Gardening in the tropics

Looking at her one-acre garden in Dominica, Polly Patullo muses over the links between landscape, memory, and desire

  • Red heliconias. Photograph by Mary Walters
  • Red heliconias. Photograph by Mary Walters
  • Torch ginger lily. Photograph by Mary Walters
  • `On all sides are walls of dazzling greenery`. Photograph by Mary Walters
  • Yellow heliconia at Under the Pipe. Photograph by Mary Walters

Polly Pattullo’s “Gardening in the Tropics” is reproduced from Caribbean Dispatches: Beyond the Tourist Dream (Macmillan Caribbean 2006), in which 28 writers from different backgrounds describe their personal experience of the Caribbean. Polly, a journalist with the Guardian in London, is the author of Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean, and co-author of The Gardens of Dominica.

“Rain come.” I look towards the head of the valley that looms over my little house, above the swirls of forest that rise up to the junction of mountain and sky, where the clouds are scudding east to west.

I am in the lee of Dominica’s great mountain spine, where the rain gods are always en fête. Not far away are the Trafalgar Falls, twin waterfalls which propel their load into a rock-strewn basin and then into the river, which borders my land, sometimes trickling like a Scottish trout stream, at other times — when it is “down” — pounding in a terrifying force of brown tumbleweed.

Rain here deserves a wider vocabulary. Drizzle, shower, downpour, tropical wave, depression, storm, hurricane are inadequate to describe the moods of the rain. At night, its pattering and clattering on the tin roof is like a protective blanket. By day, I sometimes hear it before I see it — as it hisses onto the leaves of the forest above me, before once again falling on my water-washed garden.

Water is everywhere. The water tank is always full, fed by up to 250 inches of rain a year. A three-foot-diameter cast-iron pipe edges my land: it carries water from the Freshwater Lake, high above in the montane forest, in the old volcanic crater of Morne Micotrin, down to Roseau, the island’s capital.

From the road, I duck “under the pipe”, skirt around my “new flower-bed” of dwarf Cavendish bananas plants, and on to the side porch of my tiny, one-roomed house. There, I become the audience in a tropical amphitheatre: below is a meadow dotted with guava trees and rock, beyond is the river, glistening through the ferns and trees, whose foliage often masks the sight but never the sounds of the river. Beyond is dense undisturbed forest which reaches up so far you have to crane your head to see the sky.

When I first became the owner of Under the Pipe, I wrote: “I have a garden in Dominica, an island which is all garden.” For this is a place where farmers put their children through university on a couple of acres of land — at least, they did until the banana market came under threat from America’s free-trade overlords. Dominica is a melting-pot not just of people but also of plant life. The first arrivals — pineapples, guava, cassava — came with the Amerindians, from South America. European empire-builders who pillaged the world for its bounty also brought plants to the Caribbean — from Africa, in slave ships; from Asia, from the Mediterranean.

Breadfruit, mango, yam, banana, coffee, grapefruit were all, once, new arrivals. Now these crops are all around me at Under the Pipe. They are my precious inheritance. Although it is surrounded by some of the best surviving rainforest in the Caribbean (the biodiversity of Dominica is remarkable and irreplaceable), my one-acre patch, which might be called disturbed tertiary rain forest, reflects generations of human activity. Since just after slavery, the land was part of the island’s peasant economy: not long ago it was home to a farmer with a cow, who grew dasheen in the moist pasture, picked guavas, and harvested from the gnarled grapefruit trees.

But I am not a Caribbean peasant farmer. I have no cow, I do not live there all the year, I do not plant when the moon “coming up”, I do not need to sell my crops to live. I am an English journalist, who, unexceptionally, loves gardening. I have a different relationship to the land from my predecessor. Indeed, I have to admit that part of my response to the extraordinary drama of the Dominican environment is not unlike that of visiting Europeans such as Coleridge, Trollope, Leigh Fermor. All paid their respects — in wonder and passion — to the landscape of Dominica.

Others, such as the estate-owners, had a slightly different gaze, in a sense more like the contemporary peasant farmer. The tropical environment had to be tamed: the driving force was to create order — and productivity — out of anarchy. The bush, the wilderness, the “demented vegetation” had to be controlled and contained.

The Dominican writer Jean Rhys, in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, shows Mr Rochester, the Englishman, responding to what he perceives as the hostile power of the landscape — too red, too green, too blue. The consequence of such mental anxiety was the creation of gardens that hark back to Europe, a manicured oasis of calm amid the “primitive”, recreating memories of temperate gardens strewn with roses.

There are echoes of this in Rhys’s description of her grandparents’ garden at Geneva, perhaps fifteen miles from the Roseau valley, although she reveals, too, her Creole sensibility. In Smile Please, her partly written autobiography, she remembered: “The steps down to the lawn. The iron railings covered with jasmine and stephanotis. In the sunniest part of the garden grew the roses and the ‘English flowers’. But in the shadow the Sensitive Plant which shuts its leaves and pretends to die when you touch it, only opening again when you were well away. The gold ferns and the silver, not tall like tree ferns but small and familiar. Gold ferns green and cool on the outside but with gold underneath which left an imprint if you slapped a frond on your hand.” Here, the temperate and tropical mingle. It is the tropical which she associates with “the shadow”. For Rhys, however, her embrace of the Creole was part of her own identity.

