Earth to Earth – September 2002
With three plots in two locations to tend, high summer gardening is no gentle jog along life’s verdant lanes. In fact at times, it’s more like limitless rounds with a succession of sparring partners, each blessed with eternal endurance.
By contrast, the early garden year is such a tidy affair; new pin-neat shoots, compact clumps and blooms unblemished by bug, blight or botrytis spring from the soil afresh. Everywhere looks polished by some scrupulous maid, the gloss of new leaves and the sheen of buds reflecting her meticulous care and attention.
From then on however, keeping any semblance of order becomes an increasingly hopeless battle with the elements, nature’s determination to set seed and assorted evil creatures from every walk, swoop, and creep of life.
In borders, everything’s at maximum girth and height, flopping, lolling and generally looking tired. Attempts to cut back leave gaps, reveal brown withered bases and pull the much-needed props from beneath neighbours.
In the veg patch the runner beans and courgettes race to the ‘pick me’ line, producing threatening marrows and pods so stringy Segovia could pluck them. The humidity has spawned a glut of microscopic snails intent on reducing salad leaves to lace and the strawberries which lumbagoed my back throughout midsummer have regrouped and are forming a new flush of flowers to spite me.
My paper army of book allies are of little help; ‘Keep deadheading to ensure a succession of blooms’… ‘Cut back to encourage fresh growth’… ‘The good organic gardener should have no difficulty keeping on top of their slug problem if they go out nightly with a torch’… ‘Stake securely at regular intervals’ … The tomes may be worthy but their authors never had a life!
By September then I’m feeling like Custer after he’s sat down; generally staked out, deprived of sleep and surrounded. My rooting powder’s damp, the 7th Cavalry have politely declined my invite and gone to tea elsewhere.
Gracefully I surrender. Deadheading drops to a casual tug on passing rather than a robust routine, flopping plants get a shove instead of a stake and the slugs can HAVE the bloody lettuce for all I care.
It is, then, around this time of year, that I really start to appreciate things that die well; plants which stand proud and maintain a semblance of interest rather than collapsing helplessly in their beds. I give thanks for the noble bronze spears of Astilbe punctuating the flat summer green of mature shrubs, sturdy yet Sweet Cicely with its jet-jewelled seeds, and robust stems of Thalictrum aquilegifolium, blanching yet refusing to faint.
And Oh! Nigella! What better habit could you ask for; foolproof to grow, exquisite in flower and with a translucent splendour once its seed pods project to magic lanterns. This year I’ve scattered them round a lovely short, pale blue Scabious, which has flowered its convoluted heart out for months and pinned its delicate seedheads between the clouds of love-in-a-mist. The serendipitous juxta-position of a bench – from which to study their close-up charm – has led to maximum appreciation.
Other plants pass over badly. At least Charles II had the decency to apologise for being an ‘unconscionable time dying,’ but there’s no such expression of regret from some border inhabitants. In fact many seem to have dedicated themselves to a loud and long proclamation of their poor prognosis, sorely tempting me to impose the rather swifter fate meted out to Charles I.
Take lilies for instance. Yes, they bloom for some days, making you oooh and aaaah at their exotic charms, but then they jaundice for weeks and stand there wringing their hands to anyone and everyone who will listen. Seductress poppies rustle their silken skirts from seed packets each year, only to cling to them obscenely after the first shower of rain, where they hang, revolting for the rest of the summer.
Oh! The perfection of the first Shasta daisy to plump up its toothy white skirt! – And oh! The putrefaction of a bed of them giving up the ghost en-mass! In fact all white daisy blooms seem to have that ability to slip from their prime to past-it overnight, like pears left a day too long in the fruit bowl. Feverfew is one of the least prima-donna-ish about its passing, perhaps because it self-seeds in successive waves; as one generation kicks up its legs and expires, a second is just opening in fresh purity.
Perhaps continuity makes death more acceptable all round? I know mum often spoke of the relief she felt knowing that I cherished the garden as she did and after her days would tend it in my turn. In fact perhaps I cherish it more than she did, for to me the garden is a legacy as well as a much-loved patch of earth and, through its cultivation, I care for more than the plants.
