As a renter, I’d always felt too impermanent to cultivate a garden. Recently I moved into a house that already has one, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
Sometimes, to calm myself, I read Brenda Little’s Companion Planting in Australia, cover to cover. Originally published in 1984, it is an alphabetised guide to which plants like to be planted with which.
The first entry is Allelopathy: “Growth inhibition as the consequence of the influence of one organism on another.” She says, “the experiments necessary to turn it into an exact science have not yet been made, but gardening has been going on for a long time and people aren’t stupid. They notice things”.
My garden is exactly the kind I like: it is productive, with several fruit trees and veggie patches. Much of the trellising and bed-making has been done with found and recycled materials – there are vines climbing up the wire skeletons of old mattresses, and garden beds lined with bits of old brick and rocks that I think have been collected from a nearby ruin. It’s thoughtfully messy – it has no respect for rows, and a lot of respect for useful weeds. I have downloaded an app on my phone that identifies plants from the photos I take.
The more work I do in the garden, the more surprises I unearth, and the more I learn about plants. The more I also learn, I think, about the owner of the garden; we know that our landlords are a hetero couple, probably a decade or so older than my partner and me, but we’ve never met them. I have assumed, based on my own preferences and prejudices, that the garden has been the woman’s project. I talk to her in my head sometimes as I’m working.
On bad days, I become very aware of the fact I’m paying her mortgage and pouring my labour into her garden, and I am resentful. “Why the fuck,” I ask her, “are there so many burning nettles in this patch?” I end up covered in little burns trying to make room for my beans and zucchinis.
“Nettles are weeds,” concedes Brenda Little. “The tidy gardener will make haste to get rid of them; but the nettle is a plant too rich in iron and nitrogen to be destroyed.” I eventually defer to Little, the landlord and the nettles; the latter push back on up through the dirt.
One of the trees in our yard is a well-established lemon tree. It’s heavy with fruit when we move in, and though you can’t see the tree from the street, the neighbours know it. People come around with offerings of homegrown zucchinis and small change, asking for a few lemons. One of these people is Janet, an older woman who shrieks when she sees the nectarine tree, and starts kissing its leaves. “I used to live here,” she says by way of explanation. “And I planted this tree!”
We walk through the garden together and she tells me that when she rented the place, years ago now, the driveway used to be lawn. She kept her chooks where there is now a little firewood shelter and she was the one who planted the aloe vera plants, now huge, that line the shed.
By the time Janet leaves (munching, to my horror, on a very unripe nectarine), my attitude towards working in the garden has shifted. After finding out that it has been incrementally built up by the love and labour of renters, any bitterness evaporates; I become less stingy with my perennials, planting more of them directly into the soil rather than keeping them in pots.
One day, I almost pull out handfuls of what my aunt later tells me are poppies. They were brown and closed, and I’d thought they were some kind of dead weed. After this, and the nettles, I decide I need to have more respect for previous gardeners’ decision-making.
I will only pull plants out when I am as certain as possible about what they are, how they likely came to be there, and why someone may have chosen to plant them on purpose. In some cases this involves quite a lot of research, and I start to think of my gardening as a kind of apprenticeship.
Initially my mentors are the ghosts of gardeners past, any books and websites I can find on the subject, and the garden itself. But this list soon expands to include most people who come to visit. My mum identifies a pomegranate tree, and differentiates between the peach and nectarine trees, well before any fruit has appeared. My aunt Kate and friend Merinda both identify a feijoa, which I’d never heard of, and my partner’s mum Di gives me the go-ahead to rip out a patch of morning glory that I‘d been hesitant to touch.
While in lockdown, my son is learning how to read. He’d been finding it quite laborious until the other day, when something clicked for him: he started to read more quickly, recognising whole words instead of just letters. I recognised the look on his face: I still feel that way whenever I successfully grow a new type of plant for the first time, or when I realise what I thought were dead weeds are actually sleeping poppies. You learn something new and the world opens up, starts talking to you in a language you couldn’t previously hear.
During this period, my partner and my son have been staying in touch with people over video chat. While I’m very glad that people can stay connected in this way, I have developed a strong aversion to talking to people through screens. I feel closer to a lot of the people I miss, and even to people I barely know, when I’m working in the garden on my own.
The figs are ripening, which makes me think of my mum, who loves figs; the grape vines and the maple leaves are turning red, which reminds me of my aunt, who told me this garden would be breathtaking in autumn; when I find a milk thistle I think of my son’s grandmother Jenny, who taught me that chickens love milk thistles, and I wonder how she and her family are going up in New South Wales.
My zucchinis, between which I have dutifully interwoven marigolds and orange nasturtiums, make me think of Brenda Little, whose last entry in Companion Planting is zucchini. “What could look nicer than the bold colours of the nasturtium against the deep green of zucchini leaves? Apart from helping to create a pleasant picture, the nasturtiums will be protecting the zucchini against aphids,” she writes. I think of gardeners everywhere – of people who “notice things”.
•This is an edited version of an article first published as Companion Planting by the Australian literary magazine Kill Your Darlings