That Creole relationship with the environment is echoed in Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s book The Orchid House, about three white sisters who return to their Caribbean island home. One of them, Stella, the sensuous one, “put her arms round the trunk of a laurier cypre and rubbed her cheek softly against the bark. I’ve come back, she said to the tree . . . as if she would strangle it for joy.”

One of the first tropical landscape architects to embrace this love of the natural environment was Roberto Burle Marx of Brazil. Marx, who was also a conservationist, rejected the idea of tropical nature as symbolic of the useless and the primitive; instead, he used those native plants in his designs and so made a public statement of their importance.

This, indeed, is the philosophy of my Dominican neighbour and gardening mentor Anne Jno Baptiste. At Papillote Wilderness Retreat, she has created one of the best gardens in the Caribbean. Carved out of the steep hillside, it nestles under a canopy of breadfruit and tree fern. Home to remarkable plant collections, it is a sanctuary of conservation and sustainability.

Under the Pipe, I hope, might one day also reflect part of such a tradition. But first I have to learn to understand the heartbeat of my little patch of land.

I must learn how to stop the erosion with terracing, for, if unchecked, the rain takes the thin soil ever onwards down the valley. I have to know, when “cleaning” the bush, what to keep and what to cut. I can take the cutlass to the mal estomac, a ubiquitous, straggling shrub; I can take out the wild dasheen which peppers the meadow; I can “weed out” the “zeb gwa”. I must watch the light, to see when the sun — which appears late and disappears early — reaches the shade-loving anthurium tucked into the slope. I must learn to recognise the flowers that attract the hummingbirds and the butterflies, and, above all, not to cut a heart-shaped-leaved vine, the food of the iguanas which I hope still live in a pois doux tree across the stream not far from the house.

Gardening in Dominica exposes my ignorance. I know about English gardens — about the quirks and fancies of pansies and hollyhocks, their qualities and needs. Tropical plants overwhelm me. Heliconias, for example, are one of those great tropical plant families, their swaying banana-style leaves protecting magnificent coloured bracts. They love it in the cool of the higher reaches of the Roseau Valley. I planted a line of Heliconia wagneriana below the house. Within months, a towering forest had evolved. Too much in your face, said Anne. So they were moved to a better home by the edge of the river, close to where the fabulous pink torch gingers — twenty foot high or more — cling to the bank.

On all sides are walls of dazzling greenery. Any other colour is somehow a shock. Bright colours need to be carefully handled. Sometimes I want my garden to look like the village gardens — a great clashing encounter of purple, yellow, magenta, orange. But those brash crotons, cordylines, gingers need to be rationed in my natural forest haven. So does the perky busy lizzie, a recent immigrant to Dominica; Anne has taught me to weed it out, and reluctantly I do: their pink and red flowers threaten the hegemony of green.

Now, three years on, I have, I hope, begun to make a garden that reflects the spirit of the land. I have broken my reluctance to cut down trees, and some of the straggly examples on the river edge have been removed: from the veranda I can now see the river rushing over the rocks and beyond to the other bank, decked in tree ferns. I like looking at the other bank, which is, bizarrely, called Poland (it is not even the east bank).

Bojo, a young man from the village, likes chopping: his cutlass, finely sharpened and cared for as if a baby, does a merciless job, slashing at everything from the wispiest blade grass to the chunkiest tree trunk. Other villagers, who come and admire my amphitheatre and pronounce the view “one hundred per cent natural”, urge me to grow fruit and vegetables. The watery meadow would, for instance, be ideal for dasheen, that almost iconic root vegetable, grown since slavery as a staple crop. If I cut down the lofty tree, which probably holds up half a hillside, I would get more light, more sun — and bananas and guava would flourish.

Bojo would also, I am sure, do something different to this land if it were his — he grows cucumbers and lettuces, plantain and dasheen on his land further down the valley. But he rarely questions my instructions, amiably moving towering plants from one place to another, carefully nursing each specimen and using his cutlass as hoe, spade, trowel (spoon shovel, he calls it), and axe.

I have had lessons on how to care for my bananas, and seen some lost in summer storms. A banana, it is said, takes nine months (“just like a baby”), but my bananas seem to take longer. Would Geest buy my bananas? No, I was told, you did not deflower the end of each tiny banana before it developed. As a result, latex drips from the tips and makes those marks on the banana so hated, it is said, by the western consumer. Who cares? I have eaten my own bananas, my luscious grapefruit, and, best of all, the red seasoning peppers that were given to me as seedlings and, now shrub-sized, are sturdy and prolific.

I am learning to see each corner of the garden as a “room” with its own characteristics and possibilities. I am now planning to create a “design” for the garden. On my fantasy plan, I have a jacuzzi in the warm-water stream; a tree-house — to watch the herons — on stilts on the flat little island in the middle of the river; African sculptures made of the trunk of the fougere adorning the septic tank, brightly-painted oil drums as plant pots, a bamboo walk, a raised bed for herbs. I am learning to develop a designer’s eye — looking at form, function — for this piece of land. I am daring to bring an outsider’s gaze to the forest — a baggage of my memories and desires, just like Dominica’s other settlers.

It will be, I hope, more than a form of post-colonial re-occupation. The historian Simon Schama says in Landscape and Memory: “Even landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product.” That will be true of Under the Pipe, too. It will reflect who I am but also, I hope, incorporate the legacy of knowledge of all Dominica’s gardeners.

I will experiment with different ways of re-presenting the tropical world and I hope my Under the Pipe will be true to itself. But, in the end, Dominica will reclaim it. After all, I had only dared borrow it.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.