I have always loved gardens, ever since I was a young child. We lived in a large house that had been divided into flats for the lecturers at Manchester University (where my father worked). It wasn’t the large house that was interesting; it was the very large gardens that covered about two acres. The garden was a tapestry of raspberry and blackberry bushes (cordoned off in their own netted soft fruit area), expansive fields, raised beds with growing vegetables, orchards with apple, pear and plum trees, a pebbly brook inhabited by fish, a nearby paddock, flower beds stocked with flowers from spring to autumn, and sweeping tree-lined lawns.
I even remember the names of many of the plants. Many were old-fashioned varieties such as ‘London Pride’ that are rarely seen these days. I remember the names of the roses (‘New Dawn’ and ‘Albertine’) growing over arches and tall trellises in the gardens, but I barely remember anything about the interior of the flat I lived in.
Gardens as escape
Very early, I learned how instrumental gardens were to help us escape from the difficulties that life could throw at us. In those days, I could escape with my friends into the paddock, building dens in the cornfield and enacting a version of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I would be transported enough to forget about the traumas happening in my family back in our flat, where my parents were agonising over how to manage my severely mentally handicapped brother.
The gardening bug
Years later, in my early teens, we’d moved into a tall Victorian semi-detached house in a nearby town. I would cycle – with a basket attached to the handlebars (yes, like Miss Marple’s) – with my then best friend to the local outdoor market, where we’d spend our pocket money on plants to fill our gardens. Our more street-cred friends probably had more pressing things on their minds, like boyfriends – but we were blissfully oblivious. The ‘gardening bug’ had been sown.
Now, later in life, I can better understand what a hugely pivotal role gardens have played in my life: the games of hide and seek, feeding foxes and hedgehogs (depending on which area of the country we were living in) the growing of crops, collecting frogs and newts from the pond, and – most importantly – the parties.
Gardens as party space
Parties that mushroomed into bigger events than planned, parties that were a total surprise (you know the kind of thing – where people are hiding silently in your dining room after you’ve been on a camping weekend and you’re wearing no make-up and you haven’t had a shower for two days, and you have to pretend that you’re really happy to see them, before they decide that it’s hilarious to take photos of ‘how surprised’ you are …).
Of course, there are the other parties when someone reaches a significant age and the person whose birthday it is (my husband in this case) has decided to escape the small talk and hide in the cellar for most of the time. (Thankfully, after decades of happy marriage I love his eccentricities ….)
Gardens as sanctuary
I still enjoy the parties in the garden, but increasingly, my garden is a place of sanctuary and of shared interests with my closest friends. Roses, shrubs, interesting mirrors, lights or ornaments are bought by each of us for each other: for a birthday, the birth of a child, a death – or as a gift of friendship and love when someone has been battling cancer (or some other illness). Each plant has a special memory and connection.
One of the positives about gardening is how even a very small space, yard or balcony can be transformed, and how creative it’s possible to be with even a small space. Gardens (and their plants) are certainly where memories are made.