Gardening and Writing

Ever since I was child, I have had a fascination for watching things grow.  When I was about ten, I kept glass jars on my windowsill in which I grew peas and watched, mesmerised, as their roots sprouted and spread.  I also kept onions in water, much to my mother’s consternation, and observed them sprouting.  My mum is a keen gardener and I loved going to nurseries with her as a child to buy flowers and shrubs.  I loved the organisational intricacies of gardening – leaving space for a shrub that might spread and a creeper that might climb and not planting this flower with that in case one dwarfed the other.  However, I was never really much of a gardener - as a student in the UK, I kept an African Violet called Shamwari, on my windowsill, but it never flowered and my attempts to grow things in pots also invariably met some form of disaster or another. 

                In my novel This September Sun (amaBooks, 2009), the grandmother, Evelyn, is a keen gardener.  When she eventually moves out of her little flat and into a house in Bulawayo’s Suburbs, she sets to work to restore the garden to some of its former glory:

                She had a beautiful garden, full in the summer months of flowers and shrubs and birds; even in the dry winter, of a large selection of the same.  The long green carpet of a lawn was bordered by beds overflowing with flowers: petunias, marigolds, hibiscus, roses, hydrangea, lavender, geranium, African Violets, sweet peas and poppies.  She grew vegetables in the back garden: butternut, gem squash, beans and carrots, spinach, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce and cucumber.  And then there were strawberries and cape gooseberries, mulberries and lemons, oranges and naartjies, and a large herb garden with everything from rosemary to coriander.  It was a paradise; a place where everything wanted to grow, even the sweat peas, which Mrs Benson said would never survive in the heat of Matabeleland.

Space for a flower bed
heavy rains wash away the newly planted grass
Perhaps it is true to say that Evelyn’s garden is a fictional wish fulfilment of my own desire for a beautiful garden.  Gardens have something of a sporadic nature in drought-riddled Matabeleland; a trip around Bulawayo’s residential suburbs will tell you at a glance who has a borehole and who hasn’t.  We moved to Zambia in 2008, but lived in a town house with a very small garden, which was easy to maintain but didn’t offer much scope for ‘real’ gardening. About a year and a half ago, we moved to Solwezi in North-western Zambia into a newly-built house with a garden, but with absolutely nothing in it, not even a blade of grass.  It was September and it was hot, dry and dusty and we were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of getting the garden up and running. 

Solwezi is not a beautiful place by any stretch of the imagination: the roads are riddled with potholes (craters, actually!), goats mingle with pedestrians and minibuses and litter is strewn far and wide.  It is hard to find flowers to buy and what there is available tends to be hugely overpriced.  People rather take cuttings from each other’s gardens, a much cheaper, but also often more lengthy process.  My childhood dream of miniature roses winding their way up archways and flowerbeds full of hollyhocks and snap dragons is still very far away from reality!

one of the flower beds 18 months later
                A series of ineffectual gardeners did not help our cause, but at least we now have a beautiful green lawn, a vegetable garden p - producing wonderful butternuts, blue beans, spinach,onions tomatoes and lettuce – and a thriving herb garden.  To get this underway, we have had to rely mostly on cuttings and even brought some plants up from Bulawayo.  After what seems a very long time, we now have flower beds full of flowers.  It has been quite a pain-staking process: getting flowers when I could and seeing what grew and what withered and died.

                Solwezi has an average rainfall of two metres a year so there is no shortage of water whatsoever and everything seems to grow very well – including weeds!  However, I have discovered the joy of weeding and how it helps as a form of relaxation. Gardening has influenced my writing in many ways.  I have started one novel in which the chief protagonist is a gardener, but the novel I am currently concentrating on is a crime novel and one in which gardens form an important back drop to the mystery. My first short story published, The Queue, also involves a character who finds a type of comfort – and control – through tending her garden.  When I need a break I go out into the garden and weed for a while.  I find it gives me space to think and I often work through plots while I tug and pull! 

                I’m not an expert by any means and I hate garden know-alls who think that knowing the Latin name of all the plants makes them the fount of all knowledge.  I haven’t even got a pair of gardening gloves, the sign of a ‘real’ gardener.  For me, there is nothing nicer than taking a walk round the garden and seeing it develop.  I like doing this as though I am a character in a Jane Austen novel so I always put my wide-brimmed hat on, which is probably more Little Women than Pride and Prejudice, but it does the trick!  My girls also love planting seeds and there is great excitement when they see the little seedlings pushing through the soil.  We also go on excursions into a nearby game park and collect manure; this is a family favourite of ours!  And, finally, at the end of the day, we often sit on the veranda and watch the sun go down.  From here I can also view the flower beds and dream of that day the miniature roses are finally established, entwined around the pillars of the veranda.

                Solwezi isn’t the most salubrious of places, but perhaps there is also something quite futile about trying to find paradise.  It is within our own capacity to create it and to make it ours.  For me, my garden is a chunk of peace and quiet far from the madding crowd and one which provides both solace and joy.

                As Evelyn says in This September Sun: “ ‘You’ve no idea how much the garden means to me . . . It’s got me through so much.’”


©Bryony Rheam 2015 




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