Earth to Earth – July 2002
July 20th 2002
Earlier this year I turned the former site of my mother’s greenhouse into a moonlight garden. In the days immediately after she died we often sat there around midnight – my partner in life, a bottle of wine (no, not one and the same…) – and me, with sadness for company.
The silence there was welcome. The small Welsh community in which mum passed all her days still has a tradition of visiting the bereaved, bringing cakes, teabags and tinned ham whilst sympathising in the solidarity shared by all who have ever loved and lost. Darkness was often fighting with sunset then by the time we escaped to the furthest end of the ‘top’ garden, to recover in the strange stillness.
For stillness is truly a stranger here – barely tapping at the old wooden door, which opens to reveal the quarry garden falling away beneath you. In the distance the Irish Sea laps land and the air always moves – as if the earth breathed in by day and out by night. At dusk though, just for a while, equilibrium is met and regained, birds fall silent to listen and badgers set for monochrome worming are earth-muffled, still.
There, then and then, there, at the quiet time when thoughts can whisper, the idea for the moonlight garden was born. For as some have to radically alter a loved one’s room – or keep it untouched in their memory – so it was for me. Only I had no choice. Mum’s old wooden greenhouse – held together more by helixine, the gravitational pull of the moon and its own terrifying lean than carpentry – had been unsafe for years. With her sudden departure I felt certain that some unnamed force which had hitherto prevented the collapse of the warm refuge around her head had gone too. It had to come down.
Not for a bit though – so for weeks I stood and watered her queendom from the safety of the door, watching its strange inhabitants rampage. She favoured the greenhouse in her last years because of the sharp bone chill she felt even on the warmest days but continued to garden inside as out, seemingly oblivious to the effect growing under glass might have on already hardy creatures.
Traditional tomatoes and cucumbers had been banished with my father’s death the year previous and she quickly planted her personality in the soil that once bore ring culture. The Verbena bonariensis – sown so thick that the ‘open airy form’ of gardening literature was replaced by a wild besom of blossom – threatened to lift the roof and nasturtiums rushed out of the various missing panes, as if gasping for breath in the flames of their own petals. Acidanthera revelled – putting the glad back in gladioli – whilst bewildered peppers and aubergines cleared their throats politely and asked for elbow room. They got none.
It wasn’t until January then that the paper plans for the moonlight garden saw the greenhouse finally crumble and the new planting taking shape. The emphasis was to be on white, pale blue and evening scent – and the backdrop was already in place; in those darkest days of the year the Viburnum tinus offered up its champagne bubble buds for sweetness whilst a towering Pittosporum trush (neither tree nor bush – and not ‘bree’ because it confuses visiting French gastronomes) promised dark perfume in February.
Meanwhile a common as muck Clematis montana pledged future dusky almonds as it scrambled over the crumbling twlc mochyn – a traditional single-inhabitant pig-sty known neither for its evening scent nor its good karma at killing time. Throw in a pillar of Philadelphus coronarius, a glossy Choisya, Camellia ‘Donation’ (neither scented nor white but amazing amongst the montana!) and a huge bed of single marguerites older and taller than myself and the job was half done before a spade was dirtied.
Behind and amongst the marguerites rambles ‘Mami Cwmduhaul’ – a nameless rose we call after my midwife and herbalist great great grandmother – not because she rambled but because it came from her garden it in the 1920s. Never moved since nor fed, it nonetheless produces panicles of the sweetest double rosebuds every summer and shrugs off thrips, rust and blackspot, a treasure in its island of daisies. Perhaps it’s rooted where pigs’ blood spilt? Yes, we swear by trotter lard and bone…..
So to this circle of established onlookers I added my own lunar focus; pots of jonquils and narcissi, artemisia, chamomile and thymes to clothe the old greenhouse base and sweet rocket, phlox, lavenders and white clove pinks to stand up and be sniffed. High and mighty Nicotiana sylvestris sown in March says it will wait to bloom next year but in the meantime its more down to earth siblings trumpet their exquisite perfume every evening whilst hardy jasmine lends magical starbursts by candle or moonlight.
And yes, many a summer’s evening has been passed there, the blue and white shadows often reflective of my feelings in this first, long, year without the woman who was my mother – and the only other person to have so loved this piece of earth.
