One sticky evening, we were discussing what to plant in our garden.
“More palm trees and a mango tree,” my partner said.
“Papayas,” I said and was promptly shot down by our guard, François.
“Madame, it’s better to plant papaya outside the walls, because when it grows, the tree looks like a man. At night, it scares people away.”
(I saw one near our house: the fruit clusters in the centre and the branches radiate outwards like limbs — it might fool a very drunk person or someone observing at a great distance, at night.)
François is full of these agricultural gems. As our guard, he takes pride in this house and its grounds. The garden has become his laboratory: On any given day, we may see severed branches sown in the ground or handprints impressed around a cocoa bud.
Above all, he operates in prevention: He plunks empty paint cans over the smaller shoots before the puppies can devour them and places flagstones over convalescing grass.
Like us, he laments the impulsive actions of the previous tenant, who beheaded all of the palm trees. Once the gangly carcasses were gone, we immediately bought two more. François, who is freakishly strong, plucked both trees out of the truck bed and lowered each one into the soil.
But two palm trees do not a garden make. And so my partner, who has become a botanical obsessive (which I find strangely endearing), returned to the nursery. The second haul included a mango tree, an avocado plant and a frangipani with white, star-shaped flowers.
As they worked, garden gloves were mangled and the wooden handle snapped off the shovel; François carved the remaining swathes of dirt with his machete.
Soon after, we had the beginnings of the garden we had in our heads.
In Nairobi, my father had a vegetable garden that yielded a paltry number of edibles. I thought his efforts heroic although he remembers it differently: “I remember trying to plant Canadian seeds in Nairobi clay and having everything die. I think little stunted maize sprouted, but if any ear grew on them, the monkeys got it.”
While he dabbled in the garden’s functional aspect, my mother dwelled on aesthetics. (She is the only one with a green thumb in our family. Over the years, she has coaxed a garden from every possible circumstance: geraniums and petunias on a terrace in Astana, Kazakhstan, olive trees on a Paris balcony.)
But I equated gardening with manual labour: trimming, raking and mowing. I would grumble that my mother overestimated a garden’s aesthetic appeal. “Maybe when you have your own, you’ll understand,” she said.
She was half right. I do like a beautiful garden, but I’m still learning to appreciate it as an extension of our home.
The more we seek to impose order on the garden, the more it bristles. At first rainfall, it becomes a jungle; only the palm trees retain a ragged symmetry. A witch’s brew of invertebrates — beetles, centipedes and snails — fights for supremacy on the lawn, which is fissured by two sets of curious paws.
Our garden is nothing if not a series of experiments, and failure is a key part. But that’s not a bad thing. As Michael Pollan writes in Second Nature: “The gardener learns nothing when his carrots thrive, unless that success is won against a background of prior disappointment. Outright success is dumb, disaster frequently eloquent.”
So what can our garden teach us? To be more patient. To not dwell on today’s — or future — failures.
The last lesson resonates with me. As I become more anxious about motherhood, I start to feel like a mad scientist with too many ideas clouding my head —none of which translate into actions.
We leave in 10 days for France, where I’ll ultimately be giving birth, and the nursery remains a blank slate. Like the garden, it will not conform to the hazy blueprint in my head. As I grapple with what’s essential and what’s not, I realize I’m not even sure how some of the stuff works. And aesthetically — wallpaper, wall friezes, mobiles — where do I begin?
But it’s not really about what’s missing in the nursery, but rather who. Perhaps that’s why I suffer from inertia — it’s hard to imagine a baby will actually be living there.
When I worry too much about the mistakes I’ll make, I try to remind myself: Failure is inevitable, but it can also imply a fresh start.
After all, how can you control a being as mercurial as a baby?
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