Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tracy's Garden

The little woman crouches over the flowerbed, loosening the soil with a rusty spade while carefully arranging dried leaves and vegetable peels around the base of the plant before covering up the “compost” with the loosened soil. She repeats these actions as she moves from plant to plant, until the bag holding her “compost” is empty. The relentless summer sun beats down on her exposed arms and legs, her skin bronzed from hours spent outdoors. Occasionally she stands up to ease the ache in her legs and wipes the sweat from her brow, taking a few seconds to look at the vegetation surrounding her. Satisfied with the “compost”, she fetches a bucket of water, saved from everyday household use and waters each plant, making sure not one drop is wasted. If it is late in the day near supper time, she will harvest ripened produce after taking a few minutes to contemplate what to present on the supper table that night. Finally, taking her selection, she heads back into the little house, starting the preparation of food for the two or three people who will dine together that night. This little woman is my mother, Tracy, and this is the story of her vegetable garden.

Although we had always lived in the city, my mother grew up in the countryside in Taiwan, and her life was surrounded by family and neighbours who lived by selling their produce. So, ever since I can remember, my mother had always planted a selection of vegetables to supplement what we purchased from the supermarkets as many vegetable varieties that are common in Taiwanese marketplaces are rarely grown in South Africa. In the 23 years outside Taiwan, we have settled down for a significant amount of time in three different houses and each came with a sizeable garden, which provided ample space for my mother to grow her vegetables. Over time, she has saved the seeds of many different produce varieties, culminating in the vegetable garden that she now tends at our current home. I still remember bits and pieces of what she used to plant at our previous houses: the Chrysanthemum coronarium plants that were always populated by ladybirds and the asparagus plants at our first house (number 10) and the large spread of pumpkin and bottle gourds/calabash that she planted on the hillside on top of which our second house (number 6) stood.

The story really begins at our current place of residence, number 7a. In 2006, my mother left South Africa to accompany me to Australia, but she returned home after a few years. One year after her return, I took a trip back to South Africa. When I arrived home, I was amazed at what my mother had nurtured within a year: a vegetable garden teeming with produce with a variety that I do not recall her ever planting before. My mother is no farmer however, and a glance at the picture below will give you an idea of the disarray that is her vegetable garden. There is simply no order to how the vegetables are planted and these plants did not randomly sprout out by themselves. Her garden is in a way reflective of her nature: she is a little obsessive compulsive when it comes to cleanliness, but not neatness as evidenced by her handbag, but while we laugh at the mess that is her garden, it’s what makes her endearing and what gives her character. Her dedication to her mess and the time she spends on nurturing her vegetables is again reflective of her unending devotion to her family. She disappears from the house for hours on end, and I often see her standing in her garden wearing a singlet and shorts, with a spade in one hand and a bucket or hose in the other, just staring at her plants. I would love to know what goes on in her head, perhaps she is willing her plants to grow faster or is thinking about what else to add to her growing mess.

Number 7a in January 2013

She treats the vegetables like how she treats her children: not willing to spend money on compost, she makes her own, with vegetable peels and old leaves, just like how we used to wear hand-me-downs or old clothes from friends. She is also very frugal on how much water she uses but sometimes the heavens provide her with water that lasts for days. Sometimes the bins and pots in the house would disappear, and if you look out the window at this time, it would either be raining, or there would be signs of imminent rain. If you take a walk outside around the side of the house, you would find a row of bins, buckets and pots, lined up ready to catch every drop of the falling rain. The chorus of raindrops hitting the sides of the containers is music to my mother’s ears, and seems to bring the promise of larger, tastier produce to our supper table.

Clockwise from top left: Pumpkin, Pea, Chili, Baby Pumpkin, Green Beans
My mother has her fair share of quirks and here I will share two. In Chinese, the names of a few different vegetables use the word for “bean” as part of the name, including green beans, Chinese string beans, long beans, snow peas, peas, red (azuki) beans, peanuts, soybeans etc., and whenever I would point to a particular plant, asking for its name, she would simply tell me that they are “beans”. I do not think she has ever learnt the formal names for these plants and I grew up not knowing what their proper names were. In the aerial view of her garden, you would notice that she has planted a row of corn along the fence that separates the dog from her garden. She believes birds would be deterred from eating these as the dog would chase them away if they came near. I don’t think that she has considered that animals can be conditioned, and can learn over time that a perceived danger does not really pose a threat. A danger that is very real to me is if I inadvertently release the dog from his enclosure and he starts to wreak havoc on my mother’s plants. I have had the personal experience of frantically trying to herd the dog back into his area being very close to having a complete meltdown, as I would do anything to avoid the wrath of my mother and prevent all hell from breaking loose.

Left down: "A-vegetable", Azuki Beans, Basil
Right: Yellow Ginger/Turmeric
You would notice many of the vegetable varieties found in my mother’s garden are not locally available produce, and the means by which she obtained those seeds I will leave to your imagination. However, my mother is always creative with how she gets seeds for new varieties of vegetables, sometimes even transplanting a whole plant to our garden. A while back my father discovered the prickly pear through some colleagues and promptly became obsessed with it. Being my mother, she tried to find a cheaper alternative to obtaining the fruit and the result of which was a few prickly pear plants appearing in our garden at number 6. Where did she get them? I have no idea.

Left: Chrysanthemum coronarium
Right down: Beans of some kind, Cabbage, Corn with Tomatoes in the background
Now we come to the long-tailed birds. What are they? They are a small group of birds, formally named mousebirds which are found exclusively within sub-Saharan Africa. They also happen to be my mother’s greatest enemies. These birds eat anything, and probably exist to terrorise her, which I find amusing. Often, breaking the silence of a quiet afternoon, you hear the sounds of my mother making shooing noises, stomping her feet and banging on the window in an effort to chase away the birds that have descended upon her precious vegetables. If the birds are particularly stubborn, you hear her loud footsteps as she stomps outside to chase the birds away, always returning to the house while cursing the birds. At our previous abode, she had an additional nemesis, a land-dwelling creature that my sister found cute much to the annoyance of my mother. These are called rock hyraxes or “dassies” in Afrikaans, and they would eat anything and everything in my mother’s garden. We lived on a rocky hill which is the primary habitat for these critters, and I guess again, God created them to terrorise my mother. This time though, we lived in a bigger house, so the chasing ritual would begin from the balcony on the first floor, and she would begin stomping across the balcony, down the two flights of stairs and across the garden, while the dassies fled for their lives. I think my sister probably secretly rooted for the dassies to devour everything before my mother discovered them, but she seemed to possess a sixth sense and often discovered their presence before they could make much of a meal out of her vegetables.

Can you spot the infamous long-tailed birds?
Now sitting here, miles from my mother’s vegetable garden, I think back on the fresh vegetables we had on the supper table every night and sigh at the thought of my empty fridge. It is the middle of winter and the garden must be bare, but I look forward to the time when I can once again explore my mother’s vegetable garden. A vegetable garden may not seem like a big deal to many, but I still have the curiosity of a child and squeal in delight when I come upon something new, and occasionally, surprises sprout up in Tracy’s garden that were not there when the sun last set.

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