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Minutes ago I was up to my forearms in purple gloves, digging in cow manure for an earthworm. If that sounds oddly reminiscent to you, like the story of the optimist and the pessimist twins who were both given a roomful of shit for their birthday, you may be on to me. The pessimist child was sad and thought all she deserved was a roomful of shit. But the optimist sibling enthusiastically dived into the shit-filled room and declared ‘With all this shit, there must be a pony in here somewhere!’

photo from 2014, soon after which the cherry ripe plant in the back died and the herb garden began to rebel.

Last summer was a total disaster for my herb garden, and a new low point for my gardening skills in general. Admittedly, I’ve not embraced a lot of the maintenance and prep-work as I should have. Ours is a harsh climate and we were traveling more. And sometimes I’m just ridiculously hopeful. Given the chance this year to pursue my hermit tendencies has meant time to think…time to prepare, time to get my ass in gear and build a garden, albeit a small one to start with. And I have a secret weapon now that I have not always had…a gardening guru.

Here are her credentials:

Kilos of home grown tomatoes grown in the middle of winter in the desert. Need I say more? Thank you GG xx.

It all started back in April when we contracted our favourite paving genius, Scott, to pull up the old pavers in the courtyard and re-lay them, removing tree roots and other impediments to a level paving surface once again. I really didn’t need to break a hip by falling on the way to the clothesline. As we were clearing away the various piles of old pavers and bricks, left over from at least four other jobs, as well as various stacked pots, the garden beds were clearly revealed. They were in an unimpressive state of compressed soil, so poor it was hard to believe I’d been growing herbs in them for some 20 years!

Scott and his helpers came and performed their levelling magic. But something inside me was niggling…level pavers was just not enough. Those garden beds were a wasted opportunity. My large kitchen window looks out over the courtyard, which, in summer when the spa is uncovered is pleasant enough, but the other 8 months of the year it is pretty ordinary. I’d managed to grow enough herbs over the years to sustain my culinary activities, but even that had dwindled to a paltry half dead mint plant and a lonely dwarfed parsley that wanted to survive, but needed intervention.

I’m always in awe of the creativity the human brain can conjure when allowed to ramble freely. Mine began to conceive of a built up herb garden, with completely fresh growing medium and something that added beauty to the area. My good friend who I call my ‘Gardening Guru’ (GG) told me of a growing medium she had stumbled upon a couple of years ago. Manure. Surprisingly, she said that she used PURE, dried out and decomposed cow manure. Knowing she grows the most amazing vegetables every year (see above photo), my ears pricked up. Could this be my transitioning agent, from lacklustre gardener to Miss Confident Gardner 2020? God knows 2020 needs to have been a good year for something!

Like a storm in my brain, the creative waves began to gather. I measured the space of my old herb garden and calculated if I dug down about 150mm, and built a retaining wall around the area, adding about 200mm height from ground level I would have a deep enough bed to put in gravel for drainage, and 3/4 cubic metre of cow poo as my growing medium. It would be deep enough to accommodate the root systems of herbs and some small veggies, like lettuce and rocket (arugula), should I feel more adventurous. Then, came the really creative part. Could I take five different sizes and colours of bricks, blocks and pavers, in varying quantities, left over from four different jobs and build one good looking garden surround?

Transplanted parsley after about six weeks.

First things first…transplant to a pot the poor little parsley plant that had survived the summer remaining almost the same size as when I planted it, six months previously. That done, in May I began digging out the 150mm of hard, packed old garden bed. It was just awful soil, full of rocks and very poor, compacted soil. What was I thinking? Knowing my 67 year old back is not used to hard labour, and that I also did not want to agitate fibromyalgia symptoms, I went about the project very slowly and carefully, digging with a pick and shovel a bucket of dirt at a time. I would carry the bucket of dirt to areas of the garden that just needed fill, but in which we didn’t want to grow anything. Engage abdominals, fill bucket, lift with my legs and lug the bucket of crappy soil from the courtyard to the receiving area. I could only do about six or eight buckets in one session. It was hard going.

