The other day I was clearing the ground beneath an olive tree. I started by pruning the whippy shoots that always spring up plentifully around the trunk — this I do sometimes twice a year, so that the olive can direct its full energy to the upper branches for fruiting. This done, I turned my attention to the self-sown zarzaparilla (zarza for short, Smilax aspera) sprouting among the grass. Although zarzaparilla has traditional ethnomedicinal and other uses in this region (as a spring tonic and dyestuff), their long vines bristle with vicious spines, and they seed themselves about so prolifically that they would soon take over the garden if not controlled. (Actually they had built up an impenetrable thicket under the pines that I called The Jungle. This has been thoroughly cleared, twice! But the whole ground is packed full of zarza and ivy roots, so they are slowly reclaiming The Jungle. Yikes. )
In the midst of attending to these activities (I hesitate calling them ‘chores’), it came to me that this pace and style of gardening is, if one thinks in terms of slow food, or slow cities, essentially slow gardening. It means taking time and lavishing attention to even the smallest details. For me, it means not using anything motorized — no strimmer (aka weed whacker) or mower. And by not resorting to these noisy machines, I am creating ideal conditions for mindfulness, for me. (It’s another matter altogether if the gardener needs to clear up The Jungle with one of those.)
Allow me to explain. Over the past two years, I’ve come to know most of this garden’s resident wild flowers. Others would doubtless call them weeds, but I adore most of them, and endeavour to encourage some with lovely though tiny flowers to self-sow. There are of course those that I don’t particularly care for, such as the thuggish zarzaparilla, whose seeds get into cracks in tree trunks, carried there by birds most likely, and then their roots are impossible to reach. Ah, but how to distinguish between those plants I wish to keep, and those I don’t, especially when they’re growing cheek by jowl?
There’s only one way to do this, and that is to get down really close to the ground and acquaint myself with each emerging plant. This is not so easily done with plants whose leaves have more or less similar structures, such as grass or wild garlic or wild gladiolus, which all have similar narrow spikey leaves. To this group I might add two more — the plantain (Plantago) and a pink-flowered geophyte. It is only when I’ve clipped off with hand shears a clump of desirable wild garlic (desirable because they deter pests and diseases from plants nearby) that the distinctive oniony smell rises up to alert me of my unintended infraction. Using a mower or strimmer, I wouldn’t have noticed if I was shearing a plant friend or plant foe.
Admittedly, it does take considerably longer to do this kind of selective weeding, but I find it more satisfying than waving the magic wand of a strimmer. (Besides, my back can no longer carry its weight.) I carry this out sitting comfortably on a low gardening stool among the trees and the understorey of grasses and wild flowers while the sun pleasantly warms my back. And throughout, there is often a background serenade of birds twittering happily going about their daily business in the canopy overhead. When it’s not freezing cold, the Eurasian golden oriole obliges with its melodious song. Now and then Mii-chan and Satchan in turn come to see what I’m up to. After stopping to have their backs stroked, each will go off to crouch elegantly at one end of a patch I’ve just cleared, for a pis-en–plein-air. They seem to take it as their natural right to be provisioned thus, and assume that the freshly turned earth is theirs expressly for their morning constitutional. Then off they go leaping and bounding to investigate life in the oleander hedge. Hunter comes along to say hello to me too, and sometimes tries to join in the cats’ games of tag. He’s just a bit too rough for the cats, and they don’t appreciate him as a playmate. [Lady is too much of a marchioness now to join the gang and investigate my activities in the garden. She spends most of her days relaxing on the sofa (‘Her’ sofa now) in the veranda. But after 5 or more years of living in the rough when she had been abandoned, I suppose she deserves this pampered living in her old age.]
By narrowing my focus and attention to just this little piece of ground, this manageable circle of vegetation, this circumscribed world of plants and trees and pets that come and go — the hours serenely pass, unnoticed and unmeasured, in this oh-so-satisfying and intimate communion with the residents of my garden.
The reward of this ever-so-slow paced gardening is discovering volunteers that have disposed themselves in just the very spots that provide them with ideal conditions of sunlight and drainage. Not to mention perfect plant companions. Had I let the gardener or M mow there, there would not now be several self-seeded lavenders growing in just the place I would have chosen for them. They would not have stood a chance, as they are so inconspicuous, almost invisible peeping among the grass. I myself had not noticed them until I almost stepped on them.
From my zoom-in view of the diverse plants that thrive so companionably together, and at my leisurely pace of distinguishing desirables from non-desirables, my thoughts inevitably turn to idly musing on such questions as — why does the wild thyme form colonies on this terrace, but not anywhere else in the garden? (I’ve come to call this terrace The Thyme Forest.)
For that matter, why does the helianthemum (rock rose) keep the wild thyme company in this place, but not elsewhere?
Or take the lovely purple fungus, possibly a blewit, that I found growing in the shelter of a rock wall nearby. Why there, where it is so dry, and not where they were found plentifully last year under the pines, but where there were none at all this year?
Could the timing of the rains have something to do with it? Why did the charming bronze-flowered geophyte not appear in spring, when it had bloomed so profusely the previous year? I had anticipated lots of baby plants, as I’d scattered its seeds about. How can I entice it to come forth again?
These are the sorts of idle musings that fill my mind — its amusements (pun intended) if you will — as I slowly tend to the garden with deliberate slowness. And it also came to me, that old editors never die. They just turn their sharp editing eyes and attention elsewhere — in my case, my garden. So there you have it — my recipe for mindfulness in the garden. 😉