actually moved into together; it was where we lived when we got engaged. In the photographs the real estate agent had posted online, the backyard had been thick with trees, and a pond was streaked with goldfish. In real life, just two fruit trees remained. Halfway across the backyard, the ground had been cemented or gravelled, and the dry pond was cracked.
I tried to mend and refill the pond, but the water seeped away: I couldn’t reseal it with anything I could buy at Bunnings. I pulled weeds from the gravel. We bought fledgling trees and shrubs, and planted them along the back fence. We got home one day to find the plants unearthed, scattered; roots bleeding out. The landlord’s father had visited, and had exercised what he saw as his right. Our real estate agent sent him the message that while we lived there, the property was no longer his to treat as he wished. We were allowed to replant, but something felt ruined. And that back section felt impossible to beautify anyway, without us fixing the pond, carting away the gravel, chipping away at the cement – none of which we were allowed to do.
So we went to Bunnings again. We dug out garden beds at either side of the verandah steps and along the fence beside the lawn and the garage. We planted. We watered.
And we bought lengths of fencing and tried to erect a barrier between the part of the garden we could fix and the too-complicated back half. If we couldn’t make it beautiful, perhaps we could decide not to see it. The fencing – a long thatch of sticks – was designed to be the attractive surface for a solid underpinning, but we naively strung it out between wooden stakes, with little more than hope to keep it upright in the wind and the rain.
My best friend worked with my husband’s best friend at a bookshop. My husband told me one day that they had bonded by laughing about our fence, and our precarious garden, agreeing with each other that we weren’t really the gardening types. They’d practically laid bets on how long it would last.
‘What does THAT mean?’ I frowned to my husband.
‘You know,’ he said. ‘We’re not the most domestic people.’
But I didn’t know. I thought they were being unfair. I thought we would show them.
I moved into our second Yarraville house by myself, while my husband was in Mexico for a six-month student exchange, in the week that my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Like our last house, it had been designed by a landscape gardener. Unlike our last house, its garden (and the owner who’d planted it) was still attached. There wasn’t much to do – it was planted out with natives that survived and thrived without human intervention. Trees screened the front windows; a grapevine snaked languorously through the trellis over the back deck and dropped fat purple grapes on the pavers in summer. Felix wore a hole in the bush against the fence by kicking his football into it so often.
After some months – after my husband returned from Mexico, after we rounded the most disorienting loops on the diagnosis rollercoaster – we planted a vegetable garden in a scrubby corner outside the kitchen window. I knew it had been a kitchen garden before: Felix’s dad had lived in this house, some years earlier. We worked together in the garden, planting and harvesting tomatoes and Lebanese cucumbers and lettuce; zucchinis and chilli peppers; basil and oregano and rosemary. We could send Felix outside to pick herbs for our dinner. My husband’s mother looked after our garden while we were away; she added mulch to it as a Christmas present.
When our landlord told us he was selling the house, Felix and I felt that our hearts would break; that we had lost not just our house, but our home. My husband was more pragmatic. He liked the idea of a new start.
I was working in Bali when my husband moved our things into the next house, a few suburbs away in Newport.
I tried to nurture a garden in the Newport house, on a street that ended at a power station on the river. There was a playground and a long rectangle of sports ground across the road, lined by petrol containers surrounded by high-wire fences. As the sun went down and groundlights bathed the containers in an orange glow, the rabbits who found sanctuary in the protected empty space swarmed beyond their daytime borders, small dark shapes in the sundown gloom.
The soil was hard, and black as the powdered residue that alighted on the sparse leaves of the few plants in the garden: squat roses, sea daisies, tall native grasses. A potted lime tree, a Christmas present from my mother-in-law, fried in the sun at the fence-line. My husband told me I didn’t water it enough, that it shouldn’t have been in the sun.
A lavender bush, also a present from my mother-in-law, turned grey against the weatherboard, its roots constricted by its container. The stump of grapevine outside my office window burst into green shoots, unfurled leaves … then died back, devoured by moths I couldn’t kill fast enough.
We went to Bunnings again. I bought plants and hanging baskets to brighten the view of the long brown fence, and hardy native shrubs that might survive the dry black soil, if I could dig past the clay, deep enough to root them in it. My husband drove me, walked the aisles with me, and told me that I was wasting my money, because the plants would die in pots, or we would be forced to leave them behind in the ground when we inevitably moved again. I bought the plants from my own bank account, because it was only me who wanted them. Surely it’s harmless to try, I said. When we got home, we unpacked the car boot together and then he went inside while I planted my garden. When his sister arrived for dinner, a few hours later, I was emptying dirt from my hands into the bathroom sink as he was pouring gin and tonics.
Over the three years that we lived there, some of the plants died; a couple grew into small trees; some were planted in containers, then in the dirt. The grapevine cycled through sickness and health as we trialled various weapons on the moths that fed on it. Gardening was harder, less rewarding, but still worth doing, I thought.
We stopped planting herb containers after my husband pointed out the black dust on the basil leaves.
‘Where do you think it comes from?’ he said, waving towards the petrol containers.
There had been no black dust on the basil we grew in Yarraville.
One day, I found a pot of flowers, suddenly dried-up and dead, on its side at a corner of the tiled porch. The terracotta was cracked; a puzzle-piece missing from its base. I carried it inside.
‘It was in my way,’ said my husband. ‘So I kicked it.’ He stared at me as I exploded. Eventually, he shrugged and retreated to the kitchen.