But as the sun reached its high point in the sky, midsummer madness seemed to grip and the planting rebelled. It started when the Sweet Williams – allegedly standard and white – bloomed dwarf and pink… Then the malva ‘Merlin’ grown from seed – a promising smouldering purple on the packet – opened a candyish hue and the rather sophisticated grey helichrysums insisted on producing common yellow flowers. Add theoretically white freesias that blossomed gold and baby nasturtiums (nasturchins?) popping out of every last inch of soil and you start to get the picture…
The modern sweet peas – Swan Lake, Charlie’s Angels and Mrs somebody or other – a pale mauve anyway – have been smothered by the amazing vigour of ‘Cupani’, the sweet pea from which all other were bred and with the scent to prove it. A fabulous bicolour of purple and magenta quite unsuitable for mourning, it added to my growing suspicion that mum was perhaps trying to tell me something… Any remaining beyond-the-grave doubts were confirmed by the over wintering orange Eschscholzias bursting into sunshine next to scarlet and pink Shirley poppies which I have to confess to having sown with colour aforethought.
So yesterday, almost a year on from her passing, I too went wild. I went to town quite literally and filled the car with fire; bronze and lemon Helenium, claret dahlias, rusty Hemerocallis, magenta Penstemon, some deep red lilies – and yes the pollen looks charming on the upholstery of a Renault Megane – scarlet bergamot and the wildest Gaillardia you’ve seen in your life; this plant definitely put the blanket on the ground.
Then this afternoon – 364 days on from the time she was dying – I took my new spade – which digs deep – and planted the riot amongst the Californian and Shirley sisters – and boy do they sing!
They sing of the woman my mother really was – not some pastel memory but a loving, caring radical, with fire and passion in her heart. I long for the morning when I can go and bask in their sunshine again, even if the north wind still whips from the sea.
Next year I’ll open the garden for charity this same weekend. The sun, of course, will shine and I’ll revel in people’s reactions when confronted by the Valkyrie chorus in their glowing bed of coals. I’ll offer iced drinks, open the quarry gate to both funnel cooling air and fan flames, and if feeling particularly wicked may try to convince them the Verbena is some new variety. ‘So much more vigour and presence than bonariensis, I think…’
And once they’ve all gone, I’ll take my wine and my partner, find the stillness again and raise a glass to mum, giving thanks that through sadness, I now feel warmth again.
July 23rd 2002
How are things with you? Daft question, I know, but it seems wrong, somehow, to open a letter without asking.
I’m mostly fine – actually finding enjoyment in the garden again, now that I’ve stopped listening for your footsteps bringing me coffee. I still so miss all the time we spent just in the garden together though – wandering round, looking at this and that, exchanging thoughts, ideas and intentions. I find myself longing to be able to show you things – to share the new and the thriving old with you – to seek your blessing for the changes I’ve made and your forgiveness for all the things I haven’t got round to doing… but then it’s been a funny old year.
Anyway, the garden path herbs are coming into their own just now. Wet-look new leaves are unscrolling on the massive old bay and the self-heal’s gone mad, thrusting its Prunella scaled purple fingers into the air in a gesture hostile enough to repel all known germs and mad hoteliers.
The vervain’s its usual drab self – it’s strange that something quite so plain was revered by so many ancient cultures isn’t it? – but then its looks aren’t helped any by the angelica parasoling above it. And the chervil’s shrivelled again. I think I shall re-name it ‘churlish’.
I’m reliably informed, by the way, that our sage is obese. It’s not really a characteristic you associate with sages is it? Well not unless they’re Buddha anyway. I always think of famous thinkers as having a wild and rangy look about them, as if their racing brains consumed more calories than their mouths. Or perhaps it’s just that most of them were men and couldn’t multi-task well enough to have lofty thoughts and make beans on toast?
Anyway, the obese sage has failed to flower again this year – or rather I’ve failed to make it flower. It’s funny isn’t it, how readily we take responsibility for our successes in the garden yet heap instant blame mulch onto the poor plants if they somehow disappoint? I’m trying to stop it.
