There’s a punching bag in my garden. It sits in the red desert soil, propping up a cactus plant from a dear friend’s garden.
It was a few weeks ago that our friend left this town. Her work here had been profoundly influential — she was the key person of a childcare centre for over seven years. She loved the kids and their mums, and in turn, she was loved by more people than anyone could calculate. Since our houses here come with the job, when anyone leaves, the garden of their house is stripped bare. The yard in our house certainly was, when we inherited it. So it was that on the rainy, icy Saturday before she left, my friend and I pulled out her shrubs and succulents, wrapped them in plastic tarp, and dragged them to my yard. It took about three days to get the chill out of my back and the little cactus spikes out of my fingers. The sadness I feel when I miss my friend, of course, is here to stay.
The season now is Nyinnga — the cold time. There are six seasons here. Unlike some other places, where winter is a time of dormancy, it’s a time of energy and growth here. It’s the summer heat that’s tough. In Nyinnga people can exercise: walking is a pleasure and sleeping is easy. Most of the plants are grey and spiny in summer, all their moisture hidden inside their roots. Now in Nyinnga the spinifex is green. The birds are building nests — they grab the hair out of my brush when I untangle it out in the yard. Insects, snakes and spiders are sleeping deep in the ground.
According to the Chinese Book of Changes (the I Ching), winter is the time when energy goes deep into the earth, to arise as thunder in the spring. Here on another side of the planet in the middle of the biggest island, the winter energy is exhilarating. I feel profound relief that the enervating, scorching heat has passed.
Flowers blossom. The colours come in waves, one following another. Yellow bobbles of wattle and other little gold flowers have been out for a few weeks already. Pink and purple flowers followed. The hibiscus-like desert rose, mauve with a deep red heart, has begun opening.
The cold days do slow some plants down, such as the little pomegranate tree whose leaves turned yellow and fell, the way Northern hemisphere story-book trees do. The pumpkin vine was burned by frost and several of the tiny pumpkins were destroyed. Every morning when I go out to the garden I get a song in my head about a ‘killing frost’. In the song, a beloved dies in the winter and returns as an owl that hoots outside the window. They wrote songs like that in the 70’s. I come out into my balmy nyinngatju garden and start watching for the ominous owl before I realise that thinking about the frost has triggered the song again.
The killing frost has not managed much killing in my garden, after all. The green peas are particularly pleased and look pretty against the red soil. I also have luxurious comfrey plants, sown a year ago as green manure, now flourishing. They make great inroads into the rock-hard soil. I’ll use a tincture made from the comfrey leaves for sprains and bruises. The herbs are growing beautifully — fragrant coriander, delicate dill and sturdy basil. Claudia has filled jars with pesto and the oily green brilliance of it speaks of a good life.
The two tomato plants that have come up are slow but strong and I am expecting fruit before the bludgeon of the summer heat returns. There’s also frilly baby kale, garlic bulbs and even some flowers — marigolds and nasturtiums.
The daikon and carrot were planted before I knew that the salts in the soil are concentrated in root vegetables. I’ll let them break up the soil and make the bugs and beetles happy, then chop them up for fermentation in the compost. Then there are the mystery plants. I have one root vegetable growing well in a foam box in different soil (it might be a daikon or a beetroot, we’ll see). And the little bush with tiny white flowers might be a capsicum or a chili plant.
Some mornings and evenings, the air is full of the sweetest honey perfume. The tiny and plentiful mauve-coloured heath flowers are calling bees from a thousand miles away. I think the blue and white flowers come out next. Then comes the red. I have tiny bright green seedlings of the desert pea growing. Their strange scarlet flowers love this place and I can’t wait to see them.
In only a few weeks, Nyinnga will give way to Piriyakutu, the season of the warm steady winds called Piriya. The winds will wake up the warm-weather creatures. There will be fruits.
I won’t need my beanie and poncho to go out to the garden at sunrise. The new season will be marked by the honey grevilleas, called kalinyi-kalinypa. These combs of golden flowers have nectar so sweet you can soak them in water in a coolamon to make a cordial. Or you can lick the nectar off them. The kids call them lolly flowers.
But that’s a few weeks away, in late August and September. For now, I have the hot pink and shiny cactus blooms from my inherited cacti reminding me of my friend. The punching bag supports one transplant. Someday we’ll string up the punching bag by its chain. But for now, the garden has staked its claim. That’s how badass a garden in the desert is.