What gardening has taught me

I recently attended a conference hosted by the Mediterranean Garden Society in Portugal.

I have lived and gardened in a Mediterranean type climate, that is the Cape Peninsula, for eight years now and it was an opportunity to listen and talk to people who garden in other Mediterranean type climates around the world.

So places like W. and S. Australia, Chile, S. California and of course the Mediterranean itself.

My gardening and spiritual journeys are closely intertwined ones. What gardening in Cape Town has taught me is to look truthfully at the unique vegetation that surrounds us and work with the natural rhythms that a Mediterranean type climate produces.

Most importantly this means accepting the fact that we live in a part of the world that experiences summer dormancy. This natural dormancy is brought on by heat, no rain and in the case of the Cape Peninsula, a consistent and strong S.E. wind that blows from October through March.

It makes perfect sense that the plants hibernate during this tough period and then emerge in autumn when the growing conditions improve.

As a gardener I battled to get my head around this simple truth and was determined to create a beautiful garden during summer, because that is when my clients and I spend most time in the garden. So I spent at least five years bashing my head against that wall.

Walking on Table Mountain helped shift this mind set; and now I look forward to the summer months as a time of doing other work and letting the garden rest and recuperate. I no longer see neat and green lawns as part of the Mediterranean style of gardening, but rather use chipped-up bark or gravel to carpet pathways and open spaces. I also now see how the endemic vegetation is perfectly adapted to these summer dormancy periods and hate getting watered during the summer months.

It has been about accepting this truth and seeing that there is as much beauty in the dormant cycle of a garden as there is during the growing phase, which here in the Cape, is during our winter.

But what was the most enlightening aspect of the conference was to change my approach to how I prepare soil, ahead of planting.

My horticultural training at the Natal Technikon, was based on a traditional European system that has its methods deeply entrenched in the Royal Horticultural Society’s way of doing things. It formed an important foundation of my training and has stood me in good stead for over 30 years now.

An important tool when preparing soil is the garden fork. The action of forking over the soil is very effective, but it turns the soil away from you as you progress.

There is an element of detachment about it.

In the Mediterranean and in Africa, the dominant tool used when preparing soil is the hoe. The hoe is a tool that brings the soil towards you and therefore connects you visually with the earth that you are working with. You will therefore be able to pick up problems or see changes in the soil as you work.

The hoe is a much more intuitive and nurturing tool to work with, compared to a fork.

When I saw this simple truth, I realised that I have only ever used a fork and while this approach has worked, I decided it is time for me to put away the fork and pick up a hoe, a tool I have never used in my life.

Growing up in rural KwaZulu-Natal I was surrounded by women working the soil, intuitively, with their hoes and it made me aware of how I had never seen this very simple but obvious truth.

Jesus encourages us to follow our intuition and to constantly question and possibly reject our traditional training.

Grace, Athol

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