Beautiful, vibrant gardens both thrill and depress me. I am horticulturally challenged, and I suspect the condition is terminal. I kill my pots of mint and parsley with consummate ease. My children grew up flattening my azalea shrubs playing cricket, and each time my parents visited they felt obliged to try to ‘rescue’ my garden.
I purchased an expensive Johnson Blue Geranium plant — a scrawny, brittle plant which only just survived the dog’s late-night routines. But I loved its flowers.
What a pleasant surprise, to leave New Zealand and see on a trip to the other side of the world, in countless castle gardens such voluminous clumps of blue geraniums! A joy to behold!
And yet, I gritted my teeth. These guys had gardeners! I only had me: no training, no perseverance, and fingers nowhere green.
As Kiwis we hadn’t realised how much space we have. European urban roads appear permanently lined with cars which may never see the inside of a garage. Pocket-sized yards, or none at all, mean that many town dwellers have to lease allotments on the fringe of town — often beside the railway lines — if they want their own ‘patch’.
Let loose with Eurail passes, we flew past immaculate allotments in Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Some gardeners had developed their sheds into a chalet-style place to stay overnight. There were mature trees, picnic tables, barbeque areas, vegetables and flowers.
Our itinerary took us to meet my German penpal from what used to be East Germany, in a town hit hard by the unification of Germany. The policy at that stage was to remove duplication of services, so a large Agfa factory and others had been razed, forming a swathe of destruction through the middle of the town and nearly trebling their unemployment rate. Schools ran from 7.30am to 1pm and there were few amenities on offer for the remainder of the day.
Consequently the allotments thrived, and the community tennis courts and barbeque facilities adjacent were cared for by a roster of those who leased the plots. In this town’s ‘pleasure gardens’, plots had numbers, gates, fences and sheds in various styles, and tanks to collect rainwater and thus escape water tax. Finely metalled paths separated the blocks of plots: 260 in all, in this location, and we looked at them all.
“Tag! Guten tag!” flew the greetings in all directions. And there wasn’t a weed in sight, except where a man ceased his hoeing to complain to our hosts that the woman who’d ‘inherited’ her father’s neighbouring site was not caring for it adequately.
Anybody surrendering an allotment would be paid compensation by the new tenant, for an improvements made. They were a source of pride.
I hadn’t verbalised my greatest fear until faced with it: blue geraniums in even greater proportions mocking me from behind pristine fences. Such large blooms with long stems! The black soil appeared to super-enhance growth (and I recall Aussie travellers complaining how their fingernails and hair grew faster in the northern hemisphere).
Back home, my Mr Johnson responded to my positive affirmations and, without the black soil, grew to a modest domed shape. I think a healthy dose of the blues — and the renewed effort it spurred — had helped my patch. Mr Johnson, convinced he was now in the pink, agreed.