June 2012

The Nation Reviewed

A Case of Rust

By Karen Hitchcock
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show

The Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show packed the Royal Exhibition Building and its gardens this autumn. If you tried to ride your bike along the shared walkway beside the park, you could smell the lilies as you ploughed through busloads of retirees waiting to re-board the coaches home. The traffic around the park was in gridlock day and night. Winnebagos clogged the side streets. I kept to the other side of the street, hoping to ignore the wild crush of people clutching pot plants and Burke’s Backyard showbags. Then my mother told me she’d entered the hanging-basket competition and asked me when I planned to see her basket in situ.

My mother still lives deep in the western suburbs, in the same house in Deer Park that I grew up in. In the ’70s and ’80s the houses in our street had elaborate front gardens. The stand-out displays were the giant Mexican cactus garden with a ground cover of smooth white stones, owned by a Polish family; the psychedelic flower garden with chrysanthemums the size of your face, cultivated by an old lady named Pat; the productive Italian garden with row after row of staked tomatoes, eggplants and beans, and not a blade of grass. We had a lawn-and-tree ensemble, which was considered respectable enough as long as the lawn was thick and kept well trimmed. The entire place was crawling with kids. We stole the white stones, Pat’s flowers, the beans – mostly to chuck at each other.

Deer Park looks different these days. There are no kids. Walk down the street on a weekday and you would be lucky to bump into a single person. In my mother’s street the cacti and veggies have gone and there’s hardly any green lawn. Pat’s garden was concreted after she died. More than one front yard is home to a rusting car shell. The drought hit Deer Park hard.

When my mother retired she took up gardening. She’d read that gardening helped prevent Alzheimer’s dementia; as all the women in our family are genetically destined to spend the last decade of life being fed mashed food through mute and vacant grins, she took sharp note. She bought books about landscaping, did a diploma, joined garden clubs and horticultural societies. For her, plants now have multisyllabic double-pronged names, like aristocrats. She has gardened every centimetre of dirt on her quarter-acre block. You can barely see the roof, the fence, the driveway – the place is a plant explosion. She has even gardened the nature strip despite the hose not reaching that far; it looks like a museum display entitled ‘Native Grasses and Shrubs of South-East Victoria’.

Keeping all this plant life alive during the drought was a difficult task. The grey water generated by a single retiree is not oceanic, but she did her best: extra baths, washing her sheets more than was entirely necessary, occasionally mixing up the official watering day, buying a tank, and telling herself the reason her water consumption was so high was that we were always so thirsty when we came to visit.

My mother started work on her basket a year ago. She bought $90 worth of natives with really long names, put them in the official Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria hanging-basket competition pot, and then did whatever you do to hanging baskets: water them constantly, spin them exactly 90 degrees every few days so the sun hits all sides evenly, trim them, fertilise them, pick out dead leaves, reconfigure plant placement. If I didn’t go and see it she never would’ve forgiven me.

I bought my ticket online and walked down to the park. The scene inside the boom gates was horrific; all of outer Melbourne appeared to be there. I headed directly for the hanging-basket exhibition – over 200 hanging baskets, arranged in row upon row. On first inspection they were indistinguishable: plants in baskets with name tags, some with prize ribbons. I found my mother’s in a back corner. The leaves of one of her plants were covered in big brown splotches. Her pot was not graced with a ribbon. I walked down the aisles. There were prizes for different categories: innovative, colour, texture, edible, native. The winner of ‘edible’ was a fountain of parsley so green it hurt my eyes. The winning ‘innovative’ basket was a solid ball of succulents turned into a functioning clock face. I had a chat with Pamela, whose basket – a cascade of pink and faded-parchment coloured petunias coupled with a downy-leafed herb – took out ‘texture’. “I was actually going for ‘colour’,” she told me, “but I’m pleased with ‘texture’.” She fondled a leaf, “Bugger of a thing to get here though. Divorce material. I had to rest it on three pillows.”

An attendant introduced me to Jennifer Rickerby, the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria’s secretary, who runs the organisation from her lounge room in Bacchus Marsh. She told me there were four judges, all from “the AHJA”. I looked at her blankly. “The Australian Horticultural Judges Association,” she explained. “It’s a two-year course. But I’m thinking of getting a celebrity to judge next year because we don’t get much publicity. Not compared with the hoo-ha out there.” She flicked her tapered fingernails toward the garden pavilions. “But this exhibition is about ordinary backyard gardeners. We’re not trying to sell anything.”

I mentioned that I knew one of the entrants and asked if she would comment on the basket. She looked at my mother’s basket, rubbed one of the leaves. “Not a bad basket, but it’s diseased; it’s got rust. We didn’t look further than that.”

I couldn’t understand it; surely my mother wouldn’t have entered a diseased plant. Maybe that variety of native was supposed to have rust?

There was a people’s choice award yet to be drawn from a barrel guarded by a volunteer. I voted for my mother’s basket over and over, making up names, changing my handwriting, until the barrel guard glared at me.

The day after the show finished, my mother dropped by on her way to collect her basket. She was disappointed she hadn’t won a prize. I told her I’d had a chat with one of the judges. She went very still.

“They said that it had a little spot of rust.”

“What? It was perfect when I entered it.”

“It must have caught it from another basket,” I said. “I didn’t notice. I thought it was innovative, with good texture and colour, and it was far more restrained than the other entries. I loved it.”

She walked to the Exhibition Building to collect her basket. The security guard told her they were all gone. She didn’t believe him; they argued; he let her in to have a look. She came back to my place empty-handed and rang the secretary of the horticultural society.

“It’s too late,” Rickerby told her.

“What do you mean it’s too late?” my mother asked.

“My husband and I organise 90% of this competition. I was too tired to hang around for another day waiting for people to pick up their baskets. They’ve been distributed to nursing homes.”

My mum looked shocked. She hung up. “My basket’s been sent to a nursing home.” We stared at each other for a second, mouths agape, then started laughing.

Karen Hitchcock

Karen Hitchcock is a doctor and writer. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Little White Slips, and the Quarterly Essay Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly.

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