I’ve been quiet here for a long time. I have still been gardening – more furiously than ever in fact – just mainly in my dad’s vegetable garden now.
Dad’s garden is much bigger than the city patio slabs I’ve been tending. It’s silly-big really and it’s all his dream. One of his many beautiful, ridiculously ambitious, built-entirely-from-scratch projects.
Sketched out, literally, on the back of an envelope, then created with his own hands over a decade of weekends and evenings. A new greenhouse; 32 raised beds dug out of clay then made sweet and productive, edged with wooden frames and lined with concrete paths; a set of rabbit-proof frames; hoops for netting; greenhouse screens; bird-scarers – each devised and refined over the kitchen table then hand-crafted. Every bit is a little story.
If it was a little overgrown and out of control, this is because the dreams have always been far bigger than the spare hours carved out from long working weeks – precious hours which were nevertheless willingly given up if any of the family needed help.
Retirement was the time when these hours would no longer be squeezed out from between other commitments: we talked about him occasionally having time just to sit on a bench and watch things grow – although there was always the suspicion his ambition would only expand with the hours…
But Dad got ill a few weeks before he retired. The diagnosis came quickly and the operating theatre and the chemo ward followed in a matter of weeks – but pancreatic cancer is rarely diagnosed quickly enough.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.
Sowing seeds that first year after diagnosis was a resolution – a resolution that we would have the time that the statistics sought to deny us.
So we cleared the beds and we sowed some seeds – and we had that year.
We harvested the fruit of those seeds and we bought a couple of rare-breed piglets as Dad had always planned, and we fed them acorns and scratched their backs and filled the freezer with joints and sausages – and then got some more. And a pair of turkeys on a whim. My brother bought sheep, a ram visited and lambs were born. We hatched a selection of pretty chickens: far too many different types of course, and most more ornamental than productive – and then we hatched a few more.
There were a lot of bad days, as is the way with tumours and chemotherapy, but there were a lot of bloody magnificent days too and we ate some very fine roast dinners.
Last year, there were more bad days and fewer seeds were sown. But we prepared for the next season instead. I cleared the beds and in the winter covered them in black plastic so they would be ready in the spring without the need for back-breaking labour so Dad would still be able to take it on.
Now his garden is tidy and flourishing, but he never lifted the black plastic with me this Spring.
Six months after he died, all I want to do is make his garden grow.
All my anger about the years he looked forward to and never got is there. The years we should still have in front of us and the empty space there will always be on the bench. The fact he left notes on how many potatoes and peas he believed should be planted in a bed but didn’t get round to the instructions for cabbages.
So many of my happy memories are there too: a lot of the things we weren’t very good at saying so showed instead, in hours spent in companionable labour and the plants grown for each other. So many good times with all my family are there: from planning, sowing and growing together to warm summer evenings podding peas on the lawn.
I have no religious beliefs and find no comfort in the idea of an afterlife. In fact I know for sure there isn’t one: if there were, Dad would be haunting me for planting hippy chickpeas, and I think he’d also be pretty pissed off that my carrots germinated first time. But I do find comfort of sorts in the garden.
Digging my Dad’s garden was about hope: hope in the winter that it was worth ordering seeds for an autumn harvest. But I think it was also about how even if we won’t enjoy all the fruit of our harvest, it is still worth sowing the seed. And, despite how much time I now spend sobbing in it, I feel more peaceful and connected there. The world makes more sense when my hands are in the mud. I’m still thrilled every weekend I go back and marvel at how much a squash plant can grow in a week or how far up a pole a bean has climbed. I desperately wish we were sharing it still, but at least he seems closer there. He is there, in a way. It’s just that now, I win the argument about mixing the planting up a bit, but he’s won too: I’m finally planting in the straight rows he would have approved of.
These are the two poems we chose for his funeral, both by Edward Thomas:
Today I think
Only with scents- scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;
Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the roots of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;
The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.
It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.
It was a perfect day
For sowing; just
As sweet and dry was the ground
I tasted deep the hour
Between the far
Owl’s chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.
A long stretched hour it was;
Remained; the early seeds
All safely sown.
And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,