I tumbled into a love of gardening in my middle age, finally escaping London to buy a house
in a mediaeval town in the High Weald of Kent. The walled garden that came with it is not large, nor tiny, but just the right size for someone happy to make their own mistakes, with one long, sunny border, several square beds in dappled shade and a scruffy greenhouse tucked in the corner. I had volunteered for the rangers at Sissinghurst Castle, tackling tough, woodland tasks, but little in the way of gardening, so I applied to help one day a week at the renowned Great Dixter, to see if I could improve my skills. This was a life-changer, indeed. Under the patient eyes of a team of young and talented gardeners, led with infectious charisma by Fergus Garrett, I did my utmost not to kill anything and absorb everything, though failed, probably, on both counts. My modest garden began to flourish. A sense of wonder set in, an appreciation of when and where to plant and a keenness to be daring;
inhabiting Dixter was to exist, however briefly, in a masterpiece and my dreams were full of colour and shapes for nights after each visit. My iPhone filled with photos of plants, idents of plants, wish-lists of plants, plants, plants.
And then disaster struck, or seemed to. A year into volunteering, I damaged my Achilles tendon and was off my feet for weeks, unable to really dig and heft about for months. Impossibly worse, just as I recovered in time for Christmas 2018, I found an undeniable, egg-shaped invader lurking deep in my left breast and by early January was informed that it was indeed a cancer and of the aggressive bent, so I would be forced to go through six rounds of chemotherapy, then surgery and radio therapy, stretching far into the Autumn and recuperation beyond. Almost a year swallowed up before my eyes on only January 2nd . Of course, the immediate fallout had little to do with gardening; priorities are what they are when you have two boys and a husband and a working life to try to protect, though I did find
myself googling “gardening during chemotherapy” in the days that followed and being told by my sensible MacMillan nurse that the risk of infection was likely too high, given the bashing my immune system would take. I shrugged it off; what did the garden matter, in the scheme of life and death. A flurry of invasive tests bludgeoned Winter, Valentine’s Day marked the beginning of chemo, but, by March, Spring was clamouring at the door and I gazed at my neglected borders, shocked to feel such despair. The Honesty, Sweet Rocket, Snapdragons, Calendula and so much more I had sown the previous year for planting out, were busting out of their pots, weeds of every ilk were taking possession of the beds and my plans to build on anything I had learned at Dixter seemed as laughable as returning to life
before the diagnosis. Some start had to be made.
It seemed my garden did matter, a great deal, especially on the worst days of chemo, when hours shrank to monotonous shifts between nausea, indescribable fatigue, or worst of all, dank depression. At first, merely going outside seemed a stretch, the Spring chill and unfinished tasks an unwelcome weight; but looking became everything. One of the best
things about gardening is that there is always a subtle difference to be made; a snip here, a weed pulled there, a handful of seeds scattered, all add up to a visible difference and a sense of achievement. I reopened my seed box and began to dream again, pulling out one packet a day and sowing just a few, wrapped up against the cold and possible scratches in my little
potting station. Walking out to water the greenhouse anchored my days and in the third week of every regime, as toxicity lifted, I found a surge of energy to plant out whatever I could, often late by weeks, but with a sense of delicious victory. My 49th birthday brought stout presents of gauntlet gloves and a long-handled weed tickler as well as a desire to involve my
menfolk in what had been a rather private, even prickly obsession. Deep holes were dug for two white climbing roses over an ivy-clad arch, inspired by one of my favourite photographs of Dixter, a project which I had put off, endlessly, for no good reason. Seeing these beauties in place, already scrambling for height and for life itself, feels like a promise to the future I
am determined to be part of.
So, the cycle of sowing, potting on and planting out flows into Summer, albeit much more sedately than I had in mind and with weeds merrily filling the gaps. In May, I find myself halfway through treatment, calmer than where I began and philosophical, thanks, to be sure, to my lovely family, the incredible NHS, but, not least,
because in every corner of the garden, life my own hands have pressed into the soil, prevails.