Many years ago, Edna Peterson, a well-known watercolourist, lived in our village. By the time she died, she was in her eighties and had produced well over 200 paintings. Although every piece was something you would very much want for the walls of your house, her daughters claimed their mother’s best work was produced when she was older and her sight was not as acute as it once was. This period of her life, they said, was when she gave up the struggle to attend to detail and, instead, relaxed and let a gentle, misty haze envelop her paintings. Consequently, her works became more natural and atmospheric. They possessed a hidden charm that no one could quite put their finger on.
I’ve just turned 56 and I feel a certain affinity with Edna and the paintings she produced in the latter part of her life. For although my sight is sound, I no longer have the energy to attend to my garden in the same detail I once lavished on it. Or should I say: I can still do what I always could do in the garden but that’s all I can do in a day. Once I’ve turned the compost pile, for instance, going for a 40 minute run is out of the question. And if I dig spuds in the afternoon, I can’t then hope to stay awake long enough to read a book in bed. Consequently, my garden (especially the ornamental beds) is not quite as tidy as they once were. Things are a little more haphazard – ‘rampant’ even. However, just as Edna’s painting improved when she stopped attending to detail, so too my garden seems to be flourishing in unexpected ways.
My raspberry canes are a prime example. Many years ago I gave up hoping for fruit from them as the birds would swoop down and devour anything that turned the slightest shade of red. But for the last couple of years the canes have languished (or so I thought) untended, growing willy-nilly through the ornamental border until, the other morning, when I was in the garden searching for some marjoram which had also become lost in the ‘jungle’, I discovered berry canes weighed down with fruit! Hidden among the delphiniums, bergamot, thistles, buttercup and lilies, the raspberries were unseen by the birds and were steadily ripening in the filtered sunlight.
Similarly, a Cecil Brunner rose (usually kept well-trimmed but never sporting blooms as it is a first port of call for hungry possums) has, unnoticed, run rampant through the native shrubbery and is a mass of flowers. And a groundcover of oca has carpeted the soil beneath the gooseberries (which is just as well as I ran out of energy to plant any of these South American tubers this year).
As gardeners, I think we all experience the fear that age or other changed circumstances mean we won’t be able to ‘manage’ our gardens as we once did. However, I suspect these fears are groundless. Gardens are living, breathing entities. They do not suddenly give up the ghost because we have less time to attend to them. Instead, they evolve in fascinating (and often productive) ways that we could never imagine. It is as if, after our having taken care of them for so many years, they decide it is time to care for us. And if we relax and let them do this, I suspect we will experience a sense of enjoyment that is akin in greatness to the first time we ever lifted a spade or cut a cabbage we had grown ourselves or picked from our very own garden a small posy of flowers. As with Edna and her beautiful and intelligent paintings, letting go of the detail is to be embraced and never feared.