But it’s amazing what jolly topics you’ll find yourselves exploring when sat on a seat in a Welsh garden. Between our familiar, contented silences (and I’m still convinced that whoever wrote ‘familiarity breeds contempt MEANT to type ‘content’) she explored recurring themes in her latter years. They mostly centred on how happy she’d been, how happy she was I was happy, how lucky I was to have ‘found such a nice boy’ and how, whenever her time came, she felt quite ready for it. ‘I have’, she would say, ‘no fear of death’.
At the time I suspected it was her gently coming to terms with her failing health and the lengthening shadows of her life-span’s evening. Now, I believe her words were meant for me too; to confirm that she felt ready for transition and that her years held great spiritual riches, in spite of small material wealth.
Not that mum eschewed material wealth on principle; it just wasn’t a circumstance she had ever experienced. An award, however, of Attendance Allowance in the last months of her life gave her, for the first time, a small disposable income and boy did she embrace it!
It’s a Social Security benefit meant for older people with care or supervisory needs, basically in recognition that they will have higher living costs than others. The assumption is that recipients will probably use it to purchase help around the home, take taxis to cope with failing mobility and so on. ‘It’s meant to pay for whatever helps you, mum’ I explained..
It was, then, with no sense of the shape of things to come that I organised a bank account and happily taught my mother to write her own cheques at the age of 74. And it did start on quite a small scale…
After dad died, mum’s brother, Owen, would frequently call for her if he was going for trips in the car. And, as was Owen’s wont, those trips were often to the local rubbish dump to deposit a bagful of this-or-that. Mum, however, seemed to feel it was a shame to bring the car back empty, and often spotted garden-related bargains dumped by others which were just too good to miss…
And so it began; discarded planters, pots, old wooden boxes – anything that might have an use – would be bargained for, dusted down and brought home in the back of Owen’s pride-and-joy.
His fundamental mistake was caring for the car so much that he started attaching a trailer for the sake of his upholstery. This, of course, simply extended mum’s horizons and before long benches and patio furniture were being ferried.
Whether as a result of accumulative embarrassment or memories of an aged uncle who spent his latter years obsessively collecting driftwood on local beaches, Owen’s trips to the tip explicably stopped, and their joint excursions sought the refuge of scenic spots rather than scenes of refuse spotting.
So mum – her Attendance Allowance burning a hole in her pocket – formed a friendship with Anthony, a local nursery owner who was quite happy to discuss his current stock over the phone and deliver whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, not just to the door but to wherever required in the garden. They’d then spend a happy half hour together, touring the grounds, drinking coffee and talking plants.
The bedding acquisitions were easily managed by simply commandeering the various planters rescued from the tip, but the perennials started piling up faster than we could find space for them. I still remember arriving home one midsummer Saturday to find mum positively beaming. ‘Go out the back, Dwts…’ she said, never able to keep a surprise longer than it took to unwrap it.
It was, however, impossible to obey her, for the back resembled some surreal scene from Macbeth, filled as it was by two pear trees, a plum, a damson, two apples, one cherry, one gage and two gooseberry bushes – and that was just what was identifiable from the doorstep. ‘Won’t an orchard be nice?’ smiled mum. ‘It will be LOVELY mum,’ I smiled back – and it still will, once I get round to planting them all.
Anthony, however, sold up – not entirely to mum- forcing her in her last months to hunt elsewhere…
It didn’t take long for her to discover the small ads – and some larger ones too – including one for the oddest shaped second-hand greenhouse this side of the Eden Project. In fact it still lies dismembered because no-one can get to grips with the transparent 3-d puzzle it poses.
Some, no doubt, would view mum’s spirited spending as profligacy, but they’d be wrong. If she’d bought help with cleaning or meals on wheels, it would have re-enforced her dependence on others, confirmed her fears of ‘not managing’ and probably done for her very quickly. But with a daughter to hoover occasionally, fill the fridge regularly and translate an instruction book for the microwave, her deserved extra income could go on REAL retail therapy, boosting her mental health and encouraging her to push her failing mobility to its limits.
And when she reached those limits, her lifelong memories of her adored garden continued to carry her where her feet could no longer tread. When you’ve walked the same paths and tilled the same soil for seventy five years, old acquaintance won’t let you forget.
