I might have mentioned my lack of garden quite a lot lately. Sorry. I try and rein in the self pity but it is so evident that my little green eye is vexed by anyone who has a small patch of land in which to see out their ‘Stay Home’.
It is not the lack of vitamin D and sunshine – I am popping vitamins pills and slathering on fake tan stoically (secret is out) – no, I actually surprise myself by being jealous of other people being able to grow things. This is surprising for I am not known for my green fingers.
My daily fresh air comes in the form of a run (ok, gentle jog – tapering to a walk) and I go out early in the morning to avoid drones and the looks of disgust that runners and cyclists now seem to evoke. It is on these runs particularly that I realise how much I miss flowers. I have been running along paths lined with bluebells (in and out, in and out, singing as I go – in my head, obviously) and have allowed myself to admit that I am not only missing some flora in my life, but I am also missing my sister. She was adamant that she had only changed her address when she left us last summer but it has taken this enforced quietness for me to admit that I think she left us with the wrong postcode.
Sis loved bluebells, and she loved being outside. When I am running I often wonder what she would make of this bonkers Covid world; I am relieved – for her sake – that she escaped this waiting room of potential infection and I know that others are not so fortunate. It doesn’t stop us missing her though.
I am touched to receive a message from one of her special friends, revealing that bluebells are sparking the same response from her. ‘Bluebells being out reminds me of your bonkers sister – I’ll send you some badly behaved photos from a bluebell walk we took a few years back.’ Lovely photo. Typically Sis is grinning from ear to ear.
When we were growing up our parents tried hard to encourage the four of us to embrace horticulture and to become a mini team of gardeners. We weren’t really buying it. They had foolishly bought a house with a ridiculous amount of garden and it was this that was their downfall – the garden was far too much of a distraction compared to the manual labour they were keen to encourage. I am probably remembering our ‘estate’ as much larger than it was, but our ‘plot’ certainly had a bluebell dingle, woods and even an out of bounds railway cutting (which was probably why my parents got the house so cheap). These untamed opportunities fed our desire for make believe and escapism rather than engineering a compulsion to assist our parents in laying new paths (our father couldn’t even sway our heads with the purchase of a concrete mixer) or mowing lawns. Actually, to be fair, my older brother was master of both the lawn mower and the concrete mixer, it was we three girls who were a disappointment to dad’s pre Barbara and Tom version of ‘The Good Life’.
Give him his due, dad persisted, cordoning off three sections of earth next to his dahlia garden. ‘There’s a strip here for each of you girls, see what you can grow. Here, have a look at my seed catalogue’. It wasn’t like him to be encouraging us to spend money so he had our attention, temporarily. We humoured him, marking small flower beds out for each allotment with shells and pebbles brought back from family holidays. We were actually more excited that each plot was denoted by the proud placement of our respective garden ornament – a gift that dad allowed us to choose from a garden centre that majored in garden tat. My older sister chose a frog, my middle sister a kitten and I selected an owl – I found it years later and realised I had chosen a hideous looking bird. I swear it had mange. For years I had been scathing of the large gnome our grandmother placed on her rockery, now I realise that in comparison to my owl, this gnome represented fine art.
I remember that we started out quite diligently, tending our miniature gardens and drilling (horticultural term) seeds into mounds of damp compost. We labelled wooden tags with – at best – the latin names of our chosen plants (if our grandma was staying – for she was a Gardener’s Question Time aficionado) and – at worst – a small drawing of the flower we hoped would emerge if we remembered to water our plots and not get distracted by the bluebell wood (Hyacinthoides or common bluebell, thank you Grandma) – oh and a brand new set of double swings located by those bluebells.
My own flower bed became a reflection of my grasshopper brain, a mad explosion of marigolds, sweet peas, snap dragons and nasturtiums – flowers of clashing colour and perfume. Wait, perhaps this is what I imagined it to be. I will have to check out the facts with older sis. What I realise now is that a gnome would have looked totally at home in my garish landscape; no wonder that owl looked miserable.
I didn’t cultivate my patch very well, but they say that weeds are just flowers growing in the wrong place.
