The Big Issue : Edition 468
THEBIGISSUE26SEP–9OCT2014 13 their tropical homes are always funny. But this one, contained by hopelessly inadequate borders, is especially so. It’s like seeing a chimp in trousers or a tropical bird in a lounge room. The thing just doesn’t belong there. Usually, people tend to smaller exotics, and Mrs K’s dwarf maple was something I saw in other streets. But hers was unusual in that she seemed to have no appreciation for the reason it is typically grown, which is, of course, its glorious autumn colour. For much of the year, these maples are bare of leaves. They are stubbornly deciduous and do not come into leaf until halfway through summer. But a month or two later, the leaves turn shades of red and orange sufficient to challenge the best Retina Display. They certainly exceed any number of descriptors for brownish-red or orangey- gold you might find in a paint catalogue. Unlike many other deciduous plants, the leaves of this specimen look strong and healthy on the branch as they change colour and they do not shrivel until they hit the ground in winter. It’s a long and lovely autumnal show in which Mrs K never showed any interest. Mrs K was an unusually gifted gardener and her tomatoes and roses shamed everyone year after year. Her lawn was perfect and she had some self- devised companion planting going on with calendula, sunflower and alyssum. An ecology of bees and caterpillar- hungry birds was long established; she saw how she could recruit predators to the service of her garden. But, every March, she snipped each one of the maple’s glorious leaves clean off. As soon as the tree showed signs of turning russet or amber or apple-pink or any of the colours the street would never enjoy, she amputated it. I was never in a mood quite rude or forward enough to ask her about it, but this compulsive destruction of beauty always made me keep my distance from Mrs K. Even though, I’m sorry to admit, she probably needed a friend. Over time, I became a gardener, too. I softened on my neighbour and was grateful for the pollinators she brought to both our yards. But I was still wary and didn’t ask about her husband, who was in care, as often as I should have. I moved out of the house and said goodbye. She gave me some Ferrero Rocher chocolates three years past their Best Before date and looked sad. “I’ll miss you,” she said. “Come back and visit the roses.” Of course, I never did. Until one day in April, when I walked past and saw the maple in full HD. I ran to the door to congratulate her. Mrs K had died that past summer. Her children were getting the house ready for sale. These days, when I pass the house in autumn, which is not far away from my new address, I long to snip the red leaves right off. They now remind me of death. And, I suppose, they reminded old Mrs K of the same thing. “It’s like seeing a chimp in trousers or a tropical bird in a lounge room. The thing just doesn’t belong there.” RAZER All the Leaves Are Brown PHOTOGRAPHSBYJAMESBRAUND FOR ALMOST A decade, I lived next door to a small decorative maple and its caretaker, Mrs K. In the neat front gardens of this mid-century suburb, trees are not common. Trees are permissible on the verge, or in backyards as providers of fruit. And, within the precise margins of our L-shaped garden beds, heavily pruned camellia bushes are not frowned upon. If a tree is to appear at all in the front garden of a house, it must do so in the absolute centre of the quadrilateral grass. Sometimes, I detour to see my favourite front yard tree, a Canary Island date palm. It must have been naively planted years ago, because it has begun to erupt the very neat concrete border that surrounds it. Palm trees planted outside » Helen Razer (@helenrazer) is a writer, gardener and bicycle tour guide for obscure outer suburbs of Melbourne. If you want to know about the best bakery or shoe-repair shop in a place you have never heard of and will never otherwise visit, she could show you. Maybe.