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All in the mind

June 15, 2014


Cropped lantana
Cropped lantana

When one really — and very deeply — considers the art of gardening in Pakistan it is clearly evident that, for the most part, the ‘art’ is completely missing and has been absent since the days when the Mughals designed and constructed their gardens with spectacular, extremely artistic, pleasure.

Having mulled over the myriad images of the gardens that I have visited throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan and having tried — for days running into weeks on end — to fathom exactly what the missing ingredient is, I have recently come to the conclusion that, except for in a very small number of gardens, what is missing is the artistic freedom which, sad to say, has disappeared from almost everywhere else in the country too.

It’s true that current garden trends are perhaps a little ‘softer’ than those predominantly evident in the years gone by but, it still appears that so many home gardeners stubbornly, perhaps completely thoughtlessly, stick to what they have been ‘informed’ is the right way to go. What we have today are unimaginative straight lines, uniform rows of ‘matching’ plants, square or oblong horrors of ‘lush green lawns’, vegetables — if there are any — hidden away out of sight and often out of the sun, behind the house. And everything is sprayed, with chemicals of course, to within an inch of its life unless it is an insect, beneficial or otherwise, which is routinely sprayed into extinction. Then we hear the owners of such ‘lifeless’ gardens expressing, when an opportunity occurs, dismay at the disappearance of butterflies and birds whose demise they, themselves, are responsible for.

All in a row — petunias
All in a row — petunias

Strict observance of gardening trends which are not our own — they were largely imported during the days of the British Raj — is just one possible reason for the mindless garden trends that ‘custom’, not culture, dictate. But, I strongly suspect, there is a far more important, far more serious reason and one which the majority of gardeners completely overlook solely because closing eyes and ears is far easier than opening them to the realities of life in their own garden as well as, it must be said, life in general.

Use your imagination rather than just sticking to tradition to create beautiful gardens

This reason, not at all an elusive one, strides or shuffles depending on age and health, into the garden on usually a daily basis and regardless of the instructions issued, goes about doing whatever it is they think needs to be done and done in a certain way. Yes, I am talking about those people who so proudly — and often without just cause — call themselves ‘malis’.

It is customary for those who can afford it, and most owners of large gardens can, to use the services of a mali who will cut the grass, cut back everything promising to burst out of line, cut off weeds at ground level rather than using any effort to pull them up, cut off any plant he doesn’t recognise or hasn’t personally planted and, when the cutting is done, will lug around a hosepipe to thoroughly drown the evidence!

The problem with the majority of — not all — malis, is that they think they know the answer to every single garden related issue and refuse, point blank, to either listen or learn anything a knowledgeable employer attempts to share. Thus, garden trends go absolutely nowhere if they happen to be beyond the malis comprehension, which in most cases they are. In the garden, especially so in the gardens of the wealthy, it is the mali who rules the roost and who, to put it bluntly, holds the power of life and death over every living plant, bird, animal and insect in his domain. He wields his power ruthlessly and, unfortunately, often with a great deal of ignorant intolerance too.

Malis are indispensable to a high percentage of gardeners. Who wants to crawl home from the office and tackle the garden during the blistering heat of summer or, horror of horrors, which fashionable ‘lady’ is going to risk getting dirt underneath her meticulously manicured finger nails which may even get broken if she so much as glances sideways at a plant screaming out for attention? Oh no, no, no! Malis are deemed as necessary as the latest fashion trend or designer aftershave to hit these shores. Gardeners they may boast to be, but getting out there actually gardening is not the ‘done thing’ which is quite obvious if you think about it. Everything in the garden falls apart at the seams and the boring, mediocre result is absolutely nothing to write home about as nothing ever really changes. And, as for garden art, what on earth is that?

Please continue sending your gardening queries to Remember to include your location. The writer will not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 15th, 2014