My gardener friend Dafydd – someone I met after you died, but he’s nice, you’d like him – took one look at the eunuch’s flabby leaves and obscene girth before telling me severely that I was being far too kind to it. In fact he made me feel like an unfit mother, called to task in baby clinic for some blimp-like child that’s all flesh and no grey stuff. But what do you do about an over-fed sage? Encourage it to go for walks around the garden? Stick it on the Socrates-plan diet? Ask Social Services to take it into neglect? Then Inez came round last night and went into raptures about it. How did I stop it flowering? Did I realise how hard it was to get decent sage this time of year? So she left with handfuls of it for the restaurant – it would seem there is always a silver lining…
Julia’s ‘rare Welsh Onions’ are blooming happily along with the rest of the identical chives. It’s late for chive flowers I know, but this is the second lot – I tried plucking them stem-and-all from the base after the first May flush and it’s worked beautifully. Oh and the clump you accidentally planted on top of the alliums looks fabulous – a wonderful but smelly high rise condomonion. She was here with us the other day – Julia – and I was talking about missing you. She said she was sure you’re still here, in the garden. I said I wished you’d do a bit more weeding if you were…
Anyway back on the path the warm marjoram’s glorious as usual, and the bergamot – oh! Who on earth could have come up with such an ugly name as Oswego Tea Plant for such a grippingly beautiful creature? The bloody claws of Cambridge Scarlet are just starting to emerge amongst the acid green umbels of seeding flat-leaved parsley, but Monarda Blue Stocking will be later this year – I lost her temporarily under the tarragon and salad burnet and had to nurse her back to health – I don’t know, these intellectuals that can’t look after themselves…
The Echinacea on the other hand has come through in quite a clump this summer, its dark cones positively glowing with amber health. Every time I pass it it halts me in my path, demanding to be touched, inviting me to run the ridges of my thumb over its soothing centre… And it’s especially arresting this year because of the tall clump of dill next to it, already turning its burnished seed bronze. For all the books I read on gardening, I still find that serendipity creates the most exquisite bed-fellows.
Ooh, that reminds me – I’ve just bough a liquidambar! Even without the promise of autumn finery, I felt the garden needed one just for its mellifluous title. ‘What’s that?’ people will ask breathlessly… ‘Ah, liquidambar’ I will reply, sagely, savouring every sweet drop of its ambrosia – kissed vowels. Oh what a poser! But then what real gardener doesn’t have dreams of future beauty?
That really struck me the other week. I’d been chopping back clumps of male fern in the quarry, playing hide-and-seek with the ‘Dicksonia’ tree fern I bought earlier in the year. It’s all of three inches tall now and to be honest looks a bit sad but I kept telling myself it would be amazing when it was towering above me. Then, surfing the internet that night, I was congratulating myself for having paid less than £20 for my specimen when many online were four and five times that price. Oh the youth of today, wanting instant results… how much more gratifying to have nurtured a tiny thing I told myself smugly… until I came to the age/ price/ height ratio table, which suggested that if you can pinch more than three inches of tree fern, it has either cost you an arm and a leg or several decades. A quick calculation where a = my life expectancy, b = height of baby Dickey and c = wishful thinking still didn’t bring him above Zimmer frame level.
I’d never had that realisation before – that if someone enjoyed this plant in its maturity it definitely wouldn’t be me – and yet thinking about it, you planted things you must have known you would never see at their best right up to your last days; true gardening maturity or simple generosity of spirit? You certainly had both in abundance.
I hope you’re happy with the words I chose for your gravestone by the way – I thought you’d like being recorded as having been a gardener as well as a wife and mother – and the ‘she planted love’ bit just seemed right, somehow… Well you did, in so many ways…
Anyway, I’d better close now and go and eat some sage leaves – who knows, between their longevity-boosting reputation and global warming I may yet get to see Dickey’s first flush of adolescence…
With all my love
July 26th 2002
It’s the eeriest of days here. Clammy shrouds of fog wrap the coast, silently stalking walkers on footpaths, pinning sound to the ground under mattresses of wadded cloud. And then sound fights back – muffled yet oddly amplified in its struggles, distorted and disorientated. Lift your face to the featureless mass and your skin tingles with tiny stabs of moisture, as if static hung the air with liquid charge.