In the small hours of the day she died then, we sat together in the hospital, taking a gently-paced mental stroll around the garden; pausing to admire, noting our failures and deciding where newcomers would be welcome next year. We stopped here and there in silence too, because some things don’t need words.
And before that day was over, she, too, had a good death; without pain, hopefully without fear and with company. As I released her hand, she was, I suspect, glad to let go. After all, you need both hands to tend a garden, even if you can see it with your eyes closed.
I’ve discovered I can still run! And considering it’s an ability I assumed I’d lost around the same time as adolescence strolled coolly away, it’s quite a find…
Enlightenment dawned over in the corner by the little lawn (although I still find myself wandering what ratio of grass to daisies, dandelions, clover and moss a patch of green needs to qualify for the status of ‘lawn’…)
Anyway it’s the time of year when the sun is falling lower and lower in the sky and the dark in the quarry is rising but the taste of recent warmth after early summer’s famine has made me hungry for more. Yesterday then, I set-to with gloves, loppers and determination, planning to clear some bracken and brambles from the hedges that crown the old stone walls.
What a satisfying thing it is, to tug on a bramble and to feel it’s roots gradually relax their grip on the soil… to see the blue sky emerge above you… and how pleasant to do it on a balmy morning whilst one’s partner in life trims the privet… I hummed, then, a happy little tune, occasionally harmonising with the hedge trimmers.
It was, I think, the feel of the last bramble coming away that alerted me to a difference. It yielded too easily; gave too soon…
As with all of life’s crises, time, action and reaction took on new dimensions, each synapse firing with staccato precision… How unusual! Black and yellow stripy soil… which hovered in mid air… humming… but not in harmony…
And then I discovered I could run… I could run fleet, fast, swift and silent, even whilst throwing my arms round my head like a manic windmill…
I’m told I stopped briefly at the bottom of the steps, whispered something which Tom interpreted as ‘I’ve found a (insert name of rare bird)’s nest and am going to get the binoculars’ before racing up, still flailing my arms and running my fingers through my hair… He said afterwards that he assumed that it must be similar to the tradition of saluting a magpie… see a lesser spotted hoolybird on the second Sunday in September and throw your arms in the air…
Within seconds though I re-appeared on the top step – gesturing wildly at him to follow me – but still unable to speak for fear of giving away my whereabouts.
‘Wasps!’ I whispered…
‘What?’ said Tom
‘No WASPS…’ I hissed – altering my arm actions briefly to imitate angry hovering insects…
Finally at least partly on-message, he joined me in the top garden. By this time of course, the belligerent bugs had given up the chase, but the adrenaline hadn’t, continuing to buzz in my system long after the last jet-and-golden insect had been swept from my hair. In fact if I’d had the nerve to return to the quarry, I’d probably have been capable of gargantuan feats of physical endurance.
As it was though, I sat quivering, still clutching at my curls, slowly realising I had escaped retribution.
Yet I was a nest-wrecker. For decades we’ve avoided major pruning and lopping throughout the breeding months of birds, and then I go and make a whole swarm homeless with one none-too-gentle tug…
As the guilty, shock-filled tears started to brim, Tom clutched my arm in concern… ‘were you stung?’…
‘NO’ I wailed…. ‘but I SHOULD have been…’
You’d know what I meant….
‘Plant’, in Welsh, means ‘children’.
Happily there the resemblance ends, for if I were mother to my brood, the whole damn lot would be in care by now.
Annually, I start the year with good intentions and perennially fail by fall. My mitigation? That at least I have the decency to fail miserably. I kill through optimism and neglect, not malice, and repent at length and with sincerity.
I would like to be a more caring gardener. The image of green goddess, nurturing nanny – even Nightingale to the sick and needy – glows with attraction… but it’s just not me. No, I’m more Old Mother Hubbard – surrounded by so many offspring I don’t know what to do – or if I know, I haven’t got the time to do it.
The root of my problem is crowding – like three p’s in a pod; I have a profusion of plants, they proliferate everywhere, and I’m profligate in my spending.
A wise gardener, I’m sure, would use some of her money on nourishment for her brood, labour saving new tools, even perhaps a nursery nurse to help with the night-time feeds… But I am a foolish gardener. What do I buy? Even more plants – or more bulbs at this time of year.
