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Love, grief and horticultural consolations


One of the last times my mother corrected me was over the name of a flower. “Ra-nun . . . culus,” she dredged up from the depths of a brain battered by cancer, as my sister and I stood beside her bed hopelessly debating what sort of bouquet someone had sent.

The British are a nation of gardeners and my mother was always a patriotic woman. She loved me, my siblings, our kids, my father. But she really, really loved her borders. Family trips were punctuated by detours to an interesting garden centre, smuggled seeds, competitive glances at some family member who was growing things just slightly better because theirs was the right kind of soil.

Nine years ago, heavily pregnant, I moved into a house with a scrubby, glass-strewn, handkerchief-sized patch of earth out back. My mother soon arrived with a series of detailed plans for my flower beds. A few months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Operations, full-on treatment, my newborn: all of these were small things in the frenzy with which she pursued my planting. Catalogues arrived thick and fast, no car boot was without a “few pots”. Amid the chaos new life blossomed.

If you’re looking to lose yourself in a world of cliché, then gardening through cancer is the way to do it. Everything has a season. Appreciate beauty while you can. Nothing lasts forever. Treasure every moment. Hack the whole thing down.

There is also nothing like investing your garden with emotions you can’t display anywhere else. Seasons turned, plants and grandchildren sprouted, five years passed and my mother’s cancer came roaring back just in time for a global pandemic. Shortly after her rediagnosis, I sent a proud picture of my inky Étoile Violette clematis soaring above the brick wall at the end of my patch of earth. It mingled with the outrageously un-south London blue of the ceanothus — just as she had planned.

The next day, during some over-enthusiastic, grief-fuelled weeding, I accidentally cut the whole thing off at the bottom. Dozens of flowers shrivelled on the vine overnight. If someone had written that metaphor into a story, I’d have edited it out. I wept bitter tears but my mother said — “Don’t worry, darling, it’s impossible to kill them.”

The pandemic brought out the budding horticulturalist in all of us. Time spent locked at home bestowed a slower pace of the seasons and the ability to really look at our surroundings. Sheltering at her house, my mother gardened more ferociously than ever. The family WhatsApp group devoted to horticulture pinged every few minutes, my young kids underwent virtual lessons on how to tell the difference between an oak and a beech, every sibling with a square inch of soil to call their own received instruction. She peered down Zoom calls at beds she had created from the hospital ward years earlier, admonishing me to prune, tie or just give up on various specimens. The Étoile Violette stayed silent.

Meanwhile, many of us were learning what she had long known. Gardens are a gift to those afflicted in body or mind. Fresh air, exercise, the constant gratification of conjuring something from nothing.

The old, hackneyed phrase goes that you are nearer God’s heart in the garden than anywhere else on earth. Certainly you are nearer to every human emotion. Joy that your dodgy sweet peas planted in empty loo rolls have provided bushels of blooms. Rage that weedkiller might work for you but its medical equivalent didn’t do any good.

Shortly after my mother’s death at just 64, I hacked some poor unfortunate fern in two with a child’s trowel, relishing the sweat of grief and remembering her advice to just plant both halves and see. I did. They died immediately. I cried some more.

But horticultural consolations, like gardens, don’t like to be hurried. Since then, my mother has been blossoming all over town. “Got our first flower today on the jasmine your mum gave us after we killed the first one,” texted one relative. “She posted me the seeds for this from Sri Lanka,” messaged another with a picture of an enormous plant replete with bright orange bugles. Proof of life for the tibouchina seedlings she distributed to family members far and wide ping in about once a week.

Shortly before her death, we walked slowly down her magnificent border — the one she always hoped looked “a bit Chelsea”. “Well, at least I’ve taught you everything I know about gardening,” she said. My sister and I caught each other’s eyes in disbelief.

But maybe she taught us enough. Just over a year has passed. My plant fatality rate continues to be about 30 per cent. But last week the Étoile Violette burst back into life. Purple, starlike and entirely on my neighbour’s side of the fence. Out of reach but there. As gardening metaphors go, I’ll take it.

Alice Fishburn is the FT’s opinion and analysis editor

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