Yet there is no energy. Fog is the black hole of earth, sucking noise, vision and colour from landscapes and the sun from the sky. We see only the spectral folds of fog’s garments. It may look white, but beneath its clothes, fog wears the dark.
I needed nature to offer me a warmer wrap today – for a year ago we buried mum.
It’s odd isn’t it how strange words can feel in different contexts? Stand ‘a year ago we buried mum’ alone, and its meaning is clear. Include it in a piece of writing about gardening and you feel eyebrows raising…
We do, of course, bury things in the garden, like any other home that’s held children and animals. Most recently it was our two elderly tabbies who emerged out of the same litter, shared our lives energetically for eighteen years and then left us within a year of each other, their genetic code exhausted. One is now a baby eucalyptus, the other a young gooseberry, both planted tentatively because my father felt children shouldn’t be bothered with morbid details as to exactly where such-and-such a pet was buried.
‘The knowledge’ would however have been useful now, as I excavate a garden that holds at least six dogs, seven cats and scores of the soft-centre assortment of smaller animals parenthood thrusts upon you. It would also be helpful if the various gardening tomes included ‘funereal’ as a soil type. How deep do you need to go? How many years before it’s safe? How well rotted can organic material actually be?
My only education in this field lies in childhood memory – of enthusing to my brother -ten years older and with adolescent designer cynicism to match – about the ‘magic fairy rings’ of darker grass on next door’s lawn, only to be told they were actually where various litters of drowned kittens had been buried. It’s acid-etched in my mind as one of those ‘Santa moments’ – but perhaps explains why the grass is always greener on the other side..
Mum, however, we buried tidily in the graveyard, just in case any of you are still wondering.
On the subject of holes, discovering spades has massively improved my gardening technique. Odd as it may seem, for two decades of gardening I rejected spades, associating them with the dour double-digging school of horticulture practiced by men in vegetables.
‘Spades? I have no need of such determined tools of steel! I am a creative gardener! Why use a spade when you have assorted forks, a small hand trowel, soil piling back into the hole, muddy knees, broken nails and back strain?’ For years then my husband viewed me with Geller-like suspicion as I emerged from the garden with yet another bent or broken fork, tines wrenched by roots or sheered by one of the larger rocks you grow accustomed to when you garden in a quarry.
Anyway the need to plant the cat with some degree of both depth and decorum persuaded me to try a spade. And suddenly I knew how Archimedes felt – in principle anyway. The volume of soil displaced by a spade does not fall back into the hole! Whole new vistas of gardening opened up… I could plant allegro… Areas of garden previously impervious to lesser tools were suddenly my canvas… It was with relative ease then that the new apple, Judas tree and yew were slipped into the ‘big’ lawn earlier this year.
For the moment I’m telling everyone that the latter is a golden yew. Truth be told, I kept it pot-bound for so many years that it took on a sickly yellow hue enhanced by my decorating it for Christmas and then forgetting to take it out into the daylight until Candlemass. The Judas tree (Forest Pansy, Redbud – or even Cercis canadensis to old Romans) is a delight, its fragile heart-shaped burgundy leaves betraying a choosy nature not best suited to the windswept corner I’ve planted it in. Still, the birch and old apple towering over its sun-loving boughs should shelter it from the worst of the gales…
Its new leaves are exquisite; folded like the tiniest claret butterflies at rest, sap glosses their surface as it pumps the promise of breeze-buoyed flight into them. Actually in checking its spelling, I’ve just noticed my RHS bible says it needs deep, fertile, well-drained soil. However it’s planted in front of a tolerable hydrangea, tolerable only because not much else will grow in the shallow, claggy clay at that end of the quarry… The good book – with distinct tones of Old Testament – also mentions that Cercis ‘resents transplanting’.
I practice my lines: ‘Gardening books? I have no need of such paper prophets of doom! I am a creative gardener! See how the sanguine glow of the young leaves echoes the hot blush of the hydrangea…’
Still, it looks happy – and in my experience that’s the best indication there is. The taxing yew however – planted in theoretically ideal conditions but looking like I’ve personally dug a slough of despond for it- is extending its advent repertoire by shedding its now mainly brown needles at the gentlest touch. The bible’s promise that it will grow again if cut back simply confirms my conviction that even good books are not always right.
