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I have been cultivating a garden. Which is to say, I have been cultivating beauty. I didn’t grow up with a garden. Instead, I grew up with mama’s stories about the garden she left behind when we left Ezibeleni and moved to the more urban eMdantsane, both in the Eastern Cape, in the early 1990s. Her stories have been keeping me company as I have tried to make sense of my small garden and my need for creating beauty. It’s not a grand garden. If anything, it’s very basic.

When I first moved into my complex, I was excited about having some outdoor space. The backyard was a patch of lawn that seemed big enough to allow garden furniture. There was a corner with some weeds and what looked like a marijuana plant. There was another corner with flowers and succulents in a small glass left by the previous tenant. In retrospect, I should have taken “before” pictures in order to remember the journey in creating a space that now has flowerpots and a a corner that has been transformed into a collage of flowers and shrubs.

The invitation to cultivate the garden came in winter. I had been travelling for a few weeks and came back to find the arum lilies in bloom. I didn’t know I needed the joy of returning home to a view of arum lilies until that moment. They were thriving and glorious in spite of the Cape Town winter. I began pruning the leaves and adding them to vases inside the house. This made room for more. It became my first lesson in paying attention.

Before the arrival of the lilies, I had invited a few friends over for a housewarming. Some brought plants as gifts. I received them in trepidation. Would they survive in my care? They were the first invitation to cultivate beauty. I placed some of the plants outside and hoped for the best.

When winter began to ebb, I ventured outside and started to imagine what I would do with the empty space. I first had to clean out the weedy corner. I bought a garden fork and spade from a second-hand shop. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I decided to clear up — and was wholly unprepared. I felt clumsy holding the spade. I quickly learned there were bricks beneath the weeds. I had to work much harder than I’d expected to make a clearing. I was sweating. I was inappropriately dressed. While taking a break I sent my sister a voice note telling her how unprepared I was for the land. I was wearing a kaftan, which seemed to get in the way of the spade. There was too much dust. I didn’t have garden gloves and the earth seemed to get everywhere very quickly. But I loved the smell of the soil. Even though I was wiped out by the digging and the weeding, I knew I would return to this corner, again and again. As a writer whose natural habitat is my desk, it felt good to be outside trying to figure out what to do with a patch of earth.

I didn’t know I needed the joy of returning home to a view of arum lilies until that moment...It became my first lesson in paying attention.

When I told more friends about my attempts at a garden, I was added to a WhatsApp group of gardeners and a friend gave me sawdust for compost (I had been keeping a bokashi bin but with no plan about where to put the food waste). I was gifted with succulents, a granadilla plant, herb seedlings, flowers. I began budgeting for potting soil. I found a nursery that sells plants at half price and two for R50. I visited the fynbos nursery in my neighbourhood and bought plants with which to experiment.

On the other side of the country, my friend was also learning to cultivate land and sent me a video of herself wearing iphinifa. Of course! The clothes our mothers and grandmothers wore around the house made sense for the garden. My sister connected me with someone who makes amaphinifa; I now have clothes for the garden. I bought plastic shoes that rinse easily and keep the dust away. I bought garden gloves. I have accumulated gardening paraphernalia despite my internal dialogue, which was full of judgement about spending money on a silly hobby. But now I know, gardening is not a silly hobby.


Gardening has expanded my community and I have received the generosity of friends and strangers. I have learned the importance of experimenting with new plants and not taking the process too seriously.

I have learned to love beauty with the possibility of loss. I have learned not all plants need compost and bokashi tea. I have learned the magic of watching succulents grow from a plant the size of a teacup into something that bears magnificent blooms bigger than my hand. I have learned to pay attention to the seasons. Nothing really dies in winter. Plants return in spring more beautiful than before. I have been in the company of butterflies and birds and my garden companion — a cat that visits me every time I potter about. Gardening has become a way of life. I think of gardening as low-frequency creativity and play. And yes, I talk to my plants; it’s impossible not to gasp in awe when beauty emerges as a result of simply adding water.

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