Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2018

Six Square Metres, Reflections from a Small Garden, by Margaret Simons #BookReview

This afternoon, I was suddenly, unaccountably, irresistibly tired, and although I know that the worst thing an insomniac can do is to take a daytime nap, I thought that if I just loafed on the sofa with an undemanding book for a moment or two, that I could drift into a brief snooze and then after that my eyes would stop wilfully closing of their own accord.

The book I chose was Margaret Simons’ Six Square Metres, Reflections from a Small Garden, recommended to me by Kate W from Books are My Favourite and Best after I read Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively. It’s due back at the library tomorrow and not able to be renewed because it is ‘in high demand’.  

*chuckle* It did not have the desired effect.  It is an utterly irresistible little book and I read it, all 120 pages, cover to cover, before dinner.

Organised into four chapters named for the seasons, Six Square Metres is the warts-and-all story of Margaret Simon’s tiny garden in inner-suburban Melbourne.  It is not a garden that can conform to expert advice because its location means that there is very little sunlight in the back garden and she is reduced to growing shade-tolerant vegies in raised beds while growing more demanding plants in pots that live on her roof.  Many of her plants sulk because they are not only planted in the wrong kind of environment – she is always hopeful that she will be able to break the rules of gardening – but also because she neglects them when she is busy.  (Simons is one of Australia’s very best freelance journalists.  I’ve reviewed one of her books here).

The sulky plants in her garden are due to a combination of what she calls her culpable neglect and general incompetence – but she is unrepentant:

…gardening books are to gardening what childcare books are to babies, pornography to sex, Home Beautiful magazine to housing, and a literal reading of the Bible to Christianity.  Counsels of perfection don’t work for me.  I am too messy.  I am not a fundamentalist.  My edges are not clipped; my tomatoes sprawl unpruned and unstaked. (p.5)

Simons has the same problems as we do with zucchini: the first few humble little ones are a joy to eat, but we soon get sick of ratatouille, zucchini fritters, zucchini cake, and zucchini muffins – and likewise we also don’t care to stuff marrows from when zucchini have been left to grow monstrous and fat like overgrown phallic symbols. (However I don’t feel this way about excess tomatoes or pumpkins, because they store well, and our current crop of excess cucumbers is making an excellent pickle.)

Yet despite these challenges she finds the garden a comfort in a crazy world and she considers herself a failure if she has to buy vegetables from a shop.  While the book has plenty of whimsical moments, there are also poignant reflections and memories triggered by the sight, scent or flavour of particular plants.  Most gardeners will relate to this, I think, especially if some of the plants are the gift of generous friends.  Because of course as time goes by in the garden, we and our friends grow older and sad things happen.

Some of the book is laugh-out-loud funny:

[In Spring] It already seems warm enough to plants beans and peas.  One of my gardening books advises that the way to judge this is by sitting bare-buttocked on the ground.  If your bum doesn’t get old, it is time to plant. Given that my back verandah is visible from the McDonald’s drive through, and the little strip of land at the front faces the post office, I won’t be trying this method.  An index finger in the soil will have to do.  (p.98)

But she also articulates a fear that haunts many of us, a fear that our politicians choose not to notice:

Am I imagining that the seasons are coming faster now?  Usually, it is October before I lose the winter brassicas to flower.  Normally gardening relaxes me, but the possibility that the seasons are altering their archetypal patterns – that the climate change we all fear is already upon us – means that my trips into the garden are tinged with anxiety.  Not already, surely.  Not here, in my garden, please.

I often think about Voltaire, who, contemplating the broken nature of our world and our powerlessness in putting it to rights, declared that ‘we must cultivate our garden’.  But Voltaire lived at a time when nobody imagined the possibility that human beings would change the climate.  For him, and the generations that preceded him, the seasons were a fixed certainty, the basis of religious metaphor, story and myth.  If we are changing our climate, we are changing our schema of the world. We are changing a part of what it means to be human.  And standing here, on my little patch of inner-suburban earth, I feel very frightened.  (p.99)

(I feel like that when I look at small children, and wonder what our overheated planet will be like for them to live in).

Six Square Metres, Reflections from a Small Garden is one to salt away for Mother’s Day, I think.  My mother was not a great reader but she would have loved it.

Author: Margaret Simon
Title: Six Square Metres, Reflections from a Small Garden
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106831
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:Six Square Metres: Reflections from a Small Garden


Responses

  1. I have anything but green fingers, but I do love a gardening book – I may just have to add this to the wishlist…

    • It’s her self-deprecating style that makes it so enjoyable. Most of us can relate to having failures in the garden, that’s for sure.

  2. Despite the fact that I’m the other side of the world, this sounds a little like my own small town garden which I describe as Scotland at the back and Portugal at the front!

    • Gosh, that’s a very powerful metaphor!

      • I’ve thrown away a good deal of money as a result of misplaced optimism but have settled for many shades of green at the back.

        • My most expensive mistake was to plant a bargain batch of unnamed trees. I was in haste to greenify the wasteland that was my backyard which consisted of one lemon tree and some sad grass.
          Well, they grew. And grew. And one of them was a mahogany gum and it grew a lot. It cost us $1500 to have it cut down and grubbed out in case every neighbour within shade of it sued us for damage to their pipes!

          • That puts the false acacia we planted in our first garden in the shade!

  3. This book sounds lovely and I have put it on my Library Wishlist as they have both digital and hard copies of it. I see she has a couple of other gardening books also. One just about compost. Think I’ll stick to this one. I loved the excerpt you shared. (How to tell if it is warm enough to plant). Lol

    • Compost eh? I think not. We have six compost bins but I don’t think I want to read a whole book about them.

  4. Sounds like the perfect afternoon read and better than most of the nonfiction gardening books that dominate the bestsellers lists. Love that it’s written by someone without green fingers, they’re often the more inspiring type in my humble opinion, because they allow you to fail and start again, the joy being in the bursts of doing and occasional successes.

    • Yes, I think so too. I watch the occasional gardening show, and they are no use at all, parading about in their sunfilled gardens with an unlimited budget and a passionate commitment to compost. They just make me cross.
      One thing that particularly irritates me is that they never seem to have any advice about what to do when the weather turns feral. They never tell us what to do when there’s a forecast of howling winds or satanical heat or torrential rain…

  5. So glad you enjoyed this – I loved it too. And, from memory, I think the advice about judging soil temperature via the application of a bare bum is from Jackie French. Her gardening books are also terrific.

    • Yes, that sounds very Jackie French!
      Thank you for the recommendation:)


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