The Accidental Gardener
‘What on earth are you’re doing!’ David asked, unable to keep the kinks of irritation out of his voice.
‘Weeding,’ I said, warily, freezing in the flower bed.
‘You’re murdering baby hellebores and foxgloves,’ he spluttered. ‘Grab my hands and jump.’ I leant forward, grasped his outstretched arms and was hoisted through the air and dumped onto the grass. David puffed his cheeks out, brushed his pink liberty print shirt free of the compost plastered over me and shook his head.
‘Now, to give you something you can’t kill,’ he said, passing secateurs that could be the ruination of all before me. I was not a gardener then. I’d given up my job and lost my direction. He was desperate for a pair of hands. Even my inept hands. And that’s how I became an accidental gardener.
Three years ago, I didn’t know a weed from a wallflower or beech hedge from a hornbeam let alone Latin names like, Fagus sylvatica and Carpinus betulus. Now, I swoon over verbena, perfumed wisteria and jasmine, am waylaid by honeysuckle alive with bees, cheery daisy Erigeron and lavender. Even, when David rolls his eyes as I trample and trip, covered in mud while he remains Teflon-like pristine.
My flamboyant boss owns no computer, operates a twenty-year-old phone and refuses to strim or mow because the racquet they produce interferes with his (many) conversations. He passes ear-piercing jobs to blokes who prefer wielding clamorous machines to the sound of their own voices. David is the gossipy creator and maintainer of gardens for clients who adore their green spaces but are often too old and frail to look after them. Many spend huge amounts of time alone and when David arrives, brimming with news and views, he breathes new life into them. It’s never been more vital than in lockdown. To ensure we could continue to work together, he’s moved in with his husband and dog, joining my brood plus dog and cat. It’s a hectic household.
‘Oh, Mrs G, you’re looking fabulous,’ he says to our first self-isolated client of the day. ‘Have you had your hair done?’ Lively Mrs G is behind a slightly open window in her polished living room. She smiles wryly, pats her wild mop, untouched for the last ten weeks.
‘Don’t be stupid. I look a fright,’ Mrs G says, and retorts he ‘needs a jolly good haircut’. Nevertheless, she is smiling.
At 90, with a heart condition she is bored and lonely. David launches into conversation as he digs in Agapanthus, Veitch’s Blue Echinops, Delphiniums and Love-in-a Mist; ethereal blooms in teal, turquoise and navy which will blossom in front of a red brick wall of espaliered pear and apple trees, bronze-stemmed cow parsley, columbines and hydrangeas. Mrs G is delighted. By late summer, if lockdown is lifted, her cottage garden will be a sea of blue petals to show off to envious friends, sipping gin and tonic with ice-cubes containing star-shaped petals of blue borage (and possibly insects frozen inside them). Blue is her favourite colour; like her late husband’s eyes and her own startlingly clear gaze. I love how gardening, no matter your age, makes you plan for the next month, season, year, decade.
David directs me to weed and water, while he makes tea from his flask and carries on the finest arts of conversation. He could break a nun’s vow of silence because he knows when we’ve left an ocean of quietness will return to Mrs G’s world.
Next, is Mr P. where David has gardened for 15 years. His wife died, not long before he was diagnosed with an illness which has left this intelligent man housebound and now, self-isolated. From his 18th Century windows, scarlet, fragrant roses entwine and perfume his lonely rooms. We scrape weeds from brick paths Mr P once expertly laid when newly married. David never uses weed killer. Bright ferns uncurl, like hairy question marks and apple blossom appears ruby red in tightly-closed buds. Birds sing, a robin bobs at my feet, a woodpecker hammers near a brook burbling through a copse. David encourages Mr P to eat his ham sandwich by the French windows near the rose arbour terrace, far enough from us to be safe. He shakes his head. We dig out an overgrown Euphorbia, careful not to let its toxic, milky sap touch our skin. We empty his recycling, roll bins down the long driveway, sweep every path, and chat through his open window about the weather, the lockdown, the flitting swallows and lawn-destroying moles and badgers. Leaving, I imagine the all-encompassing silence and how lucky we are to be out in a world suspended for so many.
We head to Mrs M who, at 93, is sharp as a tack, albeit wobbly on her feet. She sounds like the Queen when she greets us. She’d rung David earlier to say how beautiful her garden was looking thanks to us and could we tackle the Portuguese Laurel hedge with its fast-growing luscious green leaves and pink-maroon stems. Only with secateurs. This is slow, quiet gardening. We ring the doorbell and step a long way back. Mrs M sets a navy slippered foot out.
David puts his hand up. ‘You know the rules darling; you have to stay back.’
‘Stuff and nonsense,’ she retorts, waving her bejewelled hands. ‘I’ve lived through a bloody War.’ She looks brave but stays put. David tells her a spicy piece of village gossip; he’s embroidered purely for her entertainment. Mrs M laps it up and adds scandalous titbits of her own. I snip away, fascinated as the young woman she once was rises up in her like smoke. She laughs, blue eyes flashing and claps her hands. We leave her elated, hedge neat as a pin and every leaf swept up.
I contemplate what these pocket-sized garden sanctuaries mean to the owners of downsized homes, where a lifetime of belongings is given away, pared back and faded photographs cram walls.
Mrs A’s semi-circular garden, is a haven of fragrant pink and cream roses. There’s Mme. Alfred Carrière’s climbing clusters of frill-like petals exuding a sweet, fruity distillation and single blush of Shropshire Lass with gradually fading creamy pink blooms, exuding a myrrh-like fragrance, as they ramble through a hawthorn tree. At our arrival, Mrs A switches off the ever-on TV, opens her French windows and observes while David teaches me (slowly, painfully) how to prune and tie branches. I didn’t realise how much time and care roses require and the endless battles against disease and pests along with numerous scratches they inflict. Mrs A’s prize specimens create a pool of scents and David’s conversation, his gentle flirting, with Mrs A is as soothing as balm. By the time we go, she is reminiscing about her husband; a War hero, who adored roses and why she surrounds herself with his favourite flowers.
Then we embark on what appears, at first, a dull project. A bleak retirement bungalow with newly-turfed lawn and scrappy stony border, half of which is in perpetual shade and the other in blazing sunshine. It has begun to rain, dancing rain. The gritty, muddy soil is riven with the debris of builders. I stare, heart sinking, hair stuck to my head. David turns 360 degrees and presses his hands into a prayer, beaming.
‘I’m so excited,’ he says, pulling a scrap of paper from the back pocket of his red trousers. We duck into the little garden shed and while I make tea, he draws up plans. In five minutes, the shady area is set to be transformed into a mini-fernery, interspersed with foxgloves, Euphorbia’s lime-green blooms, delicate blue campanulas, sweet-faced aquilegias and mottled leaves of ground-covering pulmonaria. The sunny side will be filled with the fabulous foliage and wispy flowers of heucheras, from purple to peach and orange which can last weeks without water, scented catmint and lavender, chocolate cosmos, two foot-high and wide verbena and graceful, showy alliums. Once the rain softens, we set to and a month after the elderly, wheelchair-bound man moves in, he’s watching bees in the frill of flowers, feeding birds and happily planning for the future of his sanctuary, despite the pandemic.
I return to my little courtyard that, with David’s help, has metamorphosed from a north-facing, damp and gloomy concrete cell into a gravelled, shaded space of hostas, pale-cream foxgloves, jasmine, ferns, fairy lights and laughter-filled conversations.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ He asks as he arrives and I look around, perplexed. He sighs. ‘Everything I’ve taught you.’ And opens a bottle of fizz.