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Letter from Johannesburg

South Africa
Illustration by Sarah John

Johannesburg gets a bad rap for being kilometre upon kilometre of concrete. However, with some five million planted trees it is actually one of the most wooded cities in the world.

I live in the north of the city, on the third floor of a block of flats. My tiny balcony is the closest thing I have to a garden and I treasure it. I frequent the garden shop on the corner of Main and Witkoppen, not the one with the tall trees promising unbeatable discounts (I’d buy one if I thought it wouldn’t collapse my balcony and upset the neighbours), but the one across with more modest plant life, the kind my apartment can accommodate.

I enjoy pretending to be a wild person, gardening on my cemented balcony and occasionally waving at said neighbours as they look on bemused. Of the 15 or so plants in my apartment I have bought a few and begged a few others, a couple were gifts and others just turned up.

The bought ones were from the garden shop, where a man stepped forward and offered to help. I described my situation and he pointed me to the kinds of plants that might either survive on my north-east facing balcony – lashings of beautiful Jo’burg sun – or the ones that would be partial to indoor conditions. He also seemed to believe that I needed to buy wood chips.

‘What for?’

‘To protect the soil.’

I was dumbfounded. But he looked knowledgeable enough, clearly knew more than I did.

‘Are you sure? What am I protecting it from?’

‘The sun. This is just for the outdoor plants. ’Cause of the hot sun.’

I thought the sun was welcome? Not wanting to expose myself any further, though, I asked no more questions and allowed him to haul a sack of wood chips into my boot. Loyally I scattered them over the soil of the pot plants on the balcony. I probably needed a quarter of the amount I bought; years later the still-full sack takes up precious space in my cupboard. I see it and think of the man at the garden shop.

One of the plants I begged for comes from my sister-in-law, another from this sprawling garden in Jo’burg South I had the good fortune of accessing as the facilitator of a workshop being held on the premises. I would arrive early before the sessions started to sit in the garden in wonder; the instant peace reminded me of why I’d started buying plants. I bought my first only days after I’d been attacked in my home. And then pot plant after pot plant I’d sought a deep connection to something primal, however compromised by urbanity, something old and comforting.

I let the caretaker of those gardens know that I absolutely had to take some cuttings home with me and he said I should feel free. I had nowhere near a garden the size of theirs but felt if only I could take a little piece it would be enough. I walked away with two off-cuts from a Delicious Monster – one died quickly, the other took a little longer.

On a visit to Cape Town a friend gave me something known colloquially as Chicken and Egg, a plant with long slender green and white blades that replicates itself endlessly. I carried it in my lap on the plane. For years mine refused to reproduce until one day without warning there it was – hanging off a long stem, a neat miniature replica of itself.

Plant by plant I fill up my home, each time somehow restored despite the inevitable traumas of life.

New Internationalist issue 527 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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