A guest post by Linda McGivern

Here goes—though I really don’t want to admit it because you’ll hate me: I have a gardener. At my winter home in the Caribbean. There. Now that’s out of the way, let the ranting begin.

I am sure we who love gardening can agree that when it comes to our landscapes, there is a certain level of, shall we say, control that we like to exert over our plant dominions. Having someone else come in to do one’s garden work not only disrupts the finely tuned supervised comings and goings in the garden, but is not-so-secretly scoffed at by hardcore devotees in not-so hushed whispers, as in: “Did you see that landscaping truck at Sandra’s? She’s a fake gardener.”

And so my double life as a committed do-it-yourself New England gardener/order-up-the-help tropical gardener in the Dutch Caribbean has got me all chagrined. But what is a woman to do? We only live here four months of the year and, unlike the northeast garden that politely goes to sleep for five to six months, tropical gardens go gangbusters pretty much 13 months of the year. By itself, the tamarind tree in our yard (shown above, with aloe) makes enough babies to cover the earth in a year. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But you get the picture.

There I was a few weeks ago, minding my own business swatting mosquitoes in the kitchen as our long-time gardener Milton worked in the yard blowing leaves with a combustion engine, chopping down the tropical milkweed that I leave up for the monarch butterflies, and weed whacking beautiful tropical grasses that send up rose-colored plumes that rustle in the ocean breezes. I stuffed earbuds in my ears, turned up the music on my device, closed my eyes, gritted my teeth and attempted to meditate. I am not very good at meditation and so my mind naturally wandered to why, exactly, I was struggling to tell Milton to stop blowing leaves, cutting and weed whacking nice plants, and just generally not tending my garden as I would.

The answer came down to liberal white guilt. Who am I, white woman of plenty, to tell Milton, hardworking Colombian immigrant, that he was going to have to quit “convenience” gardening and embrace hands-on old-style tending of my garden in the hot sun. 

When I thought it was safe, I opened my eyes and peered warily outside. There, with a plastic tub of chemicals on his back, was one of Milton’s employees, spot-spraying herbicide in the backyard. This is how a million tamarind babies are executed. But there was also collateral damage in the yard, including a gorgeous two-inch high desert rose volunteer and a few tiny dwarf poinciana volunteers I had been nurturing. The spraying was the final provocation.

At home in the US, I am an environmentalist first and an avowed gardener second. I have tried to avoid using chemicals of any sort on my landscape, even back in the days when everyone claimed that glyphosate (Roundup) was perfectly safe. I determined that I can’t be an environmental gardener in the United States and a cringing snowflakey one here in Bonaire.

I put on my big gardener pants and reminded Milton we had asked for no spraying in our yard, which abuts the ocean and a beautiful fringing coral reef, loaded with creatures, that lies not 200 feet away from the spraying.

Milton assured me that what he was spraying was safe for pets and the planet: Paraquat. However, I needed no further information than the second Google hit on this product—a Wikipedia entry that noted the frequency in which Paraquat is used for suicides in Trinidad and Tobago—to understand its toxicity. It is reasonable to say that this crap is most assuredly not okay for the birds and creatures of my yard, much less the backyard coral reef that is already under enough climate stress without this added nail in the coffin. I broke the news to Milton that he would have to stop spraying the herbicide in our yard and that he could add the cost of hand-weeding onto our monthly bill. I asked him to leave the milkweed and the grasses alone and then kept silent about the ear-splitting, fossil fuel horrors of the leaf blower, determining that this was one battle I would cede.

I will continue to employ another person to tend my garden here; I have to. He has a yearly contract to do the job and I have skin cancer, which makes it stupid to be overly involved in equatorial gardening. I am forced to compromise my gardening morals sometimes because of this. But we all have that horticultural line in the sand when it comes to working with other garden tenders; it turns out mine extends from my backyard to a coral reef.