The monsoon is tailing off and I am back in my garden, contemplating the lush grass. Too damn lush, though. We have to call on our “grass-barber” too often. He comes on his rickety bicycle with his “whipper-snapper” and bangs on the gate. I call him “Cowboy”: he is ‘Gabby Hayes’ of the old cowboy [...]


The gardener in me


The monsoon is tailing off and I am back in my garden, contemplating the lush grass.

Too damn lush, though. We have to call on our “grass-barber” too often. He comes on his rickety bicycle with his “whipper-snapper” and bangs on the gate. I call him “Cowboy”: he is ‘Gabby Hayes’ of the old cowboy comics we used to read. He comes when he wants to, not when we, nor the grass, call. In the dry season, with no grass to cut, he still comes – for a hand-out, because there is no work for him and his infernal machine. We are his IMF.

We did not need gardeners at the beginning. We did not even have a respectable fence. The land on either side of us was neglected and overgrown. Behind us were some houses of the last Burghers of old Dehiwela, but their houses backed ours and we had no regular contact. In front, our garden was separated from our “road” by four large, gnarled frangipani trees, not very close together. There were a few cement posts through which an un-barbed wire was threaded, ending at a distinctly rickety wooden gate which marked the end of our garden and of the “road”. There was just this one house across the road and the environment was very laid back and domestic. And comfortable.

As for grass, there was a straggly growth covering the gravelly, kabook soil. I decided it needed a boost and started weeding. I was the only worker: the children were as “helpful” as only children know how to be. I hit a snag soon: a large part of the garden was overrun by nidi-kumba, the thorny mimosa “touch-me-not”. As soon as I touched a leaf, an entire area went into slumber, pretending to be dead. And the thorns were exposed. Pulling them up merely broke the stems, leaving the roots intact.

I decided to show them I was boss. No gardening gloves, but a bit of old toweling round my hand; a small stool that would bring me nearer the encroacher, and I was ready. I grasped the stoutest stem closest to the earth and worried the roots till they gave up in disgust. Each individual plant covered four or five square feet.

When the roots were, at last, exposed I was surprised to find numbers of little, white, tuber-like bulbs – nitrogen nodules – that was part of the system. By the time I had won the battle I had cleared about 20 percent of the front garden. And never did the pesky mimosa worry me again.

Now that I had beaten mimosa, root and branch, I had to make a garden. Fencing was required: the road sloped down, west to east, from the tarred road and the garden sloped down from the house north to south. A line had to be drawn and so we built a retaining wall, topped by a barbed-wire fence. Voila! We had a flat, eminently respectable front garden which – now that the frangipani trees had gone – was surprisingly roomy! And so began our ventures into gardening.

I was good at planning, but not at execution. Under my inexpert advice we went through several cycles of garden planning before I accepted defeat and left the gardening to Dayadari and my mother.

But I still wanted to do something and switched my attention to trees. A tree I had only to plant and let the others look after it. I think I was not too bad at that. The rest of the family had slightly different ideas.

Anyway…there was a pini jambu plant I bravely bought off a pavement hawker at Wellawatte and carried home by bus. Ignoring the family sniffs it grew quite well, very leafy and even produced fruits of respectable size. It died, I can’t remember how, and was succeeded by a rambuttan tree. It, too, thrived but we never saw a fruit – the squirrels found them and ate then while they were yet green and indeterminate.

Then there was the mango tree which we planted in our back garden and grew into a fine young tree with plenty of fruits. But there were plenty of red ants, dimiyas – far, far too many – and it was deemed a danger to humanity. Its leaves would clog the gutters, I was told. Man and Tree versus the inexorable: the Tree had to go.

My greatest success was a king coconut tree, thambili, which I bought off a mobile lorry-borne nursery, and the man assured me it was good paraala pol. With no one to dampen my enthusiasm I bought it, planted it and it grew. And grew. It was a good handle for ironic comment by all but, one day, it bore fruit. It was thambili all right but the runt of the litter. Drinkable. In time we discovered that we should let it ripen into coconut and use it for cooking.

For many years it served us well. It did cause us a problem, though. By that time houses had been built all around us and our “splendid isolation” had ended. And this tree kept dropping its leaves on the house next door.

Embarrassing, but the Tree had seniority. We had a roaming coconut plucker who kept an eye on it, who would turn up on time to pluck a few bunches, chop a few branches, etc. But “the big chop” was always round the corner and we had to say “goodbye” to the most fruitful of my trees.

The tree I most bemoan was not one of mine, but one that was gifted. I had recruited a young man from the area into the Navy and the father wanted to show his gratitude. He planted two or three paeni varaka plants round my house: seeing this, a neighbour  wanted some for her garden and the poor man planted some there too – but not paeni waraka. My trees did not do all that well. One died.

Another, I had to cut down as one of the last-of-the-Burgher neighbours deemed it as encroaching on his boundary. The last grew but bore no fruit. We were told to beat it with a mole gaha (pestle), burn leaves around its base, scratch the trunk. Nothing doing.

And then, it bore fruit – and what fruit it was! It was literally dripping with honey and it was a feast for the gods.

But we had it for a while only: the land adjoining ours was sold, a house was built, and the tree was, alas! in the way, and we cried our “goodbyes.”

And what of our neighbours’ trees? They grew to majestic proportions and, in the dark days of COVID and the pandemic – with the owners being out of the country – they provided fresh fruit to many houses around!

There’s a lesson in this, somewhere, but I’ll be danged if I can find it.

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