When people ask me what my perfect long-term lifestyle would be, it is fairly close to what I’m doing right now, except that it would involve a lot more gardening.
I often close my eyes and see it: a beautiful garden, involving several different sections geared towards the amount of work I think I can reasonably do without hurting myself. A section designed specifically to attract native birds, with plenty of native plants providing fruit, nectar and insects, water to drink and bathe in, and plenty of carefully cat-proofed nesting areas. Another section geared towards insects and other microfauna, because I love little creeping critters. A section dedicated to producing food for humans (a source for the Land Girl Diet), which will become part of my ongoing pain management for life.
The Captain loves camellias and I know exactly the right place to put them. I love old-fashioned, scented roses, and I know where to put them as well (and I love rose pruning). I would love a dwarf crabapple tree, for the blossoms; and also any passing birds and bats would be more than welcome to the fruit.
When I look out the window, all I see is an impenetrable jungle.
An impenetrable jungle.
Here’s how it happened.
When we moved in, a couple of decades ago, the place had an absolutely gorgeous garden. However, the people who planted it clearly had a lot more time and energy to dedicate to keeping it tame than we had. We did our best, but quickly discovered that it was very much a case of plants having been put in randomly, without too much forward planning. For example, several large and fast-growing trees planted too close to the house, that we needed to have urgently removed before the roots knocked our external walls down: that sort of thing. It was still a fairly young garden and most of the inevitable problems hadn’t appeared yet, and the rest could be managed by the previous owners with a lot of dedication.
At the start we dedicated a fair bit of own time to keeping control of what was there and then decided that we had better start re-planning the garden to avoid too many problems as it matured. We created our plan and started, eagerly and keenly, to put it into action.
Our plan was quite long-term and unfortunately we were in our twenties and thirties (callow youth), and were both working pretty hard to get ourselves established in our careers * Our garden efforts started to slow down as our jobs took over. And lots of things, that were pretty much the wrong things in the wrong places, flourished happily without too much intervention.
In 2003, one horrifying night, we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by bushfires. Our suburb was miraculously okay – partly through the efforts of the residents – but we ended up hacking down quite a lot of beautiful things that we loved but realized were too much of a fire risk.
And after that, we lost heart in the garden. Which proceeded to go absolutely nuts.
So now, for our sins, we have a riot of badly-planned vegetation that has entirely stopped resembling any sort of a garden, and has taken on legendary qualities. I’m talking Lost Kingdom Adventure Film qualities. I can honestly tell you that we have lost an entire shed in there. We think it may still be there somewhere, but we’re no longer sure.
AND the garden is surrounded by rotten, neglected fences, disappearing under swathes of ivy and, unfortunately, a flourishing stand of bamboo (no, we were not responsible for planting either). A few years ago we put in a spirited effort to get several quotes for fence repairs/replacement, so we could start the sharing-costs conversation with our four neighbours, but we just couldn’t get anybody to come and provide quotes, let alone do the actual work.
Somewhere in there is a fence. Yes.
We have ended up putting dodgy internal wire fencing in, to stop Darling Dog from running into neighbours’ yards. (When we found out that she was doing this, we were extremely freaked out. None of the neighbours had actually bothered telling us that they kept finding our dog in their gardens, we found out by accident. One of them said, ‘Well, I suppose I did wonder what she was doing there but I just didn’t get around to telling you.’ Which probably explains the state of the fences.)
Therefore there are entire sections of the back yard that nobody, human nor dog, has entered for many, many years.
On the other side of this, is half of the backyard. Into which, I cannot get.
This, as I’m sure you can guess, is not getting on well with my dream of a lovely garden that I can work in and we can enjoy.
When I stopped work because of my health, I was determined to attempt to reclaim some of the garden, and make some progress towards my healthy gardening dreams.
This has not gone well at all. At all. And I am very, very, very frustrated.
The first and most important thing to be done, is to get the fences repaired or replaced. A fairly complicated task. There are four sections of fence shared with four different neighbours. The whole lot is covered in difficult-to-remove plants such as ivy and bamboo. Some of the areas are very difficult to get to. The plants grow on both sides of the fence so our neighbours need to get their sides cleared as well.
There is absolutely no physical way that I could do the plant removal myself. Not a chance. The Captain might have a bit more success but he also has a very demanding job, plus a very demanding uni degree, and precious little time for any leisure activities as it is. Even then it would almost certainly be too big a job for a non-professional gardener. By the time he finished one section, the last section would already be overgrown again.
So this is a job for contractors.
