Gardens will not be tamed. No matter how much we manicure, mulch and manipulate, their inherent wildness wins out through tenacity and time. They are the herbaceous border between two worlds – the artificially created, architecturally designed homes in which we live and the whimsical, capricious land on which they sit. There is an undeniably primal element at play, a deciduous backdrop against which children can imagine slaying dragons, building forts and multitudes of fairies who sneeze buttercups and fart glitter.
Grown-ups are not immune to such feverish flights of fancy either. Case in point: the wishing well. Ripped straight out of a fable and concreted into a suburban plot, these were a beloved Australian garden fixture for decades. Usually comprising a foundation shallower than a Justin Bieber TED Talk, they were finished in either leftover house bricks or rough-hewn rocks smooshed into still-wet concrete where they stayed stuck like a game of forever-suspended Tetris. The whole shebang was frequently topped by a small pitched roof in either timber or tile – depending on the budget. Because you wouldn’t want the water in the well getting wet when it rained, would you?
If there were kids about, safety concerns often warranted a grille over the opening of the well, but this didn’t stop enthusiastic decorators rigging up a bucket on a chain that could be lowered and raised via a handle. Not that you’d actually want to drink the liquid accumulated in that murky basement, which sat somewhere on the colour spectrum between a short black and almost-fluorescent green. Still, it made for an excellent witch’s brew that fitted neatly into whatever childhood narrative was being played out in the garden the day that Mum declared: “Now go outside, and I don’t want to see you until dinner and if I catch you telling your little brother that drinking the well water will turn him into Superman…”
Like all fashions, however, the garden wishing well was transitory. Many went beyond the fetchingly decrepit stage to the “when-are-we-going-to-do-something-about-that-thing-in-the-yard?” stage. Despite the fact that wishing wells were probably the first water feature many Australians had, they eventually gave way to another trend – one that better reflected our national cultural transition from Euro- to Asia-centric. As we travelled more, many of us became duly smitten with the gardens of Japan, Bali and Thailand – especially the way that they incorporated water into their designs. Koi ponds were frequently a showpiece and we wanted in on the action. Tranquil, living, dynamic and aurally pleasing in a burbling kind of way, the koi pond could also be tiled. And who doesn’t love a bit of outdoor tiling?
Despite some initial outlay (often allayed by the rationalisation that said pond would increase the value of the house), these aquatic wonders were pretty much self-sustaining, bar regular feeding and providing you – or your neighbour – didn’t have an overly curious or particularly peckish cat. Kids loved them because the fish grew as they did. Parents loved them because fish were one of the few domestic animals that didn’t make a mess on the carpet. And, as with the rest of the garden, the more established – as in moss-kissed and organic(ish)-looking – koi ponds became, the more their lines and silhouette were absorbed into their surroundings, rather than feeling imposed on it. Simply put, they got better with age.
As did the blokes for whom these ponds provided perhaps the greatest dad joke of all time: “Hey, do you want to come outside and see my fish? They’re usually friendly but they can be a little koi.” And, for that reason alone, the money and time spent on installing this garden icon was undeniably worth it.
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