And I have such a gorgeous bulb catalogue! The paperwhite narcissus which graces its cover is photographed so perfectly you can almost scratch and sniff, whilst inside lie hundreds of parcels of promised beauty, gift-wrapped by nature in shiny brown paper, positively pulsing with life…
Tulip bulbs are my favourites. I don’t mean the flowers, just the bulbs in themselves. Their glossy chestnut coats, the Goldilocks ‘just right’ size, and the sheer aesthetic of their feel, slipping between palms like Chinese worry balls. Crocuses on the other hand are a wee bit hirsute, daffodils dry, and lilies downright claw-like. Gild the lily? No, but glove the bulb!
I tried explaining the beauty of bulbs to Tom the other day when he chanced upon me crooning to a potential tulip, stroking it gently before planting… ‘There little tulip – you go in the hole and grow for me now…’ A translation – of course – of ‘na ni, tiwlip bach, cer di mewn i’r twll a twdda i Judy’, because I always talk to plants in Welsh. Welsh for some reason is more intimate; conspiratorial even. You have a sense that you are striking a bargain with something. ‘I’ll plant you, you grow… OK?’
And most obey in their infancy… green mole shoots shove earth blindly to one side, monocotyledons break cover, bare branches bud, just as they should. Spring is full of bursting potential…
The problem is that in my garden, it is literally bursting, for I hate bare earth.
I love it well enough in itself mind. When I first became a homeowner, I found the knowledge that the stone and mortar were mine pleasantly secure but somehow pedestrian. What seemed incredible – exhilarating – boggling to the point of bewilderment – was that the sandy silt surrounding the cottage was also mine. For in it lay so much promise; so many unharvested dreams. What a sin then – what ingratitude – to leave it naked.
And it’s fine when they’re babies, snugly cuddled up to each other; it’s when they get to toddling stage and start to compete with their siblings that the problems really begin.
A Moses basket might suit a newborn baby handsomely, but infants need more than a rushed reed job to grow up big and strong. To withstand plagues – of greenfly, locusts, boils or other of the varied pestilences that west Wales can throw at them – they must have room to stretch, to sway with the breeze, to cup their leaves into the life-giving sun and grow. I know this. I believe this. Yet like Pharaoh, I mulishly keep my plants prisoner, cramming them into their beds, refusing to divide, until, one by one, they make their exodus.
They behave like battery hens. They pluck their verdant plumage and then start quarrelling with the neighbours. Sometimes it gets so intense that they smother each other, unnoticed by their inattentive parent until autumn reveals a withered pile of brown, identifiable only by its tiny white plastic tombstone. Perhaps I should start adding ‘R.I.P.’ when writing plant labels? At least that way I could show respect in death if not in life…
Some – the hardiest and fittest – thrive, but even these have to reach for the skies in the quest for light – blocking it off for yet others. But faced with a mulberry in a pot in a garden centre, what do I see? The adult tree, culling the inhabitants of yet another flowerbed with its shadow whilst I aid and abet? No, I see a little tree that needs to come home to live with me… I see melting mulberry jam on scones… the glorious wrinkled bark to be…
It would be one thing, I suppose, if I just fostered or adopted plants created by others, but no – I’m not content with surrogacy – I want babies of my own! So each spring I buy seeds… perennials as well as annuals… to add to the problem. I take cutting, I layer things, I propagate like the future of the world’s ozone layer depended on my efforts alone to plug the growing gap.
And when this sower goes forth to sow, the seed that falls by the wayside never seems to fall prey to gobbling fowls. In fact I swear the birds in my garden actually pick up seed that’s missed and replant it tidily for me. ‘Take a few cuttings’ say the books – some will root’. I take a few cuttings all of them root… Which leaves me with so much potential to kill…
Take my Mecanopsis, for example – the Himalayan blue – BEAUTIFUL plumage…
Back in February, I put a pot containing twelve seeds in a sealed plastic bag and hung it from the beams of our living room. (This is, I hasten to add, what the seed packet required me to do, not some quaint west Walian custom… ‘the ancient ceremony of the Mecanopsis Hanging happens after Candlemass…’)
You may snort, but from my mother-country springs the real hunting of the wren on Boxing Day and the tradition of the Mari Lwyd – which involves taking a dead horse’s head on a stick round to your neighbours’ door and singing to them. By comparison Mecanopsis hanging seems a relatively normal family activity, somewhat akin to decking the halls or stealing a kiss under the mistletoe.
