Gardeners don’t get old. They go to pot. Anonymous.
I come from a family that knew next to nothing about gardening. My earliest recollection of a private garden was one that fronted our bungalow in Kuala Lumpur, where my father was stationed with a reputed Indian commercial bank with branches in the Far East. It was a well-maintained lawn that served as a badminton court, and come to think of it, some flowering plants grew around the periphery of the patch. Not that we took much notice. We played badminton with our Chinese amah (housemaid), and a gardener would potter around during the day attending to the shrubbery with a watering can or strolling up and down with a lawnmower, and extinguishing the lives of a few snails and green fly, squirting them with patent mixtures. For the life of me, I cannot recall my parents talking in an informed way about roses, tulips, lilies, gerberas or peonies. Even the common-or-garden bougainvillea would have challenged them. Our garden just seemed to take care of itself.
A few decades later, I married into a family for whom gardening was an article of faith. In whichever city we happened to be located, the nearest horticultural centre would be identified and fortnightly or monthly visits were pretty much de rigueur. It was part of the job list. The boot of our car would be jam-packed with all manner of potted plants, branded manure, shears, spades, insecticide sprays and sundry other gardening implements. My wife would evince the same level of heightened excitement on her fresh botanical purchases, as I would on returning from a record store with an armful of LPs or CDs. This contrarian parallel can also be drawn when it came to owning pets. My family had no time for the furry animals. In fact, we grew up with a morbid fear of dogs. An aunt of mine, on visiting a dog loving family, famously clambered up on to the guest’s drawing room table and refused to alight till the frisky pooch was locked up in the bedroom. Whether she exclaimed ‘Eeeks’ (in Tamil) or not will remain a subject for speculation. The reverse was true for my wife’s family, who were dog lovers to the core. Making the switch, for me, was not easy but I did learn to love and be loved by our canine chums. Then again, periodic visits by my mother to stay with us were fraught with tension. Her distaste for our spaniel was made plain, and the doggie made no bones about his reciprocal hostility. Plants were a different matter.
With the efflux of time, I began to appreciate, even if it was at arm’s length, why people found gardening such a soul satisfying hobby. Not unlike those who go gaga about the thrills of cooking, so long as help was at hand to cut the vegetables and wash the dishes. Now that we have retired from active professional life, our terrace garden atop our apartment is my wife’s haven for peaceful solitude and contemplation. Potting new plants, re-potting old ones, knowing exactly how much water each plant needs and climatic conditions governing the same, looking for pesky insects and fungus that could be injurious to a plant’s health and dealing ruthlessly with them – all these form part of the amateur gardener’s stock-in-trade that ultimately leads to nirvana. In case you get the wrong notion that I was some species of static wall flower during these gardening activities spearheaded by my better half, let me hasten to add that I was no slouch with a helping hand, now and then. Like taking down dried or dead leaves from creepers and other tall plants and helping to move heavy pots, if the need arose. What’s more, to provide the right mood I could always sing a snatch from that old hit by Lynn Anderson, I beg your pardon / I never promised you a rose garden.
That said, I have to confess that I have never quite been able to get the hang of the art or science of watering the plant. On the odd occasion when my wife is out of town and leaves me with the onerous task of watering, I never seem to get it right. Either I stand guilty of overwatering or not watering nearly enough. Nor surprisingly, I tend to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, a democratic method of the same amount of water for all the plants, the theory being that I ought to get it right at least half the time. Judging the degree of moisture and adjusting the water level accordingly is a closed book to me. It is an inexact science and requires fine tuning on a daily basis. Net result, my wife returns to find more drooping plants than bright and cheerful ones. She has, in common with other successful gardeners, what is commonly referred to in the trade as ‘green fingers.’
There were many other household activities and chores I knew very little about and found myself, post marriage, having to take an active part in – they kept things from me. Changing a light bulb, for instance. It is incredible that I had never actually changed one in my family home. If a bulb went on the blink with a pop, it was Pop who changed the bulb. Simple as that. Forget about changing a fuse. Fuse? What is that? It was no different when confronted with a flat tyre. Just stood helplessly by the roadside pavement and allowed a couple of unscrupulous operators, who always appeared magically out of thin air, to do the needful and charge me an arm and a leg. Perhaps the most difficult chore I have faced is with respect to hanging a photo frame or a painting on the wall. The way I saw it, all that was required was to climb on to a stool, decide on a suitable height on the wall, hammer a nail in and hang the frame, and hey presto, Bob’s your uncle! The risk of a hammer blow on one of my delicate fingers was high, given that I was all thumbs. How little I knew. My wife would approach the same task, only she would be armed with the whole paraphernalia like white cement, spirit levels, an electric drill, a hammer, little chips of wood and a couple of other stuff I can’t remember. Several iterations later, the job was complete, though she would never be fully satisfied with the alignment of the frame with the rest of the wall, constantly squinting her eyes and muttering to herself. When my opinion was sought, I would unhesitatingly say, ‘It’s perfect.’ Let sleeping frames lie, was my motto.
Finally, to get back to where we started, viz. gardening, we were distinctly fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit several countries in Europe where the plant life and blossoming flowers were taken for granted by the locals. For us, however, the manicured gardens and the dazzling variety of flora simply took one’s breath away. Particular mention must be made of that green and pleasant land, England, where we were spoilt for choice when it came to wallowing in greenery. A trip to London invariably found us at Kew Gardens or some such botanical attraction, where my wife had her fill of what the poet Andrew Marvell described so beautifully, Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.
Our garden – my wife dedicates herself untiringly to its upkeep. I do admire nature’s beauty, but for me, it is too much like hard work. To quote Jerome K. Jerome from ‘Three Men in a Boat,’ I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.