A Garden’s Story / Mani Gal

It is a dark and silent hour of dawn. Car lights flicker above the asphalt road that leads to the gate of the Kibbutz. The Kibbutz members who work in a distance are the first to embark on their daily activities, and a long way to the city lies before them. There will be daylight soon and the rest of the members and the children of the Kibbutz will wake up to another day of activities – between the walls of the dining room, the restaurants and the hotel rooms, or inside the classrooms, the offices and the warehouses.

A figure wearing a yellow rubber suit appears between the ornamental flowerbeds, while bending over the water sprinklers and checking their intactness. The rattling sound of the lawn mower comes from another direction. Someone is already busy with collecting trash bags from the small containers that are placed along the sidewalks. The gardeners begin their work outside, under the open sky, in this silent hour before sunrise. It is a phenomenon that is almost obsolete – these tillers of the soil in a Kibbutz whose large majority of members is engaged in making up beds for tourists, in cooking meals for passersby, in selling light beverages in food stands or in various administrative works, near the telephone, the computer, and the air conditioner, in particular.

A garden that is a Kibbutz – a Kibbutz that is a garden. Which came first?

It started between Wadi Arugot and Wadi David, in the Nachal settlement that was erected near the ancient barrow of Ein-Gedi, where five years went by for the first settlers of the Kibbutz, the pioneers of the mid-fifties, who were enthusiastically engaged in creating something out of nothing. The first attempts to develop a garden into an ornamental garden have already started in the yard of the settlement. The reason was to cast more shadows near the house and to create some green spots for the eyes to see while facing the surrounding desert which is indeed full of splendor, yet rocky, extremely hot and arid. The planning of the garden for a slightly longer period began when the permanent locations were established. In those young days, ten years ahead were considered eternity, and in the next few years, the future would be learned from experience. In spite of all the mistakes that were made, the rapid blooming and growth of the garden has begun.

What did we have there on the hill? Scarce, salty and rocky marlstone soil, an abundance of springs with extremely sweet water, a warm winter and an outstandingly hot summer, dry air and youthful enthusiasm which, when necessary, recruited volunteers and visitors to excavate and to remove stones, to plant grass and to weed, to build terraces and to pave sidewalks.

The purpose was clear, as previously said – soft grass which will create a few green spots for the eyes to see, a few soft spots for the buttocks to sit on and rapidly growing trees that will cast a real shadow. And so it happened – a flat lawn and two wide-top Poinciana trees were growing in front of each residential home. In addition to the shadow that they casted on the front of the house, they have also generously developed a spectacular red blossom this year, the likes of which have not been seen in the Dead Sea area before. Add palm trees, the local cultural plant that was still there in the past, a few species of local wild trees, flowerbeds of roses and a few other bushes and flowers to the list – and you get an ornamental garden which expands the consciousness of a person after a long-hour and exhausting bus ride in the dust road of the desert while coming from Sodom, which is a long distance from Beer-Sheva and from the Center of Israel (who dreamed about an hour-and-a-quarter long ride on a road to Jerusalem?).

Every day after the hard work in the field (every Kibbutz member was a greengrocer – which is nostalgically longed for by a local song), the guys and gals would take out the trays with the Turkish coffee – as well as the accordion and the mandolins, when inspired – to the lawn, which was the best and most accepted place to hang out together. And in the night, in the summer, you could find quite a few members preferring to spread a sheet on the lawn for a night’s sleep rather than to sit in the room with a fan or an air conditioner.

As you have probably already understood, the garden was extremely functional. The botanical ambitions, the aesthetics, the tourism and the professionalism emerged in the area only many years later.

The Garden’s Secret

But what makes the garden in Kibbutz Ein-Gedi unique? Get out and walk around the Dead Sea. Start with the Western coast in Israel, and in the south, you will find a developed center of hotels which was planned, gardened and highly invested with money and labor. Visit the fertile fields that grow vegetables, the greenhouses of the flowers and the fish ponds in the settlements of Sodom Plaza. In the north you will find the most beautiful palm tree plantations in Israel, in Mitzpeh-Shalem and in Kalia, wonderful green spots that create a contradiction to the grayness of the road, where you can find the springs of Einot Zukim (Ein Feshkha) whose abundance of water humuliates the four small springs that are located in the oasis in Ein-Gedi. Pass by the Kingdom of Jordan and travel on the coastal road in the East. Stop in the amazing canyons of the Nahliel, the Arnon or the Zered – where the palm trees diagonally grow from the sandstone cliffs above the mighty water streams. Visit Sappi, the largest oasis of all, which has agricultural fields that usually grow vegetables, vineyards, orchards and plantations.