Oh OK… What the seed packet actually said was to keep them warm for a while (hence the hanging basking in the beams) and then cold for a while – very cold. So they next went into the fridge – where they got stuck behind something else – and yes, by the time I remembered them, nine yellow hairs with a hint of a leaf on top had tiptoed into life and already had one foot in the hereafter.
So did I move the pot outside to give them light..? No! Not me! There were still potentially three seeds to germinate for goodness sake…. so I pricked out the others and put the pot back in the fridge…
I can hear proper gardeners – good mothers – groaning by now, but perhaps it will appeal to your schadenfreude to know that I was punished by mild hypothermia as I attempted gentle transplant surgery on the microscopic undead by torchlight that night. Do it indoors? No! The packet says they must be kept cold!
And, miraculously, seven of them survived. But it was a sulky sort of survival, like children who have missed out on some vital bonding process failing to thrive. In fact they turned a bilious green and refused to move, whinging silently to themselves.
It got to the point where I was forced to seek advice: ‘Do they have hairy roots?’ demanded Dafydd, my long suffering yet sometimes still patient gardening friend. ‘How should I know?’ I replied sullenly, hating to admit that my normally green fingers seemed to have turned killer red. He then told me to pull one of my babies up to see. I won’t bore you with the full exchange of vitriol that followed, but the word infanticide was used.
Finally, though, despair forced me to obey, and his prescription of a half strength feed of some liquid or other seemed to do the trick. Indeed they thrived to the point where they would be triumphantly carried in for inspection every few days ‘LOOK at my POPPIES’ I would exclaim.
But the fall has now come, and my pride has gone, to be replaced by shame.
Shame at putting them so close to the pheasant berry. Shame at forgetting that as a pheasant berry grows, it droops its wings over its neighbours. And the ultimate shame – to be beaten to something by a SLUG.
So when, you may ask, will I stop the hand wringing and actually reform my ways? For I KNOW that until I do, I am trapped in an upwards spiral of phototropism created simply by attempting to garden as if my plot was in some way exempt from the laws of nature.
It is, I think, unlikely in this lifetime. In my next incarnation I promise to abide by the rules and treat the ‘height’ and ‘spread’ information helpfully offered by gardening books with a little less contempt.
And I do love my children. With a passion that will see us all through.
Most recently I acquired some late flowering clematis. Sixteen in four days, if you insist on reckoning these things. But they were all so beautiful I couldn’t choose between them -they’d be LONELY if I left them behind…
‘So,’ said Tom, as he wanly forced yet another jewelled quartet into the back of the car… ‘you know where they’re all going do you?’ ‘Of course,’ I replied, brimming with sweetness and light… ‘they’re going home’…
I was aware that the best laid plans of mice and men often gang astray, but no one told me that women’s were prone to failure too.
For five months now the moonlight garden – designed to be a contemplative spot for balmy summer evenings – has been shimmering its white, blue and silver blooms. We don’t mention the deep pink ones any more, especially since someone said how NICE it was of us to plant a patriotic patch for the Golden Jubilee.
And for five months now we’ve had either icy winds or complete cloud cover (both usually accompanied by torrential rain) just around the time of the full moon each month.
In fact our last attempt to seek refuge there at night ended disastrously with me refusing to sit on the picnic bench because of ‘noises in the bushes’ and Tom’s legs nearly broken.
The two were totally unconnected… In retrospect I assume the noise was wildlife rushing to escape the huge bonfire next door, as what was once the dividing hedge went up in smoke. Tom’s broken legs however were linked to the barbecue our side of the boundary.
Now I don’t know why it is that men who can’t cook/ won’t cook in well equipped, modern kitchens – with all the illumination Mr Edison’s wondrous electrical light bulbs can offer – suddenly think they can do so in pitch blackness using charred carbon and pointy sticks.