Within weeks, he had left.
In those three years we lived at Newport, my landlord divorced from his wife and moved into his father’s house, directly behind ours. Our next-door neighbour rode off on a newly acquired motorbike, leaving an angry wife, and three small girls on the autism spectrum.
I know it’s ridiculous, but I’ve always wondered if there was something in the soil.
Felix and I moved back to Yarraville, to a flat above a cake shop and a hairdresser’s, with a generous balcony overlooking the main-street shops and the train station.
My mother drove me to Bunnings this time. She didn’t try to deter me from filling her back seat and boot with pots and plants and flowers and small trees, and herbs again. There was a lemon tree and a screening tree and rosemary and lavender bushes. There were red and pink and purple flowers, bursting from pots. There was the garden bench from the porch at Newport, and the old Yarraville house, and a little table and chair, and a beach umbrella attached to an iron stand, so I could read or work in the shade.
I spent many nights in that balcony garden crying on the bench in the dark, or drinking ciders or wine at the little table with a friend, or murmuring stories about dating (mostly horror stories, or sad ones, or stupid ones) down the phone, where Felix couldn’t hear me from his bedroom at the other end of the house.
I had my last conversation, my last fight, my final break-up with my ex-husband on that balcony, after he hung around out of loneliness, then took me back for two days, then dumped me again, this time both of us saying everything we’d ever buried inside about our resentments and regrets. The last time I saw him, before we met to sign divorce papers a year later, he was looking back up at that balcony from the street, while I lurked with the lights off, my heart splintering.
I moved my balcony garden to Footscray three years ago, after my apartment building was evacuated, renovated and sold.
I’d been in my Yarraville flat for a year. Most mornings, over that year, I had filled a watering can in the laundry sink (twice over). I paid my son’s thirteen-year-old best friend fifty dollars to water it while I was in New York for two weeks, on one of those desperate, post-separation, fuck-it-all, spend-it-all trips.
When I arrived in Footscray, I gave the succulent and the umbrella tree that had originally belonged to my ex-husband to one of the movers. The screening tree and the rosemary bush and even the geranium soon died. The lemon tree was the last to survive; it even spat out a few lemons in its second Footscray summer.
There was no laundry sink to fill my watering can in; I had to balance it on the curve of the bath basin while my arm became increasingly heavy. I meant to water my garden every morning, but it seemed too hard.
I stopped checking my letterbox, fearful that my divorce papers would be in it.
A few days after I’d checked my mailbox for the first time in months, my divorce papers materialised.
I was very tired. When I wasn’t at work, I was in bed a lot. I was often at work until late at night. I told everyone that I liked being able to play my stereo loud, alone in my basement office, which I couldn’t do in my flat without annoying the neighbours. When I got home, I burned candles and drank cider in the bath, and played my stereo loud.
From bed, I saw my garden die a little more each day, on the other side of glass sliding doors. Grey branches and brown leaves were graffitied over the view of the river and the ports and the Westgate Bridge, and the lawns of the community arts centre next door. I shut my blinds, and didn’t open them for days, weeks, months.
In January, a couple of weeks before I peopled my balcony to enjoy the Laneway Festival on the lawns below, I went to Bunnings with my best friend (who has become my significant other to the extent that I gave her my engagement ring for Christmas).
It was one of those rare Melbourne summer days that remind me of Adelaide: blue-blue sky and golden heat. She was keen to be in and out as soon as possible, I could tell (she had work to do at home), though she urged me to take my time. I’d been working my way up to this – to spending the money, to committing to a messy afternoon of planting, to working up the courage to ask for a ride to buy plants – for weeks. I’m still not a person anyone thinks of as ‘domestic’, but I was weirdly excited: it felt like a new beginning.
I wanted to look out my sliding doors, blinds open, and enjoy my view.
I wanted to sit on my own little patch of land in the sunshine and read, or eat, or drink, or talk. Or do nothing.
I thought I was ready to look after a garden again.
Felix and his girlfriend Frankie (who lives with us) and his friend Billy helped me and Mel to unpack the car boot full of plants and flowers and artificial turf and bags of soil, and bring it all upstairs. We left it on the air-conditioned dining table until the relative cool of the evening, when I began to bed the plants.
I worked slowly, over a week, involving a second trip to Bunnings (ill-advisedly solo, by bike and return Uber – Mel was mad that I hadn’t let her help), to plant the plants, lay the turf, hang the fairy lights, arrange the mosquito-repellent candles, and place the painted garden dwarf I couldn’t resist.
I had the Laneway party, where I watched my friends pelt each other with ice and share stories and jokes and secrets, and swoon over bands, and eat pizza from across the road, and drink and admire the view.
Frankie and Felix have had friends over to sit in the garden and drink and smoke and be young. The three of us pick herbs – chives, basil, coriander, mint, oregano – for our dinner, most nights.
I have read on the garden lounge, had nightcaps in the fairy-lit dark, talked and laughed, been quiet against the night-noise of the docks and the trains, and the trucks on Footscray Road.
And every morning, I take my watering can to the bath, hold it under the tap while my arm grows heavy, and take it back to the garden.
* She was THAT mother who insisted to the bookseller that her child is at a much higher reading level than her age group, and firmly but politely insisted on the unabridged version rather than the Ladybird Classic. That I proved the snooty bookseller wrong by passing her on-the-spot reading test is the source of her decades-long pride and joy.