I have a tree growing in my garden christened the ‘tree of love’. It was planted as two small saplings and when the bark was young and still flexible, I twisted their skinny limbs around each other and left them to it. Over the past couple of years, with the amount of hugging that’s gone on, the saplings have merged into one and in so doing have become a talking point for passing walkers on our country road. People ask me how it was achieved and I say that it’s simple really – left to their own devices I believe that most living things, human or otherwise, are disposed to give comfort and succour to each other. You could say it’s naïve but it’s a belief I’m trying desperately to hang on to during these uncertain and difficult times.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a substantial garden like mine, so I appreciate the fact that I’m blessed. But look up any dictionary and you will find that the definition of the word ‘garden’ ranges from, ‘a rich well cultivated region’ to ‘a container (such as a window box) planted with usually a variety of small plants’. Better still, take a look at a few synonyms: yard, bed, oasis, patch, patio and discover that with the addition of even the smallest leafy offering, most folk can create, quite easily, a garden of wonderfulness of their very own.
Our garden began life as a bite out of a field. I was clueless about where, when and how things should be planted because in my younger days I had paid no attention to the example set by my parents in their small garden in Portadown. In those days, potato drills were simply obstacles for my sister and I to leap over on our pretend horses and later, the line of fir trees at the back, were convenient camouflage for snatching a sneaky cigarette after school.
So, when confronted with a blank canvass, little knowledge and diminished funds, I had no option but to depend on the goodwill and generosity of others for quite a long while. Consequently, I know where practically every plant and every tree began their journey into adulthood and consider them to be as much a part of the history of my family as our children. Just to be clear, I mean that in the nicest possible way kids.
Most (but not all) of my plantings have names. Some are reminders of events, some are tokens of appreciation for particular people in my life, and some are anonymous in their origins, having been carefully placed on my doorstep by kind benefactors when the garden looked more like a wasteland than a cacophony of blossom. My mum’s favourite rose, Rosa Mundi (main photo), has finally settled into its new surroundings after transportation from her garden in Fivemiletown when she died (although I can still almost feel her reluctance for the disturbance speaking to me through the soil). From a bog on an island in Fermanagh dad arrived in my garden as a bendy beech, accompanied by a clump of snowdrops from the home farm, keeping his feet warm in the spring. Two silver birches, still growing strongly now and reaching their way steadily to heaven, were planted after 9/11when it seemed that nothing would ever grow the same again. And the willows and oaks, all named after friends who shared my cancer but were not so lucky as me, continue to sing to me on windy and desolate days. Gradually this garden has become its own storybook; the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters written by me thus far, but hopefully carried on by someone else long after I’m gone.
But our garden has not only been about the of planting vegetation. Most of the family’s pets have found a final home here and with them the reminder of how important those relationships were for our children and us – the understanding that how you treat animals often reflects upon how you treat your fellow human beings. Rabbits – Floppy, Loppy and Flip Flop (I know), are laid to rest within an ear’s width of each other and our collie dog, Meg, sleeps beneath the faithfully fruiting branches of a plum tree. Lately, I buried the stiff little body of a jackdaw chick under a fence and sadly listened as the parents, like some sad double act, thistled their lament into empty space for days afterwards.
The garden is where I think and where I try to put negative thoughts to bed. On days awash with unpleasantness on social media or television and I’ve just become so tired of it all, I go outside to whack a few weeds and bellow out some very bad words that would normally never leave my mouth. It helps. Or if I really want to save myself from the vagaries of this crazy and unpredictable world I actually climb a tree and sit in its branches watching the world go by. Even if you haven’t got your own tree to climb, just sitting under the canopy of trees in a public park can work just as well.
What lessons have I learned from these garden blessings of mine? I’ve learned to never, ever (ever), hand the secateurs out the kitchen window to my husband and not ask what he’s going to do with them (and then to watch as he chops seven feet, seven feet! off a cotoneaster I’d been diligently training for seven years). I’ve learned to love the feel of soil between my naked fingers and to accept that my hands show every single year of my age because of it. I’ve learned to understand that after I’ve spent untold hours strimming, pruning, cutting, shovelling, digging and everything else in my garden, very few people will notice the changes but it really doesn’t matter. Most of all, perhaps, I’ve learned that nature can heal so many of our human ailments if only we would give it a chance. I think of lockdown earlier in the year when the weather was kinder to us than usual and more families than I can remember were walking the roads together, connecting with each other and stopping to ask about a dopey looking tree that was hugging itself in someone’s garden.
And tomorrow, even as autumn marches in more earnestly, the pheasants will be waiting for their breakfast at my door. The leaves on the trees will shudder a last defiance against the inevitable tug of winter and the hedgerows will have lost a little touch more of their greenness. Yet there is always the promise of new life waiting beneath the earth and if you plant some bulbs now (right now – today!) either in a pot or in the soil, one thing’s for certain; that come the spring, your garden of loveliness will repay you in ways that will surprise with its warmth and optimism. Like a great big hug.