After ten days or so the base soil was removed. Next I bought gravel to put in the bottom, for drainage. Then it was time to play with my blocks. I lost count of how many different patterns I considered but eventually I reasoned that the back of the bed could use the least attractive and even broken pieces because it would nearly all be covered by soil eventually. I began placing the best blocks and bricks into symmetrical patterns at the front, and things began to fall into place. After I laid the firm base using leftover driveway pavers, I could start at the front of the area, using the best bricks to make sure it looked attractive. Of course levels had to be maintained evenly so that once it was filled with the manure, it would look even and be easy to work around. Again, this phase had to be done in a number of sessions because… bricks. are. heavy. And they had to come from three different areas around the garden, where we had neatly stacked them. Fortunately, our little red hand-truck, gifted to my husband many years ago, was my valuable friend. (Thank you Chappie)

Purple gloves have been my gardening friends for years. They are sturdy and impervious and I know where my fingers are at all times. After months of serious hand washing and sanitising, the hands didn’t need any more wear and tear. Gradually the edge took shape. When I had finished, I had only ONE piece of a paver left. Every single other spare brick and paver had been used. No one was more amazed than me. In fact, I’m sure NO one will be amazed at all! When you look at the bed, it just looks like ‘oh, yeah, that looks normal.’ End of story. I hasten to add, I was not using cement to hold it all together, that would have been one skill too far for me, I think. But Scott had said he didn’t think I would need it, and so far it appears he was right.

Next I needed the cow manure to fill the remainder of the bed. Problem. The manure that was delivered had large chunks of very hard, decomposed material. GG told me it would be fine, just water down once it was in place and then use the spade or garden fork to break it up. Sounds much easier than it is, believe me. She said hers had been well broken down when she got it, but mine was still quite lumpy. She guessed that it was probably a local source and given our very dry couple of years, there had probably not been enough moisture to foster dung beetles who would have aided in breaking it down. The earth’s ecosystem at work, or not, in my case. Once again, my trusty bucket and I began shovelling shit and carrying it. This time it was actual shit. I carried from the pile on the edge of the yard, back to the courtyard and into the hole. Engage abdominals, shovel carefully, lift with your legs and carry to destination. Eight buckets a session. Every few days I would water it down and let the moisture soak the clumps then break it up with the gardening fork or the spade. And every couple of days I gave my body a rest day.

Somewhere during this stage of things I realised my fitness was improving. I began to look around toward continuing the activity once the herb garden was established. I finished up with some extra manure, so I decided to dig up the other small areas and incorporate the remaining manure into them. I could feel my courtyard beginning to love me back. After previous success with water rooted basil cuttings, I began to make cuttings of some succulents I had bought last summer but not known how to care for properly. What was left were some wilted branches, which I snapped off and put into water. Presto, I now have 10 perky cuttings all with roots, six of which are planted into pots for future transplanting. Then I took my mostly dead, wholly root-bound mint and divided it into three clumps (mint will survive almost anything, even me) and planted those into pots of fresh potting mix. They have bounced back like curls in a hair commercial. Totally giddy with success, I gratefully accepted my next door neighbour’s offer of seeds from her very interesting looking basil that has purple tips on green leaves. I scattered them into pots of fresh mix and I have lots of tiny green leaves poking their heads up.

Other smaller garden beds after their makeover but before planting. My ‘nursery’ is growing in the foreground.
The plant on the wire frame behind the garden is a newly acquired lime tree that is specially adapted to growing in a pot. We are attempting to espalier it so that its arms grow along the frame. The large pot is the transplanted parsley, the pots either side are the results of the mint being divided and nourished. The small orange pot and the black one beside it hold tiny cotyledons of basil plants grown from my neighbour’s seeds. The lush growing medium is the once doubtful looking, lumpy cow manure, ready for planting.

We are still a couple of weeks away from planting seedlings, due to frost risk, but I am hopeful. The nursery of seedlings grows, the growing medium becomes more lush by the day, and my soul has been gently lifted by the effort and achievement. GG and I realise, we are at our best when maintaining our positivity (see others who find solace in nature here and here )

So, what does digging around my garden wearing purple gloves, looking for a particular earthworm have to do with this story?

As I was preparing the last little space of garden bed to receive its share of the cow poo makeover, I moved the rescued, and completely transformed, pot of parsley from the bed, up out of the way of the digging. As I did so, there was a lovely fat earthworm enjoying the moisture. Not wanting to cut him in half with my spade, I carefully picked him up and placed him in the new bed. After consulting GG as to whether I’d done the right thing, she suggested he might like a more moist area. So I donned the purple gloves and raced back outside to retrieve him and place him elsewhere that is consistently moist. But I was too late. He had already made himself at home and disappeared into the moist manure, hopefully to enjoy many years of happy digging. In fact, maybe that will make two of us. Nature shows us in myriad small ways how to dig around and be grateful and move forward. I’m always looking for my pony.

Yours truly,

A Hopeful Gardener

(future updates to come…)