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Good Grief Gardening

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Dad was Edwardian and old school. He believed strongly in research before making a commitment to something and always read extensively on any subject of interest, even in old age he continued his learning. Formally he was only school educated but he had an ongoing love of reading and learning throughout his life. As a child I was often sent to find him after he disappeared, usually he could be found chatting to a ‘local old boy’ about something of interest.

Dad was taught at a young age by his uncle who would travel out of the city with him to collect wild growing plants such as nettles and dandelion to grow in cold frames as food for the family who were very poor.

Dad’s moto was ‘use what you have’.

I grew up in the seventies when Dad was in his late 50’s. My childhood memories of Dad are mostly of gardening. Usually we would go into the vegetable garden together- in winter with a bucket and picking frozen Brussel sprouts. In summer picking runner beans, broad beans and digging potatoes and pulling up beets, cutting lettuces for lunch, shelling peas, extra protein if you catch a maggot!!!!. Yes and watching him shoot, gut and butcher rabbits to safeguard the sweetcorn.

As a child I wasn’t interested in growing the food, only eating it. Dad talked to me constantly about how to grow things and solve gardening problems.

My favourite place was the orchard, the hazel trees were like secret hideaways, dark and shaded with branches arching up into the sky, dark boughs and bright green leaves which flowed gently down in lace like patterns to almost touch the floor, just the type of place for a child to make up secret fairy stories. There with dead leaves underneath and dappled sunlight. In spring you could walk through the orchard and under the empty branches of the hazels were aconites and tiny snowdrops, a reminder that life renews and is coming again bringing with it the warmth and happiness of summer.

There were apples, cookers, pears, plumbs and green gages in the orchard, the floor was covered in nettles which we used to scythe and Sycle each autumn before the first windfalls.

I loved the smells of the orchard and the sound of the birds. The orchid was behind an outbuilding just past the veg garden. I remember the nettles being tiny as the blossom came, they grew taller as the blossom grew into fruit over the summer. Because the trees were so far from the house there was little noise, the orchard is surrounded by a hedge and fields and sounds were of small animals moving through undergrowth and birds singing to one another surrounded by green and that smell of earth and bark and leaves combined to the smell of growing. An added advantage was free food- wind fallen cookers dipped in ramekins half full of sugar, finding last year’s acorns, picking green gauges and plums straight from the tree, some are riper and sweeter than others, some are exceedingly sharp curling your lips to escape the sourness. Even the dog used to eat wind fallen plums and spit out the stones. I spent days as a teen wandering around the orchard and often would have a stone in my mouth for up to an hour with bits of flesh slowly being chewed off- beats chewing gum!!

Dad Died in spring at over a hundred years of age. There’s a lot discussed on the stages of grief and coming to terms with death. There’s a lot discussed about dying unexpectedly from disease. There is less about watching your relative age to the point where they can no longer do the things they love and watching them and their environment slowly progress toward death.

It’s a slow insidious process and I spent a lot of time traveling to his home to support him in the minutia of all the things a very old man needs help with. The worse thing for us all was watching him deteriorate with dignity and calmness, gradually coming to terms with the indignities thrust upon his very private tendencies with age, while watching his beloved garden deteriorating too around him. Knowing he could see it too out of his window and could do nothing to stop it. It felt like the ultimate impotence for us all which we were forced to sadly watch.

We had over the years tried gardeners but this only caused distress as someone else will never do something as meticulously as someone truly in love with their craft, I for one never dared!

I needed something to manage the stress of caring for him and watching both my parents aging and increasingly dependent.

I tried kick boxing, but felt it too disinhibiting, I was frightened I might forget I wasn’t training and smack someone, such as my husband, hitting people didn’t come naturally and being hit was just plain rude! I tried swimming which I love but all the changing is time consuming and my stress led to lots of ear infections, good bye swimming.

I took up walking which was good but to get the relaxation I needed I needed to walk for much longer and being at work and caring most weekends in another part of the country wasn’t possible. I tried running and paddle boarding.

I’m overweight and unfit, running was hard and hurt my knees, the Adrenalin needed to get moving just felt like more stress when I was overloaded and I just ended up crying, Paddle boarding was lovely and calming being quiet and surrounded by trees and fields with minimal noise. Both activities however had a major drawback- at some point I had to turn round and go back. Running back to your stressors is not a pleasant sensation and became rather depressing, paddling tough hard was easier when I eventually had to turn around. A major drawback with this was time, I couldn’t do this for 1-2 hours, it usually entailed several hours all told.

At Dad’s funeral I decided I needed to do something to manage my distress at my bereavement. I decided to try to rescue the garden. We don’t know what the future holds for the garden. I’m not going to invest a lot of money into it, only for it to be bulldozed if the house is sold and the garden developed, but I want to limit the destruction of nature and enjoy the fun bits while I still can. I still get a childish pleasure at ‘scrumping’ despite the fact I know Dad would never stop me having any fruit, knowing it’s there for the taking as long as the nettles can be beaten into submission is ridiculously exciting and sharing it with my cousins grandchildren is idyllic.

I decided to rescue the orchard which was overgrown with 15 years of elders and brambles, some of the trees had fallen in storms most were struggling. There were a lot of prunous saplings which were now as high as a house and only about 8’ wide having grown so closely together.

I decided to manage my stress by being quiet while working. We – my cousin’s and I took to sawing down trees with loppers and saws only. We didn’t know anything about gardening. I had to look up each of the trees using leaves, bark and fruit to work out what was what. I was frightened of killing fruit trees by shock by removing too much around them. I was frightened of cutting down the wrong trees or the trees would be more exposed to damage from storms by clearing around them.

I also noticed the trees needed serious pruning and management to reduce disease. This proved several challenges each feeding into each other.

I found scything brambles and nettles soothing and vigorous. It was exhausting. There were battle wounds when brambles snapped back unexpectedly and spiked you, when nettles 7’ high smacked you in the face as you scythed them and when you became so engrossed in lopping that you forgot the laws of gravity and ended up chopping of a branch which landed on your head and face unexpectedly.

My scything technique left a lot to be desired. It was more smack it to within an inch of its life with a big stick with blade attached than scything. Fortunately young children were not involved. It was so wonderful to take out, all my pent up stress and sadness on something which gave in to me and would ultimately grow back and show no signs of my destructiveness. I found sawing down trees at waist height equally reinforcing. It took so much energy and perseverance, I couldn’t just give up!, once committed my blade was embedded in the tree, I couldn’t just leave it there, I had to keep going full pace until the very end, -and remember to check which way to escape.

Gardening hard core style is an amazing way of managing grief. It has stress and anger management- there’s always something to hit out at which saves work colleagues, friends and relatives and there’s lots of bonus reading and learning for a variety of interests. There’s plenty of planning and considered intervention and you can do as you want, smash and destroy to adapt and rebuild toward a new beauty. I hope to do all these over the coming years. This has allowed me to cope with my days calmly and serenely coping with very challenging family and work experiences which would test us all.

Finally I don’t believe I have completed my bereavement, there are a lot of things still ongoing in my life which interfere with that, however it has helped me to calmly take on life at an acceptable pace.

The spring Dad died, I walked into the orchard and saw the aconites. I cried because he would never again see them and I would not share that with him again. It conversely reminded me, that I –god willing would have the option to see them for many years to come and with them the summer will follow.

Spring is the bringer of hope. It’s been 2 years since he died and hope returns again and again despite all the other difficulties life and death bring.

Other than aconites these ate the first flowers we see , welcoming us into spring

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