First we would have to get the plants cleared from the fenceline, and then get the actual fences seen to. This would be complicated in terms of timing, (also in terms of a barky Darling Dog who does not appreciate the company of strangers and is liable to bolt through holes in fences to bark at and scare those lovely kids next door). On top of that, the four separate neighbours would have to be consulted about a) agreeing on the contractor, b) agreeing on the fence, c) sharing costs, and d) booking dates and getting access that suits all of us at once.
In order to even begin the process of trying to get five separate households to agree to spend money and let strangers into their yards for several days (twice), we need some quotes to work with.
When one neighbour casually suggested that perhaps we need to get the fence looked at, I foolishly said that as I have some time on my hands, I can start looking for quotes.
Bad, bad idea. Silly Blossom! Never offer this stuff!
Here is my success rate so far over the past month:
- Fencing/gardening contractors contacted to date: 4 gardeners, 12 fencing contractors (several on multiple occasions).
- Number of contractors who have returned my calls: 4.
- Number who said they would be happy to quote for the job: 3.
- Number who have come over to look at the job in preparation to quote: 2 (the other failed to turn up at all on the agreed time/date).
- Number who have actually given me the promised quotes: 0.
This has happened before, a number of years ago when we decided to get the bloody fences done once and for all. Same thing. Nobody seemed to want the work. **
So much for that.
Okay, so in the meantime, I can get on with other work in the garden, right?
This is difficult for me to type. In fact, this was a major realization I had recently that resulted in me snort-crying at my poor counsellor.
I am simply unable to do this work.
Part of the problem is the garden itself. It isn’t a case of doing the weeding, getting the lawn under control, digging a few things out and planting more stuff. This is a case of chainsaws, hard hats and quite probably heavy equipment
The rest of the problem is me. I’m not capable of it.
I am a whole lot fitter and stronger than I have been for a while. And most of the time, my pain isn’t too bad (unless I do silly things like sit and blog for more than two minutes without a half-hour break). But that really doesn’t matter. No matter how fit or strong I get, nothing will ever change the fact that if I push myself an iota too hard, or move a centimeter in the wrong direction at the wrong time, it will render me unable to function at all for a week or more. And there isn’t a damn thing anybody can do to change this. This is how it will be for the rest of my life.
I just can’t do stuff that other people can. Nearly everybody who reads this will be able to achieve so much more than I can, without even thinking about it.
I’ll be able to do things like weeding a garden, if I do it carefully in stages, using the right equipment. And I can plant things if they’re not too heavy, and mow the lawn with our lovely light electric mower. *** I can water, and feed, and prune. I can keep an established garden running if it is well-planned and I have time to do it in bits and pieces.
But I can’t create a garden bed with wooden sleepers, or schlep around heavy wheelbarrows. I can’t dig up roots, or remove a bush or small tree. I can’t build a chook shed. I can’t dig decent-sized holes. I can’t move rocks out of or into a garden bed. I can’t even safely traverse difficult terrain (and the garden is currently largely unpassable by me).
I’m useless to do anything in what we currently call our ‘garden’. This place is full-on. My counsellor was asking about it in growing amazement. ‘Can you use the washing line?’ she wondered. No, I had to admit, the washing line is not useable. ‘Could there be snakes?’ she asked. Yes, I replied, there could possibly be snakes. If there are I only hope they stay in the non-traversible-by-dogs areas. ‘Could there be dead bodies?’ breathed the counselor. I thought hard about that. It’s unlikely somebody could have expired in that particular area because it’s too hard to get into, but if they got themselves there with the use of special equipment, and then suffered some unfortunate incident, then yes, I had to agree, their body might well lie there undiscovered.
The unusable Hills Hoist. One of the clearest areas of the garden.
‘You need to get this fixed,’ said the counsellor.
It is so extreme that several friends, hard-core gardeners themselves, have asked to come over and look at it. I’ve warned them that it’s pretty wild, but they’ve protested that they ‘love wild gardens’ and would ‘love to see what can be done with it.’
On each occasion, these people have stared in awe for a while, then turned to us and said ‘It’s horrible. Get rid of the lot. Start over again.’
This things is becoming a serious issue in my head. It’s a part of my life that feels absolutely out of my control. (Well, that’s because it is absolutely out of my control.) The Captain is doing what he can, but he can’t do much by himself.
What to do? I’ve had a fair bit of advice from people so far. Allow me to share.
Just get some professionals in.
Aside from the fact that apparently nobody wants to do the work, this would be the smart option. ***** However, the size of the job means that it would be far too expensive to get the whole lot done in one go, although by far the best option. Even if we could afford it, we’d then run out of money and energy before we could do anything about it.