So the Dead Sea is surrounded in many places by quality water and adequate weather, so how did it happen that here of all places, in little Ein-Gedi, the most beautiful garden of all has developed? The answer lies in the human factor – the human being.

Working in the ornamental garden has always been considered as working in one of the branches in the Kibbutz, just like the branches of agriculture, of labor and industry, of tourism or of services to members. The job of the gardeners was to cultivate the garden that was shared between the members’ homes, the communal children’s homes, the service centers, the dining room, and, to conclude – the entire yard of the Kibbutz, up to the fence. And in Ein-Gedi, the initial success of cultivating the green garden, which largely contradicts with the arid landscape around, made the members proud and created expectations in them. Even if actual words have never been expressed – it was probably clear to everyone that for us it is a basic need of existence, and without it – we do not have a home. Compared to many Kibbutzim, in which the branch of ornamental gardening always suffers a shortage of manpower, and the care of the gardens is minimal, new standards were created in Ein-Gedi. Although sometimes voices were heard which maintained that we were not able to hold such a large team of gardeners, the team of gardeners became established, they expanded, they obtained professional knowledge, they persevered, they accumulated seniority and they became an integral part of the place.

It is undoubtedly a team of artists. Among them you may find a painter-sculptor, music enthusiasts, a writer, people who studied cinematography and education, and the art that everyone share is gardening. Some acquired professional education in this field, but most of it they themselves obtained and created during long years of work experience. They are the creators and the cultivators of the garden.They deserve the song of praise, and without them our marlstone hill would be arid and monotonous just like all the hills that surround it. In recent years, the veteran and professional team was joined by workers from Thailand and by young Kibbutz members.

The garden deepens its roots

How did the garden grow and develop to reach its current state? As mentioned before, we started with Poinciana trees, with palm trees and with lawns. During the years, we have learned a few basic facts: The Poinciana trees, those beautiful trees, with the red blossom and the deep shades, were planted too close to the houses, and they have grown so large, that their branches penetrated into the verandas and their roots threatened the foundations of the houses. Occasional storms broke their huge branches, whose growth was too rapid and did not contribute to their strength, and threw them over. These trees need aggressive pruning every year, and as a result, their appearance seems deformed. The strong shadow that is casted by the tree top and its leaflets that fall on the ground in their thousands started to degenerate the lawn below, and there was a need to take care of the clearings that were created.

In spite of the beauty of the Poinciana and its other good qualities, the team that was responsible for the ornamental garden chose to plant less and less Poinciana trees in the next few years, and it found out about many other trees which met the conditions of Ein-Gedi – Jacarandas and Tipas, a large variety of ornamental palm trees from all over the world, Baobabs and other members of this interesting tree family, such as the Moringa Peregrina and the Calotropis Procera, all of which are integrated in the natural flora of the oasis.

The shaded clearings under the Poinciana trees were taken care of in an original and creative way – instead of giving up on the flora under the trees, tropical plants were planted which require a lot of shade and can be provided with the humidity they need. These are the plants which people call “house plants”: Scindapsus Aureus, Swiss Cheese Plant, Elephant Ear, Philodendron and many others, which all of us know from our flowerpots at home, but under the conditions of the garden in Ein-Gedi, some of them succeed in getting through an entire life cycle, including blossoming and the production of fruits.

Over the years, these humid and shaded corners have also germinated papaya seeds, which were the descendants of the first papaya trees that were planted there, and since then and until today, they take care of themselves with the generous help of the birds that come to peck on the ripe fruits in the tree tops, where the members’ hand cannot touch, and the fruit’s remains falls into the wet and shaded thicket in the bottom and its seeds sprout with enjoyment so that new trees can grow.

