Sometimes I stand in the garden at dusk and think about my dad, what would he make of my creation?
Four years ago this autumn I lost my dad, very suddenly to an aneurysm. One moment we were having a party for my eldest son’s second birthday, then two days later my dad was gone, with no warning. During the two weeks between his death and his funeral, I obsessed over what he meant to me and I decided I wanted to talk about him at the service.
The thing that stood out foremost in my mind, was all that he had taught me, and all that I had lost in not knowing. Silly things like asking how to grow vegetables his way, which might have been passed down for generations, everyone said he had green fingers.
To many people he was a sociable character, popular in all areas of his life, he was informed, charming and gregarious (more so in earlier years!) To me he meant something quite different though, not only my dad, but he taught me to love and respect nature, both botanical and animal. Walking with him in the woods he would delight in showing you an area of bluebells that you felt only you and him had seen before. Or he would gesture to the sky to point out a kestrel ready for the kill. For a man with a very traditional demeanor, this is how he expressed his romantic side.
From a very early memories, I can recall spending a lot of time in the garden. We lived in a Victorian semi in a village in Sussex, with a typical long strip of garden mainly marked out with an enormous vegetable patch. My dad was one of a generation when you gardened for necessity, providing food for the table after the war was the only way of supplementing meagre rations, this must have been inbuilt in him. I can remember visiting the local hardware store in winter to collect seed potatoes and paper bags of carrot seed, no fancy heritage varieties here, just good old local stock! Every spring I would bother him by asking him questions about what he was doing and could I help, mostly he said no but I still hung around. Despite being a nuisance, I still loved being with him during these seasonal rituals, it was pretty much the only interest we had in common.
Later in life when I hit teenage years, gardening proved the only avenue of communication during difficult times. When I came home from university as a louche art student, he would take me into the garden and show me a plant or flower he was particularly proud of that year. Or perhaps the new the fangled decking they’d had installed like a mediterranean sun deck, a world away from the gardening style of my father in earlier years.
When my husband and I finally left London to settle in the country and buy our first house, my dad brought plants from his garden in tubs to plant in mine with advice on keeping them alive, something I do to others now. We surveyed the area together and he suggested places for vegetables or perhaps I should move that shrub from under that tree. This relationships blossomed quite literally, by exchanging ideas I grew more knowledgeable I sometimes challenged his ideas and choices!
About five years ago he retired and decided to take on an allotment with my mum, through a new local scheme. At first he grumbled about the work, but in time, he grew to enjoy the companionship of other there, something he missed from work. Over the first year, he got to know most of the other plot holders, and soon enough people were coming to him for advice, admiring his thriving plot. During this time he would give me bags of vegetables and say ‘they won’t taste like that in the shops’ Now I know this was his way of showing his love.
After his death I felt bereft. What should I do now? I felt there was such a hole to fill. The only thing I yearned to do was garden, I just wanted to go over those comforting rituals that so reminded me of him. I decided to take on an allotment of my own, and got over the first few difficult months digging and planning a new start. It was hard work, but over time I realised that the knowledge of how to plant various vegetables seemed instinctive to me, so I had absorbed something.
There is something very cathartic about gardening, about having your hand in the circle of life, each year starts afresh. Every year I learn more and feel so grateful to my dad for teaching me the means to truly relax and appreciate how great the world is. I have also learnt that gardeners are pretty great people! usually very ready to share advice and produce.
A few days before my dad passed away, he sprinkled poppy seed all around his plot, the next June it looked like this. What could be a more uplifting memorial?
So today, and frequently I contemplate what life would be like if he were here, what would he have made of my progress as a gardener? and I hope he would be proud. Gardening is no longer a means for getting over my grief, but a daily joy. I hope to pass on some of this excitement to my children as I feel it’s my duty to pass on the gardening gene.