Friday, 7 December 2007

The things we do for love

One way of making the strange feel less so is surrounding oneself with something familiar. People who move a lot often have things that they take with them so that each new place has something familiar about it. When I was a child my mother always made sure that we had our special toys, favourite books and framed photos wherever we were. I remember having one of those wallet photo frames with a photograph of my parents on one side and our whole family on the other and my precious Holly Hobby doll who accompanied me long after her fabric started wearing out. My mother also used to write us letters every week without fail – long tales of what she and Dad had been doing, illustrated with her quirky drawings of plants and animals. At one point our family of five were in four different countries and she used to incorporate news from all of us into her letters so that we were connected across the miles.

My mother-in-law has always loved roses and I think that they serve a similar function of familiarity and reassurance for her, reminding her of the long, fertile, green summers of southern Germany. I don’t think I realised how much she missed the colour and lushness of Germany until we visited many years ago. We were living in Minnesota at the time and it was really just a hop across to Europe compared to the long haul from Australia. I didn’t know much about gardening or plants then and I was amazed at the colour that spilled from the window boxes of every house, the front gardens bursting with bloom and the graveyards that looked like arboretums (or is that arboreta?).

Every house that my mother-in-law has lived in since she came to Australia, she has planted flowers and especially roses. A few winters ago, she dug up all her favourites and delivered them to us. I too love roses but my acquaintance has been of the appreciation-of bouquets-and-other-people’s-gardens kind. And I have discovered something – that it is very hard to grow roses and hold fast to ideals of locally appropriate planting and organic gardening.

Every insect and other pest in the area sees the roses as an exotic buffet offered for their personal delectation. The first few years, the battle was with mealy bug. Companion planting of garlic seemed to fix that problem. The grasshoppers though appear to be winning their battle and rose beetles show up regularly to pillage. Now with the rain, black spot is making inroads. Yesterday I tried to remove and rake up all the infected leaves. What the books don’t really tell you is how much work organic gardening can be. If you are growing exotic plants, it’s not being at one with nature, it’s all-out war. And did I mention hand-picking 46 caterpillars off the mandarin tree (which is only about 1 metre tall)?

With most of the garden I practice Darwinian principles. That which survives more is planted. That which doesn’t or which turns out to be too much work, gets replaced. I can’t however, get rid of the roses. I’ve compromised and have gone with a combination of organic principles (companion planting, mulching, hand removing diseased parts, fertilisation, white oil for scale and encouraging ladybirds and other useful insects) and the occasional chemical dose for black spot. For the sake of history and sentiment I can live with a little cognitive dissonance. I suspect that many migrant families would have tried to bring plants and seeds with them from home and I wonder how they fared.

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