Love, Sorrow and Horticultural Consolations


One of the last times my mom corrected me was over the name of a flower. “Ra-nun. . . culus,” she dug from the depths of a cancer-scarred brain, as my sister and I stood next to her bed, desperately debating what kind of bouquet someone had sent.

The British are a nation of gardeners and my mother has always been a patriotic woman. She loved me, my brothers and sisters, our children, my father. But she really, really loved her boundaries. Family trips were punctuated by detours to an interesting garden center, smuggled seeds, competitive looks at a family member who grew a little better because he had the right kind of soil.

Nine years ago, heavily pregnant, I moved into a house with a brushy, glass-strewn patch of land the size of a handkerchief in the back. My mother soon arrived with a set of detailed plans for my flowerbeds. A few months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Operations, full treatment, my newborn: these were all little things in the frenzy with which she pursued my planting. The catalogs arrived in droves and quickly, no car trunk was without “a few jars”. Amidst the chaos, new life bloomed.

If you’re looking to get lost in a world of clichés, gardening through cancer is the way to go. Everything has a season. Appreciate the beauty while you can. Nothing lasts eternally. Cherish every moment. Hack it all.

There’s nothing quite like investing your garden with emotions you can’t display anywhere else. The seasons turned, plants and grandchildren grew, five years passed, and my mother’s cancer came back with a vengeance just in time for a global pandemic. Shortly after her re-diagnosis, I sent in a proud photo of my inky Violet Star Clematis hovering above the brick wall at the end of my plot of land. It mingled with the outrageously odd South London blue of the ceanothus – just as she had expected.

The next day, during an over-enthusiastic, grief-fueled weeding, I accidentally cut the whole thing down. Dozens of flowers shrivelled on the vine overnight. If someone had written that metaphor into a story, I would have deleted it. I cried bitter tears but my mother said, “Don’t worry, honey, it’s impossible to kill them.

The pandemic has brought out the budding horticulturist in all of us. The time spent cooped up at home conferred a slower rhythm of the seasons and the opportunity to really look at our surroundings. Sheltered at home, my mother gardened more ferociously than ever. The horticultural WhatsApp family group rang every few minutes, my young children took virtual lessons on how to tell the difference between an oak tree and a beech tree, each sibling with a square inch of land to call his own instructions received. She watched Zoom calls over the beds she had created from the ward years earlier, urging me to prune, tie up, or simply discard various specimens. The Violet Star was silent.

Meanwhile, many of us were learning what she had known for a long time. Gardens are a gift for those who are physically or mentally afflicted. Fresh air, exercise, the constant satisfaction of making something appear out of nothing.

The old hackneyed phrase says you are closer to God’s heart in the garden than anywhere else on earth. Certainly, you are closer to any human emotion. Joy that your questionable sweet peas planted in empty toilet rolls have provided bushels of flowers. Rage that the weed killer might work for you but its medical equivalent didn’t help.

Shortly after my mother died at only 64, I cut a poor, unhappy fern in half with a child’s trowel, savoring the sweat of grief and remembering her advice to plant the two halves and see. I did it. They died immediately. I cried again.

But horticultural consolations, like gardens, don’t like to be rushed. Since then, my mother has flourished all over town. “I had our first flower today on the jasmine your mother gave us after we killed the first one,” a relative texted. “She mailed me the seeds for this from Sri Lanka,” another message posted with a photo of a huge plant filled with bright orange bugles. Proof of life for tibouchina seedlings which she distributed to family members everywhere about once a week.

Shortly before her death, we walked slowly along her beautiful border – the one she always hoped looked “a bit like Chelsea”. “Well, at least I taught you everything I know about gardening,” she said. My sister and I met eye to eye in disbelief.

But perhaps she has taught us enough. A little over a year has passed. My plant’s mortality rate continues to be around 30%. But last week, the Violet Star came back to life. Purple, starry, and entirely on my neighbor’s fence side. 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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