The Dark Side of Gardening

Words by
Kaye Roberts-Palmer
| December 5, 2017

I’ve gone over to the dark side of gardening. Previously the growth and vigour of favourite plants attracted my attention, but returning to my garden, I found myself fascinated by the twisted dead wood in the lavender, desiccated flower pods of Love in a Mist (Nigella damascena) and decaying translucent petals falling from my indoor potted orchards. I’d become a voyeur of dead flora.

It was bound to happen, as much as my plants thrive, close at their heels is the transforming effects of death. If it isn’t dieback from winter, it’s destruction from pests or simply old age draining nutrients from unwanted leaves and stems leaving behind delicate sculptures of bleached lignin and frayed cellulose.

An appreciation of underlying botanical form was established early, when for a childhood birthday I was given my much-loved junior flower pressing kit. The process of carefully laying down fresh daisies between paper then gently applying pressure overnight revealed an amazing alteration of form from three to two dimensions. It seemed miraculous that such an ephemeral object could be preserved; everyone got flowery bookmarks that year.

This love of plant material resulted, years later, in a volunteer position at the Melbourne University herbarium, one of many institutes committed to collecting plant specimens.

Surrounded by hundreds of narrow wooden drawers, it was a delight to slide each open and gaze down upon those old specimens – many from Australia’s colonial beginnings when our native flora was at once enthralling and alien to European sensibilities.”

I got a sense of their need to impose the ordered and familiar in the accompanying original specimen cards with their faded looping calligraphy: Family: Myrtaceae, Genus: Callistemon, Bottlebrush.

I had always associated dead plants with those well-ordered resting places until last year when I visited Rome and toured the crypts of the Capuchin friars who decorate their cells using the fragile bones of their deceased brothers, connecting the past with the present, the cycle of life and death acutely on display.

Upon my return I began thinking about how essential this balance of life and death is in the botanical world; we don’t usually give much attention to the dead materials our garden produces through its life struggles.

I began collecting discarded twigs, brown fountain grass, and skeleton leaves, arranging them in glass milk bottles and pottery jugs on tables and at night under the lounge lamps their forms threw out crazy webs of shadows over the walls.  I wove dried passionfruit vines and withered plaits of garlic through my chicken wire fences and carefully hung various herbs from the sunroom rafters.

Because, as much as I love colour, through the effects of decay I can read a plant’s life in its tiny scribbled etchings along discarded bark and branches. It is beautiful.”

My awareness of abandoned plant materials is strengthening, and I want to keep and reuse as much as I can, foraging and collecting bunches of twigs and tying them into wild standing tepees for my snap peas and purple beans to scramble up.

Recently, at the back of the garden I found a sundried trunk from a wild acacia tree that had rotted and fallen in a storm. I cut off a particularly nice branch with smaller branches spaced evenly along its sides and I’m in the process of painting it white. I’ve found the perfect spot for it in the garden and am going to decorate it with lights and bits of decay from the garden, just in time for Christmas. My very own yule log, Australian style.