Updated: Sep 20, 2020
There is a lot written about how hard it is to leave a beloved home, but what of the garden? For us garden lovers this can be an enormous wrench, and very emotional. I know this very well, because my childhood home is the inspiration for my art and we had to say goodbye to it last year.
Gardens, unless they are left wild and untamed, are places that are made. They are planted, tended and enjoyed by people. They grow around us as we grow in them. Whether we’re simply walking to and from the car, or soaking in the sun on a summer’s day they provide the backdrop and some beauty to our lives. Gardeners develop a deep connection to their gardens – rooted, if you will. With our hands in the soil, choosing, nurturing and tending the plants, a gardener or a garden lover can feel great pain at leaving their plot of earth. In his blog www.landscapeofmeaning.blogspot.com, Thomas Rainer writes ‘I mourn leaving my garden. how many hours did I spend envisioning that garden? How many backbreaking hours did I spend with friends installing it? How many hours did I spend watering, maintaining and loving it? Each hour invests you deeper into the place…You think you are just pulling weeds, but what you are really doing is writing a love letter to a patch of dirt’.
I love this description of what it means to own and love a garden. Unlike the interior of our homes which can be transformed in a weekend with a lick of paint and some new furniture, a garden is something slow and patient that needs an investment of time. When I was a garden designer in London I created new gardens from scratch, built and planted in a matter of month, but for most of us working on our own space it takes much longer. When you buy small plants and watch them grow they are akin to children – you need to nurture them, maintain them, protect them, and provide the right conditions for them to grow and flourish. It’s a living breathing thing with a life of its own, changing through the seasons alongside us. Gardens are the vision of a gardener brought slowly to life. It’s not the same as buying a sofa.
When I had to pack up and sell my family home last year I was faced with overwhelming decisions about what to keep and what to let go of – it felt like a monumental feat. It had been my sanctuary, a place of solace and calm, full of memories of my life and my family. The garden was no small part in that. When I got married we held our small reception in the back garden, and I remember asking the photographer to take lots of pictures of the garden because it was as much a part of the day as the guests were.
I was just a seedling myself when we moved there. So many of the memories of my childhood were based around the garden which is no surprise given the kind of garden it was. Being a mill house there was lots of water. Kenneth Williams could have been describing our childhood there when he wrote in Wind in the Willows, ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’. Fishing for shrimps in the water weed, paddling in streams, building secret dens and rowing on the pond, it was a really lovely childhood. We had geese and chickens, and grew our own vegetables. My dad was extremely hands-on and built parts of the garden himself – a walkway with rills over a little pond, and a bridge over a stream to the front door. These are all things that have informed who I am and have become a part of me. In an article I found on gazettenet.com, Anne Deggendorf says ‘a garden is more than simply a collection of plants, however. It’s a collection of memories’. I couldn’t agree more.
Wrapped up in our feelings about leaving a garden might be the circumstances in which we have to leave it. For us it was all tinged with the sadness of my parents illnesses. We had been coping for 7 years at that point with first dads dementia and then mums Alzheimers. Throughout all of this the garden was integral to our coping. The pond was a tranquil and peaceful place and provided respite from the troubles of their illness – every visit to the house involved a cup of tea by the pond. Wherever you were in the garden was the sound of moving water and pretty places to sit and enjoy nature. Mum and dad had spent so much of their lives in that garden that the place was infused with them. With dad having passed away by the time we left, the garden was a place that helped us feel connected to him, so I know that leaving behind a garden can sometimes feel like leaving behind the people you loved and lived with there.
Just as a piece of furniture may be kept for sentimental reasons because it had been passed down from a great aunt or grandparent, plants can be sentimental too and hold emotional connections. Unlike a piece of furniture which is static, however, plants live and grow, so a plant grown from a seed, a cutting from a special place, or a small plant given as a gift from a friend that grows and flourishes over many years, is a constant living reminder of that person. There was a rose in our front garden that my mum had brought there from a cutting she took when she left her own family home. I have brought many plants with me to my own house from there. They hold great emotional value because they grew in the soil of that place; whatever ups and downs we had there, they were constant companions and witnesses to it all. To see a rose bloom here in my garden that came from a cutting from that place, and to envisage the original rose still blooming in the old garden as I look at mine is a lovely thing. To see the Camellia that my mum loved putting on shiny new leaves and thriving here in my garden makes me think of her.
I resorted to what I loved when faced with losing that special place – drawing. It was while I took a break from sorting through the many possessions in the house that I sat in the garden and looked at the flowers, and I realised with a jolt that the water irises in the stream were starting to fade. It dawned on me that this was the last time I would see them and I would not be there next year to see them bloom again. I began to draw to keep hold of them, and from then on, I drew the flowers that came and went during the ensuing months. I took these simple pencil line drawings and used them as the basis for my printmaking. The result is a a lasting legacy of the place for me. Since drinking tea in the garden was such a large and important part of my upbringing and my time in that place, it is no coincidence that my art is now to be found on a series of pretty English fine bone china mugs made in Stoke on Trent – just one of the ways I have found to keep hold of the garden. It was only after I got round to spending a day drawing the house and garden that I finally felt able to say goodbye to it, that I had enough of it to keep.
You can never recreate a garden – it is unique to its place. I read recently that Jackie Kennedy loved particular shades of pink on the walls of her home to the extent that she carried colour swatches with her whenever she moved to recreate the look. It’s much easier to do that kind of thing in a home than in a garden. The house I live in now is the first home we’ve owned with a proper garden of our own, and very different in style to my old family home. The garden is waiting patiently for its makeover, and I look forward to the day when I can plant flowers I’ve brought from my parent’s garden and see them grow in mine. I look forward to letting their roots grow here, while remembering their history. I could never replicate their garden elsewhere however much I tried, and that’s as it should be, but it will be a comfort and a joy to have mum’s plants with me whether from cuttings or seeds, to keep me company.
To some this might seem very sentimental, but I hope that others will understand. The Daily Mail wrote a lovely article about Winifred Robinson and her pain at leaving her family home. She says ‘We humans find change hard to bear and yet change is as inevitable as the cycle of the seasons that makes the plants grow’.
Over the coming months I will be writing other posts here around the subject of how to keep hold of a garden. Having been through this myself I know there are many small ways to keep the memory of a precious garden alive, and how important and comforting these can be.