Go and hug your garden right now, for tomorrow it may be little more than a memory, writes Somerset West reader David Cross.
It’s not every day you are asked to housesit a little place in the Portuguese countryside, then coincidentally offered the loan of a yacht in Greece. Our unplanned, month-long holiday was fantastic. We left at one week’s notice and even found a housesitter of our own. Just before I turned my phone off for a month while at the departure gate about to board the plane, it buzzed with a final SMS from the bored young housesitter: ‘Is it like, okay if I like, do some work in the garden?’ To be honest there were parts of our garden that were overgrown and parts that needed work; dead and diseased specimens needed to be removed. I’d been busy. There’ve been more pressing chores to attend to and the weekends just never seemed long enough. There was hours of work to amuse a bored, well-intentioned housesitter. So I august have replied along the lines of: ‘Knock yourself out!’
Greece and Portugal were an absolute joy, especially as we have an interest in history, archaeology, Mediterranean plants, eating, cooking and herbs. I have a thing for rosemary. I love the shades of green, the smell, the dainty little flowers, and the taste. Rosemary is useful in all sorts of ways. For thousands of years we have believed that it cures illness and strengthens the immune system. Charmingly, it’s believed to keep evil at bay. I became a serial buyer of rosemary. I collected different varieties. I propagated cuttings and they took. Here was an aspect of gardening I was good at, and you could eat it! On holiday we visited ruined temples, shrines and sanctuaries, and uninhabited castles with medicinal herb gardens. What a pleasure it was to lean over castle battlements to discover brave little rosemary plants growing wild from cracks in the masonry. Many of these places were sacred sites, where you sense the peace. I thought happily of my garden at home all the while.
Where’s the rosemary?
We landed on home soil after travelling for 22 hours, pleasantly exhausted. But the rosemary, whose job it was to greet me and to ward off evil from the front gate, was not there. I’d planted that rosemary the day my oldest niece was born. She’s almost seven. It was very large and very blue. It made the dogs smell nice. The house sitter was happy, relieved and proud to see us. He had stood watch for a month and nothing had gone wrong. I asked him, if we owed him any money for expenses. ‘Not really,’ he said, ‘Just R30 for Weed-eater chord.’ With trepidation I walked out into the garden because, peering out from our glass sliding kitchen doors for the first time in two years, I could look directly into the neighbours’ kitchen – my granadilla creeper had been removed!
Roots and all
Walking outside I noticed my herb garden had been completely removed, by the roots. There was also nothing left in the front garden and the garden beyond our patio except for five or six randomly chosen plants. This area is about the size of two squash courts. Anything taller than the housesitter had been hacked off arbitrarily at 120cm. The bougainvilleas, which had taken years to reach critical mass to cover bare patches of wall, were gone. Grape vines were removed. Various individual plants with particular sentimental value were gone. My private sanctuary, full of colour and of happy memories, was gone. The birds were gone. The soil was dry, crusted and hard. There were no skinks for the dogs to chase, and the dogs’ little dens had vanished. Seven varieties of lavender and various indigenous species of sage were gone. The labyrinth where children could happily amuse themselves was no more. The garden was completely dead. An ecosystem and all its occupants had been removed. The trees that remained had chunks of bark missing, just as there were lumps of plaster missing from the garden wall, because my pickaxe had apparently been swung in a megalomaniacal frenzy of a young man who was supposed to have been out trying to find himself a job. Most of the remaining trees had suffered damage to their root systems. Interestingly, anything that had been dead or sickly before had been left respectfully untouched, such as the untidy back garden. No overgrown branches had been neatly trimmed. Not a weed was ruthlessly plucked from the earth. What’s more, almost everything that had been removed from our garden had been dumped across the road on a neighbour’s property. Unsurprisingly, an ultimatum arrived from someone representing the neighbour demanding that I remove my rubbish from his client’s property very quickly.
The slow return
It took a month and a great deal of money to re-establish the garden, meaning that we put enough plants in it to fill enough of the gaps so I wouldn’t cry or scream every time I looked out the window. Months later I still have no idea what this person’s intentions were. Apparently it was all without malice (towards people anyway). We had left him three typed pages of instructions and he followed most of them. Next time you leave strangers in your house instruct them not to do any remodelling to your home, garden or pets. Put it in writing. Make them sign it. I hope this never happens to you.