While I was temporarily distracted by some Spring time gardening, my middle sister must have had her head turned by flowers already growing in the woods. She must have been tempted by the ready planted banks of vermillion bluebells with which nature had so impressively carpeted the hillocks leading to the next door neighbour’s donkey paddock. My sis always did have a more natural taste in flowers and must have preferred the depth created by one flower growing en masse, compared to the cacophonous patchwork that I was attempting to cultivate.
One day, during a long Easter holiday, middle sis was absent from both the breakfast and lunch table (remember those days when a family sat down to eat together?) and our mother became agitated. She was already put out that in his gardening invitation our father had given us a ‘get out of inside chores’ card and now we seemed to be becoming feral. She sent me off with my older sister to find our missing sibling.
We found her at the end of our long drive, by the gates. She was perched on our wall, a large old pram on the pavement below her, full to the brim with bunches of bluebells, each bound in a strip of our mother’s tin foil, each bunch available to be purchased for six pence. (Yes, a prehistoric story).
Sales appeared to have been going briskly and our sis was clearly buoyed by a morning of strong commerce. She was now sitting back and waiting for the post-lunch time trade. The blue bells were starting to wilt a little, but she was confident that they would last long enough to see her into retirement – or at least to the end of this school holiday and a return to regular pocket money income.
When we returned with the news of my sister’s whereabouts, rather than being relieved, our mother was incandescent with rage. ‘ The shame! The neighbours! Our own daughter forced to sell weeds to help us make ends meet! The shame! ’
She stomped down to the gates and upended the pram, scattering bunches of blue bells and creating a spectacle instead of defusing one. Picking up the tin used to collect my sister’s ‘illicit’ earnings, our mother thrust it in her face and demanded that she track down every single person that she had sold flowers to that morning and return their money to them.
Sis rolled her eyes at the implausibility of this instruction, calmly righted the pram and collected the bunches of flowers in a dignified manner, placing them back in her make- shift stall. Taking a biro from her pocket, she turned over her handwritten ‘blue bells for sale’ sign and on the other side wrote, ‘Help yourself, bluebells to make you smile – a present from my mother’.
It seems no coincidence that the bluebells have been particularly fine this year. I took a detour on my daily run today (don’t tell Boris) just to soak up some of the last bluebell lanes and to allow another opportunity to remember former dog walks with sis. Back at the flat I am faced with a new challenge however, for I have been gifted one of the few indoor plants that Sis would tolerate – a pot of her beloved orchids; already I feel challenged by the responsibility to get this collection looking as healthy as she left them.
Instead of consulting Radio 4’s back catalogue of ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ I find myself distracted by thoughts of my grandma’s gnome. Hard as I try I can not remember what she called him. He was just always there on the rockery looking sort of happy and surprised at the same time. I do remember that grandma pimped her gnome each Spring by giving him a fresh coat of paint – she had no truck with beards, but spruced up Mr Gnome’s full set of whiskers with a white can of masonry paint and finished the makeover by applying some rather rakish red lips. For some reason Mr Gnome’s beard seemed to have a life of its own; the top section seemed to be tucked in under his jumper and then reappeared to drape down over his trousers – perhaps this was my grandmother’s nod to decency or perhaps she just didn’t have enough paint – either way it goes some way to explaining Mr G’s surprised expression (see photo above).
Daunted by the thought of repotting sis’ orchids, I buy time by messaging my older brother and sister to find out if they can remember the name of grandma’s gnome. They can’t, they too just knew him as Mr Gnome. They tell me that he dates back to the 1940’s. Respect. Better still, it turns out that he is still going; he now sits in my brother’s flower bed and still looks quite dapper. It almost makes me wonder whether my brother should have asked dad for one of those small gardening plots back in the day instead of earning so many bragging rights by mowing that vast lawn.
It also makes me wish we had kept my sister’s kitten statue from her garden; when I next have some land, I would place it in a wild patch of bluebells (Hyacinthoides, if you will) and ask if I could borrow Mr Gnome to keep it company.
Tippy tippy tap tap on my shoulder (I am just singing it in my head, honestly), I feel sis drawing my attention back to the orchids (sorry, Orchidaceae) for the dusty bluebells I saw on this morning’s run look done and dusted for another year. Sis will be wanting to refocus my attention back indoors to help me through this Lock Down, and next spring we can start a campaign to unleash these blue ‘weeds’ ( colligentes zizania) and let them grow wherever they flipping well want to.