Life and death in the garden

by Gautam Raja

I have a monster in the garden. A warm, bristly monster of my own creation that I feed regularly.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of “lasagna gardening”, more accurately called sheet composting. It’s especially useful when you want to get rid of the lawn, but can’t be bothered to cut out and transport all that sod. You cover the grass in layers of newspaper, and then alternate piles of green and brown stuff. I use the grass clippings, and dry leaves and flowers that Fidel and Sergio leave in our green yard-waste bins every Wednesday.

Once formed, this pile of dead stuff seems to come alive. It gets body-warm inside, and a cloud of what look like large fruit flies hover over it. Lift a corner of the pile and peek underneath to see earwigs and pill bugs running for cover. Every time I’ve tended to it, a large emerald-green beetle appears from somewhere inside, and buzzes about bossily, as if telling me where to direct the water. I’m told earthworms gather in the ground below, making it easy to dig into. The pile itself exudes an uncomfortable feeling of person, like when you walk too close to a store mannequin.

Every Wednesday, as I get more materials, I either pile higher, or extend the monster. Once you have a few alternating layers, the idea is to add soil and just leave it for six months to decompose and turn into a dark, rich base for your vegetable or flower garden. But even before it supports plants, the busyness in and around the monster is addictive, a process of life fueled by the dying of its ingredients.

When I was a child, we visited my father’s friend on his estate in the hills near our home in South India. He had a book on lawn care, and I was the sort of child who would read a book like that cover-to-cover (not specifically because it was lawns, but because I’m drawn to obscure how-to’s. I’d have been just as rapt if it was knitting or motorcycle repair or ship-in-a-bottle building). I was puzzled and fascinated by how sod could be cut out in squares with a spade, and rolled up, to be later put back in place, or replanted elsewhere.

Today, not only do I know all too well how you can cut squares of sod, but also how much sweat is involved, and how incredibly heavy even a couple of square feet of lawn is. Not far from the monster, I’m cutting away the lawn to start the garden from soil again. Several times, I’ve staggered from there to the monster with rolls of sod to place them upside down on the beast as the next lasagna layer. Gardening, it turns out, is hard work. I’m not complaining; I’m actually pleased it’s a lot more physically demanding than I expected. We’ve seen people in the movies digging six-foot-deep graves so often, that even though we know it must be harder than it looks, it’s a shock to dig even six inches into the soil. A hole seems to generate twice its own volume in dug earth, piles so heavy that my old wheelbarrow simply refused to move them.

For the first time since childhood, I regularly have earth under my fingernails, and mud on my clothes. In the middle of writing this piece, I popped out to spread some warm grass clippings onto the new section of the monster, now covering the area of a large double bed. I swear I could feel it breathing.

First published in Gulf News, July 18, 2017