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Decolonising a Caribbean Garden

For the past year, I have been gardening in the island of Puerto Rico, a US territory filled with countless invasive plants, an island which was ecologically destroyed in 2017 by a category-five hurricane that razed 30% of its trees. I plant within the context of a bankrupt government fighting corruption, surrounded by an impoverished society struggling to achieve nutritional sovereignty. I originally set out to create a new garden in the capital city of San Juan, but the wild garden I designed was not the hybrid garden that resulted. The mainland’s notion of re-wilding is not the islander’s vision of wildness.

Re-wilding gardens is a political act in the Caribbean, one of the most actively colonised regions in the world. All Caribbean gardens, no matter their design or scale, confront their gardeners and landscapers with a challenging history of colonisation embodied in imported specimens at the expense of endemic, native and naturalized species, many now rare or under threat of extinction.

There is no ecological purity to the effort of re-wilding contemporary Caribbean gardens. Indeed, ecological purity is perceived as suspect in a region where maintaining the purity of the white colonisers’ culture destroyed so many and so much. All efforts at purity are distrusted by a racially mixed society, even ecological ones. Wildness is politically site-specific.

Caribbean garden re-wilding also subverts the class-based gardening that I witnessed as a child. I grew up watching middle-class islanders cut down endemic, native, and naturalized fruit trees that grew around their homes because their leaves, blossoms, and rotting fruit dirtied their American-style lawns and attracted rats; because they preferred to eat the imported fruits of the colonizers, the apples and pears we could not grow in our warm climate. They argued that only unsophisticated country folk kept those dirty tropicals. They were not the trees of modernity.

The contemporary island gardener is confronted with the need to undo a perverse economy of dependence that has kidnapped our nutrition. Even the wildest Caribbean gardens need to allow for edibles. In Puerto Rico, this means allowing for avocadoes, bananas, coconuts, coffee, mangoes, and pineapples, as well as herbs and vegetables. Many think some of these are native, but they were imported from Africa, China and India early on during Spanish colonisation. These naturalized trees need to be balanced with endemic, native, and regional fruit bushes and trees like acerolas, guavas, mammees, papayas, passion fruits, quenepas, sapodillas and soursops, because they are much more resistant to plagues and hurricanes, they attract a larger number of endemic and native pollinators, they harbour a lot more endemic and native insect life, and they provide critical nesting sites and food for endemic and native birds and bats.

Before returning to the island, I lived in New York State for several decades, gardening in an Old Dutch farmhouse at the foot of the Berkshire mountain region, and touring The Garden Conservancy network throughout the Hudson River Valley. This was followed by some years in Philadelphia, where I joined the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and visited some beautiful historic gardens, most notably Longwood Botanical Gardens, Meadowbrook Farm, and world-renowned Chanticleer garden.

Growing up, I loved American and British films and literature. But they came with a flora I have had to weed from my heart. Even as I remain a fan of Carol Klein, Monty Don, and Gardener’s World, decolonising my gardening has meant giving up my love of old English roses, delphiniums, foxgloves, hollyhocks and, hardest of all, peonies. I look at the gardener I used to be, copying Tudor gardens, Cotswolds’ cottage gardens and, more recently, Piet Oudolf’s northern meadows, as if those gardens were finer—as if they were the designs and specimens of a superior race. But that is the perversity of white colonialism: it’s aesthetic subliminal thoroughness.

Having returned to Puerto Rico, where I grew up, I have created a small garden in densely populated San Juan as a demonstration space to support the re-wilding of gardens throughout the island. And although I had to remove tons of pavement with a jackhammer, loosen the compacted soil underneath, and add a top layer of richer soil, my new garden reads mature because I engaged in a plant hunter’s search for aged specimens across the island. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I put on a mask, hopped on my jeep, crisscrossed coastal valleys and climbed forested mountains, searching for nurseries that housed old native plants left unsold for years.

The garden is rewilding me.

Ernesto Pujol

I found seven white cedars, also known as pink trumpet trees, Tabebuia heterophylla, as the anchoring specimens of the front garden; three enormous native seagrapes, Coccoloba uvifera, as the anchoring trees of the back garden; and a gnarly yellow broom covered with lichen, Retama sphaerocarpa, to showcase in the main courtyard, among other specimens. And then I planted everything densely, fertilized it organically, mulched, established a rain-catching barrel system because the sandy soil drains too fast, and began to weed selectively, allowing for wild flowers brought by birds and breeze. The city of San Juan smells like sulfur in the morning, so I need fragrance in the garden.

This garden is designed as a series of tropical rooms that evoke mountain and coastal zones in the Eastern Atlantic. The front garden is formally framed by native hedges that lead the eye to a young West Indian bay rum tree, Pimenta racemosa, planted at an angle as if naturally bent by the trade winds. In the background, at a lower level, visitors can see the grove of native oak trees thickly underplanted with lush West Indian lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus. The back garden is my pride and joy, dotted with lilies blooming among vetiver grasses, Chrysopogon zizanioides, like a curated coastal savannah. I planted 250 plugs on my knees.

How do we reintroduce wildness into a colonised environment so needy and thus culturally obedient, so anxious not to be considered primitive. Curating a hybrid wildness is the expression that best describes my process. I commune intimately with my garden during early morning and late afternoon—an intensely intuitive, daily physical communion. And as I work the garden without a winter’s break, 365 days a year, the garden works on me. The Caribbean garden is decolonising me. The garden is re-wilding me into a personal hybridity, cultivating in me and in many others an adaptability that may just make our interconnected future sustainable.