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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyOctober 28, 2023

Their house, my garden: Water, watch and matchmake

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Sometimes a meditative morning routine brings up intrusive thoughts. This week on Their house, my garden, we play matchmaker and ban cabbage.

This week, the zucchini has grown buds on the end of tiny green sausages. The silverbeet looks like thick green bunches rather than delicate wisps of leaves. Beans have gone from squat sprouts to needing to hold on to something. The tomatoes are little bushes rather than seedlings, having made the transition from childhood into adolescence. 

These are the little things you notice in the mornings when you are holding the gun on the end of the hose, and your socks are getting wet where the dewy grass makes its way over your slides. 

You shouldn’t water too often because you need to withhold love to train your plants how  to survive on the days you forget or sleep in and need to go straight from bed to work. Ideally watering is done in the morning right after you wake up and are still in a slight daze. Get a spray gun thing for the end of your hose so you can be transfixed by the fast moving water droplets. When watering plants, consider that they take up water through their roots. That means if you’re wetting their leaves, you’re basically pouring water down the front of their shirt, pretty far from the thirsty mouth. It is not only rude to do this but can burn the leaves if the sun heats up the water, or contribute to fungal disease when it’s cooler. Tomato plants are especially sensitive to the troubles of having wet leaves.

If we were perfect and organised gardeners who had planted things with foresight and planning, the garden would not require much more at this point than gentle attentiveness and keeping guard over foes. Unfortunately we did not have the discipline, instead buying seedlings which caught our eyes and chucking them in real quick. 

Instead of a peaceful morning ritual I’m met with intrusive thoughts – why is the silverbeet in a thick row on the right hand side? Why are the beans dotted around the back without anything to grab onto? If the tomatoes could speak it would be all gibberish. The one plant with a plan was the zucchini, which I planted at the front corner of the bed so that it could grow over the bounds of the bed (she’s space savvy).

If we were that other type of gardener we would have spent a bit of time studying the bed and the way the sunlight falls on it throughout the day. We might have drawn a map of it and made a plan of what to plant where, depending on what different plants like (shade, sun, wet, dry), and which plants like each other. As my mum used to say whenever I asked for a dog or a trampoline, “maybe one day”. For now, what we’ve got is growing, however chaotically. Some say that plants can be dug up and planted elsewhere. I have never seen this go well – usually what happens after a move is you watch your plants slowly die, because you’ve disturbed and broken their roots. My preference is not to kill them. Instead I have decided that there is space here to add a few friends to the mix. 

Plant friends

Garden nerds and books refer to plants that are friends as guilds, companions, intercropping or interplanting. They just mean plants that grow well together. The relationships can be mutually beneficial or one way, for example flowers attract pollinators to the garden to benefit the vegetable plants.

An incomplete and probably imperfect guide to matchmaking.

My favourite plant relationship is that of the three sisters: corn, beans and pumpkin. All three plants benefit from growing together. The corn provides the trellis for the beans to grow, the beans pull nitrogen from the air into the soil, and the pumpkin then grows in the shade of these two, acting as a mulch to retain water in the soil. The genius that figured this out was alive thousands of years ago, probably somewhere in Central America. The technique had spread around Mesoamerica about 3,500 years ago.

In my garden, I’ve just got some stray beans dotted around the dirt at the back. I decide to substitute some ingredients. Instead of planting corn, I use the sunflower seeds I bought last week, because they too grow tall stalks. I plant a seed next to each bean, hoping they are fast growers. My partner is convinced that pumpkin plants are going to sprout from the compost by themselves, since we dumped a whole winter’s worth of seeds in there. Whether or not they will sprout by the beans and sunflowers is yet to be revealed. Perhaps we can call it the three blind mice instead.

It is extremely pleasing to me that a great companion plant to tomatoes is one that tastes yum with them – basil. Because basil is smelly, it repels insects that could bother tomatoes. Some gardeners even report that their tomatoes taste sweeter when grown by basil.

Though zucchini isn’t rated highly as a companion to tomato, tomato is rated highly as a companion to zucchini. Unrequited love is a fact of life, even in the garden. To be honest I don’t think zucchini needs much support, it usually thrives no matter what and produces a glut of vegetables even your mum will get sick of. Perhaps it’s over-achieving to gain love and approval.

Plant enemies

As much as some plants are friends, others are enemies. Because I love tomatoes I will not be planting any cabbage this season. Cabbage is a hungry plant which eats up all the nutrients tomatoes want and leaves them with nothing. It’s best to plant it in winter, when there are no tomatoes about.

Some people say not to plant corn and tomatoes together, because they are attacked by the same vicious pest – corn earworm, aka tomato fruitworm. Putting them together would be a very alluring invite to the devil to come into your garden. Good thing I have the three blind mice instead of the three sisters.

Top tip: Do not dig up and move around plants.

Task for the week: Add some plant friends to your garden.

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