The papaya trees have their own story: In the first years, in the fifties, the members of Kibbutz Ein-Gedi grew papayas as an experimental agricultural crop. During the years, they have discontinued the growing of this fruit – as the market was probably not mature enough to absorb it (the group of immigrants from South America and the group of food enthusiasts was still small). In the seventies, the house-plant nursery of Ein-Gedi grew papaya seedlings for a young plantation in Kibbutz Kalia. The seedlings that remained from that deal were given to the members that were interested in diversifying the ornamental garden near their home. These were the ancestors of the many papaya trees which grow in the garden. The fruit gathers a gradually growing group of fans among the Kibbutz members, and some compete with the birds in picking up beautiful fruits from the tree tops with fruit pickers like those that we used to pick up the sabra fruit with during our childhood.

The abundance of water in the springs has never been unlimited, and in spite of the reduction of the vegetable areas of the Kibbutz, it was clear to us that we will never be able to expand the garden in its current format. The team thought about options which require less water to maintain the garden. Part of the solution was to reduce the part of the lawn in the general area of the garden. Another part of the solution was searching for plants which require less water and care. These were years of integrating a large variety of plants from various prairies and deserts around the world, mainly from the southern hemisphere – Australia or Africa. The experience has highly diversified the gallery of the garden plants, and enriched it with a few species that were amazingly beautiful, such as the Cercidium tree with the yellow blossom (Mexico), the Pachypodium bushes which blossom in white and the Adenium which is the rose of the desert and blossoms in red (Madagaskar) or the bottlebrushes (Australia) and, of course, various species of cacti – plants which can quite well manage with a little water, but, and it is absolutely unsurprising, they look a lot better and develop a lot faster when they are generously irrigated …

The last years have been years of professional establishment and of dividing the garden into areas which receive separate treatment and care – a track for tourists which requires special cultivation in planting and cleanliness added by shaded benches and explanatory signs, the hotel area which requires adaptation to and preparation for durability, the residential areas of the young people who are away for studies or are in the military, whose gardening must be further cultivated up to the actual walls of their homes, the garden of the cemetery, the garden in the entrance to the public bath houses on the beach of the Dead Sea, etc.

The story of trees and corners in the garden

Some of the garden plants have special stories. The tree that maybe more than anything establishes the unique image of the garden is the Baobab tree. Its story starts in the sixties, the first decade of the settlement on the hill. Three seedlings of Baobab were brought from the Volcanic Institution and were absorbed in the lower part of the hill, where the Ein-Gedi Hotel is located today. Two glorify the center of the garden in the hotel today, and the third, which had to be uprooted and wander because of the construction of the hotel units, found its place near the dining room of the Kibbutz. The Baobab, which in its native land of Africa grows in areas that absorb large quantities of rain during some periods of the year, but also go through a few-month period of extreme heat, easily adapted to Ein-Gedi, which has warm weather during the entire year as well as sweet water and indeed – you will not find such happy Baobab trees in other places in Israel.

After a few failed attempts to implant or to germinate the Baobab, the unplanned event arrived: The Baobab seeds which were thrown on the pile of compost decided to sprout. It was the beginning of Ein-Gedi’s colony of Baobab trees. About twenty trees live in Ein-Gedi today, and counting! The trees continue to surprise – their roots have already lifted pavements, each tree shows individual characteristics of the seasons of the fall or a shape of a fruit and a color of foliage, and in one hundred years we will perhaps know which size they can reach here…

A group of trees from the family Burseraceae adapted well in Ein-Gedi. In their countries of origin (East Africa and the South Eastern Arabian Peninsula), these are trees and bushes whose stems produce perfume and incense. One species is identified as the Myrrh tree and the other – as the Frankincense, and today the Persimmon tree which in Ein-Gedi’s days of yore was an exclusive crop, can also be reasonably identified, as commonly known.

A garden that is located in the Kibbutz’s yard is characterized, inter alia, by the private stories that the Kibbutz members have about the garden’s specific plants. This story teller will testify that he arrived to Kibbutz Ein-Gedi for one week of work in the beginning of his military service in the Nahal, and the holiday of Tu Bishvat (the New Year of the Trees) occurred on that specific week. In Tu Bishvat of 1964, an avenue of tree seedlings was planted in the road that leads from the dining room of that period to the gate of the Kibbutz. It is an avenue of Portia trees (of the family Malvaceae) which casts a shadow on the road that separates between the dining room that serves the hotel today and the local high school. All these years, Tu Bishvat was the time during which the gardeners carried out the expansion plans of the garden with the enthusiastic help of the members and the children of the Kibbutz, and of course, every member whose soul is connected to nature and to the landscape remembers at least one tree that he planted with his children in the past.

