My friends and family have all decided to drop in on me in Auckland this year to check out my new life in this old bungalow. In the shade of my huge pohutukawa tree on this very hot day, a visiting nephew’s cellphone ring tone plays Split Enz’ I See Red, over and over again. I think maybe Tim Finn wrote those lyrics on an equally hot January day. I see red too: red tree, red fruit and red skin.
The garden and patio have drifts of red pohutukawa needles in all the corners. You can imagine the tree is bleeding or blushing, depending on how you feel about pohutukawa in inner-city gardens. But of course you wouldn’t have pohutukawa in Canterbury, would you?
I make lunch for the endless guests. Some of my tomatoes are already red so it’s tomato salads, with basil dressing. This year is an experimental year for growing vegetables in a new climate on free-draining gritty volcanic soil. The tomatoes are on terraces made with bluestone walls. Snails love to make their homes in these walls and thrushes love to follow me around, eating the snails. One thrush is so tame I can hold out a snail for it to take. (Nine-month-old Tane wants to do this too, but he wants to eat the snail, not feed the thrush.)
The fruit I offer as dessert are strawberries. Red, with gold flecks – plump and rich like royal upholstery. When I moved in, in the bleak midwinter, I didn’t know where to start. Should I unpack? No, I’d have to get new floors first, and cupboards. How would I do that? I remember standing there, not knowing what to do, feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Then I heard the clump of boots on the concrete outside and there was my brother with a huge planter box full of strawberry plants, all bedded into his own crumbly compost. It was the thing I needed to help me get started – a symbol of continuity and hope for the future. And now they are dripping ruby-red jewels all down the sides of the planter box.
So let’s celebrate the redness of a ripe summer day. And please, nephew, would you stop Tane eating pohutukawa mast, wash his face and perhaps give him a strawberry? And maybe put on some sun block. You are very red.
Anyone for strawberries?
I don’t have a red summer garden; my garden is a swathe of bare earth, a slash of unseemly brown despoiling the rolling contour of a north-facing hillside. A half-built house sits on the bulldozed clay and overhead the sun burns in a hard blue summer sky. January is usually a dry month, where the grass cries for rain and crisps to a golden burnished brown. But so much rain fell in late spring the view from the slash in the hillside this summer is a patchwork of tall pine shelter belts embracing squares of bright green.
In a normal January I lament the absence of rain and Harry always says, “Don’t panic. We’re one day closer to rain”. I regard his nonchalant response as extremely insensitive and it makes me want to throw things at him; in the early days of our marriage I did. Since it was revealed that the newly married Queen once hurled a tennis racquet and sandshoes after the Duke I’ve felt able to admit to such shocking episodes in the first year of our marriage.
When the house on the hill is built I will begin planting my garden. It will be autumn and I will have to decide how much lawn to lay and sow it before the onset of frost.
I wonder what sort of lawn person you will be now that you have acquired one. Unlike many gardeners, I have not succumbed to the tyranny of the perfect lawn. A perfect lawn is as smooth as a cut-pile carpet, uninterrupted by dandelions and daisies, not ravaged by grass grub and certainly never permitted to crackle underfoot at the height of summer. A perfect lawn is a chemically laden, labour-intensive work of art – the grass must be sprayed and fertilised, watered and mown all summer long. So busy are lawn perfectionists nurturing their large green lawns, they do not have time to sit on them. It’s nonsensical. Green lawns are also there for lounging on and picnicking and eating red ripe strawberries under a hot yellow sun, just as you are doing this summer.