And let’s be honest, the way I’m going I won’t be earning a salary for a while anyway.
We could try and get it done in little bits, which may well be our only option for affording professional help. Which quite possibly means that I will spend the rest of my life on the phone, wheedling and bribing contractors to please, please come and do it.
You’ll just have to learn to ask for help!
I get this a lot.
This has not been easy to do. It’s clear from my breakdown at the counsellor’s office when I had to admit my disability to myself, that asking people for help to do stuff that is everyday normality for them and impossible for me, is a very sensitive area.
I mean, I look perfectly capable. I am fairly energetic and I get a lot done every day. I don’t walk around moaning that I’m in terrible pain. But I am in terrible pain, and I am more fragile than I’d like to be, and I hate it.
Having said this, I have indeed asked for help. On a number of occasions, for a number of things. Several of you who are reading this right now have offered me your time and your skills and your love, to get things done that I could not do myself, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am. It has been really hard to ask, I’m not comfortable asking, and I will be really thankful forever.
But for some reason, persuading people around to do hard work in the garden has just not happened. And I can totally understand why. Nobody has spare time these days. And lots of us have gardens and houses – and for that matter, family and friends – of our own that need any time we have available for maintenance.
So I have indeed asked on several occasions, and those people who I know would really love to help have just been unable to. And I’m not pushing the matter. It’s a really big ask involving lots of time and dedication. Just because one can overcome embarrassment and a sense of failure to ask, it doesn’t mean one should expect to receive. And I don’t. On top of anything else, I can’t exactly offer similar services as exchange. What if I agree to do a day’s housework in return for some gardening help and then on the day I’m just not up to it? Nope. Just not going there.
Can’t you just do it a bit at a time?
A sensible suggestion. And one that I think I’m now desperate enough to try.
After all, I won’t know exactly what I’m not capable of until I find out the hard way. I know for a fact that anything too tiring or too heavy will cause a flare/injury. But I don’t know what precisely those things are. It will still require professional help – or at least somebody who can safely use a chainsaw – to clear the worst areas. But perhaps I can try doing the less extreme stuff myself, one rock at a time, one spadeful of earth at a time, one branch at a time.
The downside is that it certainly means lost weeks from flares, but I will get a better idea of my real capabilities, and might start to make some progress in a slow-steady manner.
This is probably my only option aside from …
Does it really have to be done?
Walk away? Realise that I won’t have a functional garden to play with, until eventually we can afford (and find) professional help? Allow the Unpassable Garden of Doom to riot unchecked?
Definitely an option.
After all, the Captain and I are on the verge of getting done some minor things that we can manage, the main one being installing one of those waist-high metal garden beds that I can use for a few veggies. Not enough to feed us, but enough that I can occupy myself a little bit. It’s a start. Definitely a start. And perhaps one of the neighbours will eventually get sick of the broken fences and they can do the work? (Not feeling much hope …)
My own feeling is that I’ll be best-off with a combination of the last two suggestions. Do what I can when I have the energy, trying not to overdo it, and in the meantime just deal with the fact that we are not a family destined to have a nice garden. At least not for a few years. And try really hard to not feel guilty for bringing down the neighbourhood. Or horribly jealous when I see people pottering in their gardens.
I think a more important way to deal with my intense frustration is to realize that it stems from a sense of helplessness with my own body. And there really isn’t anything I can do with that. It’s learning to cope with the fact that I can’t do things other people can. Plenty of other people have much more extreme situations to deal with.
The garden is a problem and a source of frustration, but it’s not actually a symbol of my failure as a human. It’s just a bunch of plants.
And possibly a lost civilization.
* Well, that went well for me, didn’t it?
** Somebody I spoke with today suggested that it’s because this is peak time for garden-related work. If I wait until autumn, perhaps I’ll get a bit more success? Who the hell knows?
*** Do you own a lovely light electric mower? Can’t recommend them highly enough. Less smell, less noise, muuuch easier to use, really quite effective, even on long grass. Get one: you won’t regret it. ****
**** Unless your garden is big enough that you need a ride-on. You lucky bugger.
***** Working-Class Chronic Illness Guilt ****** usually makes me try to gently mock myself by saying in my best Penelope Keith voice: ‘I’ll just get in a little man from the village.’ But it is rare that anybody else recognizes the reference and I just end up sounding nasty, I really must stop doing that.
****** You know: the internal voice that says ‘Too expensive! Do it yourself, you lazy cow.’