My neighbour cut down my trees and I've killed everything in my yard | Brigid Delaney

The permanence of choosing plants is frightening. Once you choose to plant something, it could be there forever

Last year I returned from a long overseas trip and flopped down on the couch.

I looked around, something was different. It was like … there was more light.

“Yo house you is lit AF,” I thought to myself.

Had I left the lights on for six weeks?

Had the sun gotten bigger? Why was everything suddenly brighter? It took several hours of confusion, walking around my brilliantly bright house to realise.

A massive tree at the side of my house had been chopped down!

And another tree at the front!

All that was left was stumps and a small pile of firewood. It was like Paul Bunyan had been passing through with his giant axe.

The beautiful tree with its branches that formed a gentle canopy across the side yard, shading the back rooms of the house, was in fact a noxious weed, my elderly neighbour Bob had told me repeatedly. The heavy branches carried seed pods, that in the wind scattered far and wide, planting small trees like metastasising cancer cells. I needed to get rid of the tree, he said. I needed to poison it.

The thought of poisoning something that brought me joy (I used to sit under its branches and read) was unthinkable, but the proof was all around me.

Small versions of my tree were growing in the nearby creeks, gullies, neighbours’ gardens and my own. Bob said it needed to be stopped at the source and offered to cut the tree down. I was like “yeah yeah, chop it down” – but I didn’t think he would actually chop it down.

“My backyard is BALD!” I complained on the phone to friends. “It’s so ugly out there and bright.”

My dad, a keen gardener, came down one weekend with my mother to try and fix up the garden. Bob helped them.

“The combined age of your two gardeners is 159,” my mum messaged me.

Was she trying to make me feel … guilty?

I was in Bali and sent them photos on WhatsApp of my villa and private pool.

“We are also in a pool …” My mother wrote back. “A pool of sweat.”

Other people helped out. My editor from the Guardian arrived at my cottage for a family holiday. When I returned, I saw that he and his family had spent their holiday clearing my grim yard. There were four bags of leaves and other garden debris in the garage.

Brigid Delaney’s yard.
Brigid Delaney’s yard. Photograph: Brigid Delaney

Once my garden had been cleared, it was time to plant. But what? And how?

My father thought Manchurian pears would be suitable.

“Wot dat? No English fruit trees!”

My mother thought a minimalist garden of mostly rocks and cactus would suit my skill level.

At a party I bailed up garden designer Sebastian Tesoriero. “My trees were cut down. I have these STUMPS! It’s like a graveyard!” I wailed.

He suggested I plant things that sounded like a list of medieval skin diseases: Acacia leprosa ‘Scarlet Blaze’, Acacia cognata, Acacia rubida, Acacia floribunda, Acacia implexa, Callistemon viminalis ‘Prolific’, Callistemon sieberi, dwarf Flowering Gums, Photinia.

The plant people were passionate, but it was like they were speaking another language – the language of trees. I did not speak tree.

My eyes glazed over. I just didn’t get plants. I didn’t know the names or how to plant them. The Latin was confusing. And the permanence was frightening. Once you chose to plant something, it could be there forever. What if you chose wrong?

Then there was the maintenance aspect. You had to water it. There was something called “pruning.” You spent hours on a Saturday at garden centres. It just seemed very dull. I couldn’t get into it.

A few years ago, my family had to talk me out of buying a house with a massive front hedge as it was assumed that I wouldn’t know how to trim the hedge and so it would be grown into the house, and I would be trapped with a dwindling supply of groceries and never seen again.

Just before Christmas last year, a good friend came up for the weekend from Sydney. Sharon wanted to plant me a garden. We woke early on Saturday and went to the farmers markets.

She took charge.

“This person,” she said pointing at me. “Is away a lot. She needs plants that will survive in desert or drought conditions. Show us your hardiest plants!”

The next day I woke up. She had been up before it got too hot to plant, and created a little garden near the noxious tree stump.

“They look cute!”

The little plants were in the dirt. She showed me how to water them.

They wouldn’t be as magnificent as the noxious weed tree but they were a start. And they were mine. I had planted them via a third party.

Then I went away for two months, there was a run of 42 degrees days, it didn’t rain, and everything died.

Last week I got a text from a neighbour. I was in Sydney. She wrote “I have mowed your lawn and cut the dead tops off your agapanthus”.

Oh the shame. My house was turning into a community garden.

This could not go on. I needed to take some responsibility.

Returning now in autumn to my parched bit of earth, the ground was hard and cracked. To put a shovel in there would risk dislocating a shoulder. It had gone from merely unkempt to a sort of Mad Max badlands – all sinister and rough.

Then I went to a weird and wonderful thing called Forest Bathing in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. You spend a couple of hours in the gardens staring at trees, moving slowly among them. It’s very therapeutic. Afterwards I felt stiller, more calm.

Trees and plants belong to both the spiritual and material realm. Each leaf is a miracle of creation and design. Why was I letting my garden die? What did that say about my character? What did it say about the stewardship I had over this piece of land?

The cliches in my case have a literal application. You’ve got to look after your own backyard. You start there and then branch out. I bang on about the environment but I can’t be arsed watering my own plants. That’s not a good state of affairs.

I’ll wait for rain and for the soil to soften, then I’ll finally begin.

• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist


Brigid Delaney

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