Yet another six months have passed since I last wrote here, I’m horrified, but not really surprised, to see. Followers of my other (language) blog will be aware that I’ve been through a challenging time since arriving back from my epic trip to Canada and New England last autumn. Sadly, my mum passed away very suddenly three weeks after I got back from the States and the last few months have been a whirl of funeral arrangements, estate admin, sorting out care for my father and letting out their house. Probably just as well this has all taken place over the winter months so I’ve not had to feel too guilty about neglecting the garden/allotment…
I still miss my mum every day – all those times you think “I must tell Mum about the daphne/magnolia/tulips…”. My great love of gardening undoubtedly comes from my parents and Mum and I were very much on the same wavelength. When we lived up in Scotland and they were in Sussex, she once sent me a parcel containing a brief note which simply said “The daffodils are out!”, much to my amusement. She’s never been allowed to live it down! I like to think she’s still watching down on me and my garden from above and hope she’s not too critical when I inadvertently plant the wrong colours together (yellow and pink – what are you thinking?!). Their gardener keeps texting to me to comment that my mum definitely wouldn’t approve of how the new tenants have cut the lawn/pruned the hedge. When I had them in to tidy up the garden prior to letting, she shook her head when I suggested she put all the leaves in the compost heap if the brown garden waste bin was full (oh, Claire – your mum would be horrified; never put leaves in the compost bin!). I wouldn’t normally either, but needs must…. The only thing we did disagree on was planting distances: Mum liked to see soil around her plants, whereas I’m a great believer in planting things cheek by jowl so there’s no room for weeds!
When clearing their house to let earlier this year, I brought home all the pots of tulips my parents had had last spring, but hadn’t had time to plant out in the garden. I’m thrilled that the early tulips (Mary Ann and Quebec) have made such a fabulous show in my front garden, despite still being in the same pots. My sister took the Sarah Raven tulip collection I’d bought Mum for her birthday in September but she never had chance to plant. I’m hoping they’ll produce a lovely display in the next few weeks too.
The new tenants are apparently keen gardeners, but I did divide a couple of plants that I haven’t already got in my garden as keepsakes. Many of my perennials are divisions of plants in my parents’ garden (and vice versa!) so I had lots of their plants already, but Geranium nodosum Whiteleaf and Hemerocallis Trahlyta (an unusual smoky purple) had unaccountably passed me by. I also brought home some more plants already in pots: hostas aplenty to pass on to friends, rose Diamond Eyes (a lovely dark purple Persian rose, a gift for their Diamond wedding anniversary three years ago) and a pink version of Hydrangea Annabelle that had never done well – probably because my father insisted on planting it far too close to the traditional Annabelle, where it got swamped by the latter’s vigorous growth every year! These are all now safely installed in my garden and I’m sure they’ll provide yet more happy memories of my mum over the years.
Not everything has taken, unfortunately: I lost my beautiful Daphne odora aureomarginata over the course of last year (a gift from my parents originally). It had spread to some 4ft high x 6ft across, tucked in beneath the Katy apple tree in the front garden and every spring it used to fill the garden with scent from February to April. Mum and Dad had two in their garden for some reason, so I decided to lift one, which wasn’t in an ideal place anyway, and transplanted it to replace mine. Sadly, it doesn’t look very happy and, while I’m not giving up on it just yet, I may have to accept that it hasn’t worked. Daphnes are notoriously difficult to move, but, as my mum would say, you don’t know if you don’t try. I still have a huge Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill in the back garden pumping out the fragrance from December to March, thank goodness.
My memories of my mum are inextricably linked with gardens: my childhood garden with its hybrid tea roses like Superstar, Peace and Queen Elizabeth, the damson tree that never flowered until my father accidentally set fire to it, the rose petal ‘perfume’ we used to make assiduously every summer (strange how it never endured more than a day!), the delicious sticks of rhubarb, eaten sitting on the back doorstep, dipped into a saucer of sugar… Then there was the time my little sister decided to ‘help’ by cutting off all the heads of the red hot pokers (kniphofias) and planting them in a row. I can still remember my father’s expression to this day! (Almost as cross as mine when a neighbour’s daughter decided to pick all my drumstick primulas when we lived in the Peak District….).
Then there were those glorious garden visits on days out: Bodnant and Portmeirion in North Wales, Dunham Massey and Tatton Park closer to home. We visited Alton Towers not for the rollercoasters, but for the splendid pleasure gardens with their Japanese pagodas and majestic rhododendrons. The gardens my parents helped us create over the years: they were always happy to don their gardening boots and gloves and get stuck in whenever there was a new garden to design. And there have been plenty, from our first modest patch in Warrington New Town to a two-acre woodland paradise in the West of Scotland. Mum always had her secateurs at the ready. When my son had his first proper garden at a converted barn near Eynsford in Kent, Mum and Dad were there too, eager to get stuck in, despite both being in their 80s by then.
They made beautiful gardens of their own too, of course: stately conifers and rockeries when we lived in Cheshire and, a delightful streamside garden in Essex for their brief year there. My father maintains his knees are worn-out because of all the patios he’s made over the years! When they moved to Sussex, they transformed an overgrown quarter-acre woodland plot with fabulous full-height rhododendrons into a garden that won a prize in the local Gardens in Bloom competition. They were thrilled and bought a shiny new hose reel with their prize money – but Mum swore she would never do it again as it was far too much hard work (from someone who was out in the garden from dawn ’til dusk anyway!).
Once my father retired at the age of 58, they got involved with helping out at an annual plant sale for a local hospice, raising thousands of pounds every year. They loved dividing their plants (hostas, hemerocallis, geums and geraniums in particular) and passing on their years of experience and plant knowledge to prospective purchasers. I couldn’t resist joining the club when I moved down South further down the line, as did my uncle and aunt from Winchester – it became a real family affair! Gardeners love to share, whether it’s plants, seed or tips. It seemed a fitting tribute to Mum to ask for donations in lieu of flowers to the very same hospice, St. Catherine’s in East Grinstead, when Mum passed away.
One of Mum’s favourite gardens (and we’re very spoiled for choice down here on the Sussex/Surrey/Kent borders) is the RHS flagship garden at Wisley. I have so many happy memories of visits there over the years, with my boys when they were children, and latterly keeping to the main paths as Dad’s mobility deteriorated. After Mum’s funeral at the end of November, I had to drop my younger son and family off at Heathrow for their flight back to the US and drove past Wisley en route. On my way back, feeling empty and sad after a difficult week, I decided on the spur of the moment to call in at Wisley, just off the M25, for coffee and a stroll as it was such a sunny day. I did think it might feel strange being there on my own, but in fact it was an immensely comforting experience, retracing old paths and remembering happier times. I was accompanied by birds throughout – a robin, then a particularly bright chaffinch and a very chirpy magpie. I didn’t feel alone.
Mum had a long and mainly very happy life, with gardening a central theme running throughout. She told tales of her childhood wartime garden, where her father grew veg and thought nothing of wringing chicken’s necks for the pot, not unusual in those days. My first rhubarb plant originally came from my Grandad’s garden – apple rhubarb, he called it. She loved her gardening books and quizzes, and her encyclopaedic knowledge of garden plants, Latin names included, is definitely responsible for my own. She even had the advantage of having studied Latin at school, something I was never able to do, much to my chagrin, as they stopped Latin a few years before I reached the requisite age.
Rest in peace, Mum – you’ve taught me much of what I know about gardens and so much more besides. Miss you…