I love digging and planting; horticulture is a vocation for me.
That’s why I was so happy at my job as supervisor of Rockway Gardens in Kitchener, Ontario—it being a very formal, Victorian garden that provided a wonderful palette for me to conclude my 43 year career, creating living art.
But there was never a lot of work in December or January so l would go live in a different country for two months every winter. That’s how I ended up in a tiny rental bungalow, perched on stilts, overlooked the Nam Song River, in central Laos—a spectacular setting on Mr. T’s Organic Mulberry farm. Its limestone karsts, with sheer 200 metre cliffs, were amazing…
But l missed having my hands in the soil.
So when Mr. T discovered I was a Gardener Without Borders, and invited me on a guided tour of his farm, I was glad to accept. He was especially proud of a new system that harnessed methane from his pig manure tank to power his goat cheese factory.
Fascinating! But as he talked, my attention was drawn to rows of containerized plants behind the factory—Mr T’s propagation nursery. Many of the shrubs and small trees had burst their black, plastic bag containers and were screaming to be planted. Excited at the prospect of digging and planting, I offered my services; he gave me the green light.
I located a spade and a wheelbarrow and immediately started digging holes in the designated locations. Fortunately the soil was sandy and l had access to a huge compost pile. Most of the trees were brugmansia, but there was also hibiscus, oleander and avocado in the mix. Ten days later all the planting was done, and I had used up all the compost.
In my planting frenzy, though, l had overlooked a vital component of a healthy garden. It was the dry season and new transplants required regular watering to get established. My attempt to draw water from the river proved futile as Mr T’s pump wouldn’t work.
What to do?
Where there’s a will, there’s often a way. While reading on the front balcony of my lodgings, l was often entertained by a ragtag gang of young lads who gathered at a large mud hole directly below to catch creatures and engage in furious mud fights. If only I could redirect the exuberant energy of these spirited mud slingers to my purpose, I would have my thirsty trees watered.
The next morning, when the marsh urchins returned, l tossed down about 3 dozen 2 litre plastic pop bottles. Verbal communication wasn’t an option so l climbed down into the muck and demonstrated what l needed done. Soon we had an efficient bucket brigade in operation. Several boys filled the bottles and others passed them along up the embankment. I directed the group at the top to my plantings. Each tree received two litres of nutrient rich water, and when the job was complete, each worker collected 5,000 kip. (8,000 kip equals one dollar US).
Later that day I returned to the farm from a hike, and there was my crew waiting impatiently. They had returned for a second shift. I didn’t need a translator to know what they were saying: “ Time’s money, buddy; we haven’t got all day.“ Even if I’d known how to tell them that my trees didn’t require another drink so soon, I wouldn’t have. Obediently, l dashed off to get the bottles. Why risk aggravating them further? They might start demanding overtime and a paid lunch.
I quickly learned to carry a hefty wad a 5,000 kip bills. These trees certainly wouldn’t be getting thirsty on my watch.
Usually I heard my crew long before l saw them. On my final evening at the farm they were on the far bank, whooping and hollering, while working their way upriver, terrorizing every living creature en route. I was happy to see they had taken time from their busy day to pause and enjoy a decent mud fight.