It was, too, a particularly inky night, partly due to the octopus clouds furling round the sky and threatening to squirt rain at the slightest provocation, but also partly due to the sunset having long been and gone, along with the first bottle of barbecue lighter fluid.
Still, I like my steaks rare, and it was just cruel coincidence that the sad, almost silent sizzle of our supper was interrupted periodically by great WOOFS and crackles from next door as the infernal pyre blazed. Still, I tried to offer helpful suggestions in between keening for my branches and squeaking back at the nocturnal noises.
I stopped when Tom, turning from the wan glow of our supper with a hot glower on his face, found himself temporarily blinded by a neighbouring flare of flame and tripped headlong over the kerb. Happily by this point we’d consumed sufficient wine on growling stomachs to dull both the pain and the full scathe of my sarcasm and the blood, oozing both from Tom’s legs and our plates, will no doubt be good for the grass. He’s even promised – indeed sworn – to install lighting by next summer.
It’s not all disaster though; in the mornings the moonlight garden glows. As the dawn peeps over the old stone wall which forms the remaining, less flammable boundary of the top garden, it winks its single eye cheekily at the lunar patch and makes it blush. And so they spend their first hour or so in flirtatious reflection of summer’s final fling.
By eight however, when I’m almost invariably down there with my first coffee, the presence of a chaperone makes the plot recover its composure and glisten with purity. And what a peace-filled, perfect half hour it is…face to the sun, cat on one side and cup on the other, I need nothing more.
It’s my time, silent, drifting and steeped in dew.
Do you remember when I was little, I used to play picture games in my head with words that sounded the same? Welsh dew is gwlyth of course, but Welsh sounds like dew is ‘Duw’ – no lesser a being than God himself. And to a five year old, the mix-and-match of languages conjured up bizarre images…dewfall then was created each morning by an elderly, bearded, gentle man, who strolled the garden paths when no-one was looking sprinkling droplets of moisture from a watering can-cum-censer.
It’s since then of course that I’ve learned that the dangly thing on chains is a censer, and that it’s incense not Holy water that goes in it, but at five these inaccuracies can be forgiven – and THANK YOU for not pointing them out to me at the time.
I also remember telling Grampa where dew came from, and being told in return of a time when he and Ianto James were working down at the convent. They’d been contracted by the nuns to anchor a statue of a ‘Father Joseph’ firmly to the ground, but ended up in trouble for putting the revered man of stone into a wheelbarrow. The straw that broke the sisters’ back though was when they mixed the cement with Holy Water…
Presumably the nuns took some sort of vow never to employ non-conformist stone masons again… and I suspect Grampa felt his grand-daughter would in turn be as well keeping away from Catholicism, especially as I’d announced only a few weeks previously my intention of becoming a missionary…
I wish now that I’d asked who Father Joseph was and why he needed tethering, but Grampa’s long gone and the answers with him. That’s one of the darkest weights of loss isn’t it; the words you can no longer exchange… the questions always silent and the replies lost for ever…
Anyway, sometimes the cat leaves me, and sometimes the coffee grows cold, but always, all ways, my mind has a stroll while the rest of my body awakes. It doesn’t go far of course; yesterday for example it got no further than the plants at my feet before slipping on the magical drops once left by an old man…
Flecking the felt of Helichrysum petiolare with polka-dots of lime and marbling in the dark palms of lupin leaves, its liquid gleam the lament of a thousand eyes.
Dew-dropped nasturtiums are the ultimate marvels – flat if not convex, their lily-pad leaves hang on to the mercurial beads in grim defiance of gravity and natural laws. Dew elsewhere is beautiful, but still dew. On nasturtiums it is weirdly transformed – as if by some strange green alchemy – to quick, slick silver.
How fabulous to be completely immersed in a drop of water – and to have the time in life to notice and reflect.
In fact much of my amazement – the sheer galumphing joy I get from nature – is the witnessing of moments like these… gulls wheeling crazily to gobble swarming ants, pine-needles falling in a silent rain, a robin swinging breast-down to sip fog-drops from a twig; I was there for all of this and was still enough to see.
Perhaps, then, planning too much – leaving no space or time to be surprised – is where mice, men and women go wrong?