A Bittersweet Birthday Present

Two years ago, Mom’s front garden looked like this:

DIGITAL CAMERAShe had tended and pampered it, keeping it looking pretty and well-loved, since 1938. However, over the last year neither she nor I nor her helpful neighbours have been able to maintain the same standard of care and attention, and in the past 6 months it has become obvious that we will have to find an alternative solution.

Until the 1990’s, most of the houses in this road had a pocket-handkerchief garden at the front, usually featuring a lawn surrounded by flowerbeds, and some with an ornamental bush or shrub in the middle. Working in the garden was a great opportunity to socialise over the wall and keep up to date with whatever was going on. I am sure that these little gardens played an important role in creating the strong bonds of friendship that are so characteristic of this neighbourhood, where everyone is there for one another. However, it’s a narrow road, and difficult to negotiate when vehicles are parked along the kerb, so one after the other these forecourts were paved to allow their owners to park their cars off the road. “It adds value to the house, too, you know,”are words I have heard many times lately. Perhaps, but paving blocks aren’t as pretty as flowers and healthy turf.

Now, only four houses still have their little lawns and flowerbeds. Our next-door neighbours have similar difficulties to ours, and we have been commiserating with each other as we survey the disaster areas outside our front doors. The other two intact gardens belong to retired gentlemen, both keen gardeners with the time and passion to keep their plots free of weeds and full of bedding plants with their lawns as smooth and perfectly manicured as bowling greens. Woe betide any airborne seed drifting in their direction: aliens will not be tolerated.

Our patch, on the other hand, seems to be a magnet for dandelions and groundsel, and although I spent many hours last summer diligently digging these invaders up by their roots, I now have to concede defeat. Circles of serrated leaves are everywhere. Grass is growing where it shouldn’t be, its roots descending deep into the soil, resisting my puny efforts to pull them up.  Spring is late this year, but we ought to be seeing crocuses by now. Instead, just a few grape hyacinths are valiantly struggling to raise their heads through the tangles of overgrown greenery and dead leaves. Image0778

When our neighbours, suffering similar circumstances to us, decided that the time had come to pave their garden, we agreed to go along with them. My mother isn’t happy about the decision. “Everything in the garden has a story,” she says. She and my father collected the rocks and carried them home 75 years ago, placing them carefully along the edge of the path. Each plant has been grown from a cutting, seeds from friends’ gardens, or acquired from a specific site as a souvenir like the St John’s Wort, smuggled in a sponge bag from Switzerland. Dad built this little wall, made that concrete step and rendered that wall. You can’t just come in with a mechanical digger, chuck it all into a skip and cart it off to the dump.

In four weeks, the garden will be transformed. My mother isn’t thrilled by her birthday present but she is resigned to the situation: “I won’t be here much longer, so it doesn’t matter,” she says.  True, she probably won’t be here much longer. But that is precisely why it does matter.

The man contracted to do the paving is sympathetic, and has promised to salvage and recycle what he can, making a rockery in the raised flowerbed along the wall, where we can also plant some of Mom’s old friends. Perhaps it won’t be such a bad birthday present after all.

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8 thoughts on “A Bittersweet Birthday Present

  1. Yes, a sad sort of present but needs must, I suppose. Actually, I’m surprised the St. John’s Wort hasn’t taken over, it’s usually so invasive a plant! However, I’m sure the resulting paving will at least be neat and tidy and there can still be plants in the rockery and flowers in the pots…
    Open gardens in smaller homes are great socialisers – ditto with our neighbours!

  2. Perhaps you could get her some pots to sit on the paving stones, it seems sad to remove all the colour. We don’t have a garden, but our balcony always has flowers blooming, they bring such joy every morning.

  3. Plants in pots can be beautiful. Easy to maintain and arranged to perfection. I’m afraid rockeries are not my forte, each one I had managed to become untidy, overgrown and an eye sore. I’m sure your Mum will appreciate your efforts whatever solution you arrive at

  4. Thank you! It looks as if the overall consensus is for pot plants, and that is a good idea. Yes, the St John’s Wort did take over, but luckily it was penned in behind the little Dutch wall. The forget-me-nots have also been dealt with ruthlessly over the years, but still manage to survive and pop up like weeds in the cracks of the crazy paving. It looks as if I’ll be spending some time repotting the old pals – let’s hope the weather stays bright!

  5. Bittersweet — what a perfect word for this post! My mother, too, was an avid gardener. She even had her gardens front page of the newspaper more than once — you know, a feel-good story in the spring or summer, but I was glad someone besides her family recognized the beauty that she worked so hard to maintain.

    But you got me with the “everything in the garden has a story” line, because that’s exactly why I live in a cluttered house. Someone else may see all this stuff as worthless odds-and-ends, but each thing has a story, and getting rid of some of the stuff feels like I’m getting rid of the memory associated with it too.

    • Yes – we all seem to accumulate our private museums! I’ve been writing down some of the stories with photos of the objects – of interest only to the family, usually, but still part of our heritage.

  6. Change is always difficult unless we are the ones who want to change something. It can be a simple coat of paint or the loss of a garden. On the other hand memories are what often keeps us grounded in life. Please tell you mother that her garden has remained in my mind’s eye for decades and I often thought of her over the years when I visited an “English Garden” – they are not easy to grow in Southern California, but a friend of mine seems to come close at times.

    • Thank you for the empathy, Susanne. Yes, I’ll pass on your message. The garden at the back of the house isn’t so different from when you saw it so many years ago.

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