One of the first children of the Kibbutz was very naughty. He would unload his energy on everything that he encountered, and one of his hobbies was to bend trees. Who still remembers the Jacaranda that he bent near his house about thirty years ago? Look at the tree today – its stem is still bent in an interesting angle!

An there is Tomer’s corner, that natural veranda which looks over the cliff of the Wadi Arugot, adjacent to the Kibbutz’s fence, which was cultivated as a corner for peaceful sitting and seclusion in the memory of a native of the Kibbutz whose life ended with a work-related accident in the palm plantation.

Nature sends branches out to the garden

The green garden which is rich with water ponds and insects also attracts the animals from the natural surroundings. During arid winters, herds of hungry ibexes arrive to the fence, break through it and enter the yard, which makes the tourists in the hotel happy and the gardeners sad. The hyraxes are the permanent residents that live in the cemetery (when a memorial takes place there, they do the attendants a favor and climb to the tree tops of the Ficus trees or the Tamarix trees to take cover). Foxes infiltrate in the nights to search for their livelihood in the yard. In the winter, the place is crowded with many species of songbirds that prefer the garden over the natural flora outside. In the night, one can meet the fruit bats that hover between the trees. They visit the white flowers of the Baobab in order to husk their nectar, and thus, they assist in their fertilization. And the most honorable guest who more than once dared to enter the yard of the Kibbutz and visit us in the nights is the tiger. One was found many years ago on a Saturday evening on the stairs of the house of a senior member, when all Kibbutz members attended a meeting. Another hardly escaped from the veranda of the home of another member, whose little dog it coveted, which the dog owner did not like very much…

And like the animals – the wild plants of the oasis also penetrate into the yard and adapt to the garden. The Calotropis Procera or in its popular name the “Apple of Sodom” sprouts in every corner. The gardeners would in some places uproot its sprouts as weeds, and in others, they will let them grow into a bush that may grow into a tree. When the fruits of the Apple of Sodom ripen and crack, the light wind spreads the plant’s seeds to all directions and a new set of sprouting begins. One of the most likeable trees in the garden is the Moringa Peregrina whose flowers spread a sweet and gentle smell, and its large and gray stems grow rapidly which compensates for the stems that were broken and fell during the winter storms. One of the rarest species of plants in the Dead Sea area, the Grewia Villosa, was rescued many years ago from extinction, when a number of its seedlings were uprooted from the hill on which the Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem was erected and were safely placed in the garden of Ein-Gedi. Tamarix trees will sprout wherever a drip irrigation system is left behind without supervision and without a most important spot that should be irrigated. We remember when many years ago the gardeners of the Kibbutz innocently attempted to plant pine trees near the fence that surrounds the yard (that fence was removed a long time ago when the settlement was expanded). A few light winter rains which caused the movement of salts in the soil sufficed to cause the degeneration of the soft pine seedlings, which from the beginning have not adapted to the climate of Ein-Gedi (go and plant a coconut tree in Finland!). Hyenas and foxes contributed their part while chewing the drip irrigation systems, which were a modern invention those days, and by the end of that winter, a magnificent Tamarix tree grew in each hole…

It is a summery night hour. A number of young people still fool around on a lawn, while unknowingly preserving the pioneers’ traditions of the past (who needs a pub when it is so beautiful outside?). In the guard post near the locked gate of the Kibbutz, the night guard yawns in front of the TV screen. Loud and passionate meows are heard from the cats that sit on the branches of the Tipa tree near my house. A full moon climbs rapidly above the Moab Mountains and wraps the silent waters of the Dead Sea in a glowing shroud. The air conditioners tirelessly attempt to cool the air inside the homes and only their whispers can be heard between the houses. The rustling sound of the water sprinklers above the lawns integrates with the wing clap of the bats that hover above; and here is another sound of human steps – the steps of the gardener who goes from one corner to the other and completes the garden’s irrigation plan. He also activates the water sprinklers and opens drip irrigation lines. Tomorrow a new dawn will shine on the magical garden. There is a place in Eden.