I’ve been looking through some old sketch books from back in the day when I began my garden design course and I found a piece I wrote on a visit to my parents home, one dreary Autumn day. It’s a long piece and I don’t expect many people to read it but I’m going to write it out here in its entirety anyway. This blog is dedicated to my Dad who died a month after the piece was written.
I’m standing in my parents’ garden in Pembrokeshire. It’s a mild October day, warm even but my shoes are wet from the long unmown grass. I breathe in sharply, tears welling and try to focus on the photo I am about to take of a dried globe artichoke head. I’ve always loved them. Dad uses them in his pottery show room, – the long stalks with their top-heavy thistle-like heads, a startling bright purple, standing tall in his vases.
Dad has been diagnosed with cancer.
I look round the garden, remembering. The early days. Him rolling the huge boulders of stone out of the proposed vegetable patch, me, getting in the way but determined, aged ten, to help. The pigs we kept, who rotivated and fertilised the ground. Large Whites, their ears flopping over their small, shrewd eyes. Summer evenings, sat here with a book, eating fresh peas and carrots. The runner beans entwined with sweet peas, in a leafy embrace.
I started a garden design course in London this September, just as Dad went into hospital and I’m missing a week of college but I just had to be here. I needed to see him. He’s home from hospital at the moment and earlier I peeped into the sitting room. He and Mum were in their respective chairs, both fast asleep, heads lolling, afternoon golf on the TV. Their vulnerability as they slept caught at my heart and I’ve retreated to the garden to weep and to collect myself.
The garden was and is my sanctuary, my familiar place. It’s still beautiful, even at this time of the year, slowly collapsing in on itself with the autumn decay. I love the private feel of the land, the trees which line the boundaries – huge copper beech, oak, sycamore, rowan and ash. The remnants of the summer garden are still here and I can see the remains of courgettes, marrows, garlic, beans and peas, onions and leeks. In the green houses peppers, tomatoes and melons are becoming twiggy, stringy and brown. Mother’s herbs are still going strong – marjoram, sage, comfrey and thyme. Chives, oregano and mint. And rosemary for remembrance. The orchard below the garden is sagging with rotting apples. Summer’s here were always hot and magical. You could almost hear the plants growing. And the constant buzz of bees.
In the early years, adders, unused to humans invading their space, would slip unseen into the strawberry beds to sleep in the straw, only to die on trying to leave, entangling and strangling themselves on the netting. I remember the shock of finding the first one, poking at it with a stick and, once realising it was dead, the terrible feeling of remorse, cutting it free to bury it, stroking its smooth grey yellow skin with its pattern of arrows
But my parents years are now showing in the garden’s unkemptness. Dad is 70 now and I reflect on his vigour and strength. I always describe him as a’ big man’ and so he is still, despite his years, despite the disease. But neither of them can cope with the work required for the upkeep of such a large garden. We’ve never been an articulate family when it comes to emotions and feelings but standing here I can see the love and work invested in the garden reflects the same love and work they put into their family of seven children. How painful to be a parent, watching the struggles, the heart breaks, trying not to interfere but to guide.
And now how painful to be the child.