Could I actually be the first gardener to have poisoned a yew? I make a mental note (practicing a look of wide-eyed innocence) to ask my gardener friend. And until I see him I’ll tell it inspirational tales of the famous ‘bleeding yew’ in a local churchyard. There it stands, hale and hearty, in spite of blood red sap flowing from a gash in its trunk. It’s said that it ‘bleeds’ because an innocent man was hung from it; surely by comparison the stringing up of a few innocent Christmas baubles is nothing?
The other holes in the quarry are nothing to do with me. They’re dug by the local badger population who don masks, black jackets and flick-knife claws to vandalise the garden by cover of darkness. In her diary of 1995 mum writes breathlessly of her joy at discovering ‘signs of badgers’. But a few weeks later we were desperately trying to cover up for them – rising early to replant bulbs and stamp back furrows of turf before Dad got to see the belligerent ‘badger woz ’ere’ graffiti scratched challengingly into his lawn.
The game was up however when the worm-raiders of the night started digging latrines in the quarry’s diagonal corners, marking where they entered and exited over the high stone walls, swag bags in hand. Now it’s one thing to mutter of rare, hill-less moles and coo soothingly when your father twists his ankle in not one but two pot-holes whilst cutting the lawn. It’s another altogether to try to explain why his once fawn hush-puppies are now splattered with blackberry-stained dung roughly the colour of his face… Thankfully he fell for the ‘Oh! Gosh! We must have badgers! How wonderful! And how clever you were to find them dad…..’ line, delivered in muffled chokes as my mother hummed ‘blue suede shoes’ in the background.
She was not spiteful – often. But it was, you see, an almost life-long struggle for her to achieve domination in the garden – as it had been for her mother before her. Both had strong marriages – stronger, possibly, for having their roots in hostile trenches. My grandfather was perceived by his family as having married ‘beneath himself’ whilst my mother fell in love with the enemy – a tall blond German prisoner of war. Love needs to be strong and stubborn indeed to conquer all opposition – but it was, and it did, and harmony reigned, at least within the walls of the old family home.
Outside however, earth, for men, was for growing straight lines of vegetables. Earth for women was a creative medium of a different kind altogether and as urban feminists fought for and slowly achieved change in the 60s and 70s, so mum dug for victory at home, her front line flowers encroaching slowly on the ever-weakening forces of greens.
My going off to college, her father’s death and the Peace Movement trined in mum’s heavens in the early 80s, leaving her suddenly liberated of responsibility and surrounded by the sisterhood of strong-willed women. Dad, freed of my grandfather’s back-breaking expectation that every spare inch of earth should bear crops, readily agreed that the quarry garden should be given over to lawns, shrubs and flowers, never suspecting the she-devil in the detail.
And so followed the final battle for the quarry – one of geometry versus geomancy, him plotting diamond beds to be marked out in hideous pink and white concrete slabs, her divining the future chaotic jungle in the earth and plotting as only women know how. Softly, softly, as perennials clumped and shrubs eclipsed the sun demanded by effete annuals, the paving disappeared and a new organic form defined boundaries.
Just once in a while, the need to assert his German love for straight lines would overcome dad’s survival instincts and he’d disappear to the quarry for an afternoon of masochistic lumberjacking. But the casualties re-grew with coppiced vigour, and mum eventually started speaking to him again, whilst loving him still through the silence. And so a perfect gardening partnership was formed in the last third of their sixty years together – she vetoing his Arian craving for goose-stepping gladioli, he taming the wilder scrambles of her gardening offspring as they toddled into lebensraum needed by weaker siblings.
And when it came to his – and one day ‘their’ – gravestone, Mum settled for compromise; a slab of respectable marble, but with ropes of ivy chiselled in each corner. The simple inscription – ‘a gentle man, much loved’, left less than half the stone unturned for her – yet I have no doubt who was ‘moving over’ a year ago today…
Outside the fog still grips. I’ve fed the seagulls fresh brioche because we’ve run out of stale bread and now I must be-ribbon my sheep for a walk to the quarry. I’ll take a notebook too, because with the green goddess and agent orange both absent, I now have to referee. I’ll make jottings about what can stay and what needs to go – and then maybe lose one of the lists. My German genes are perfectly organised, but my Welsh ones keep forgetting where I put things down…