By Jessica Edwards
We are a little late sharing this, but never mind, time flies and reflection is good.
After the suspense of early summer, waiting and hoping, we’ve now got endless rows of lettuce, rocket, mizuna, mustard frills. We are taking bags of mixed leaves to the shop, spiked, and jewelled with dill fronds, basil, chives, fluorescent nasturtiums, buttery marigolds, and blue borage flowers. When you open the bags, the smell is incredible. We have more dahlias than we know what to do with and yet we must cherish every single flower head. We never tire of admiring their perfect symmetry. Astonishing.
India and I have been making small posies; mostly sweet peas, the smaller dahlias, pretty Californian poppies with pleated petals, and the frilly white Ami Majus. When I take them to the shop, people are having coffee, browsing, and queueing. They can’t help smiling when they see the flowers. I love watching the joy on their faces as I put them on the tables. Sometimes they ask me if I am Fee. I tell them no, but the flowers are from her garden. They look at me as though I am the luckiest person alive - I live in Cornwall and work in a beautiful garden. It feels good but, lost for words, I smile, and I hurry back to the garden. I often feel clumsy in conversation. This is the new post-pandemic world. People queuing together, maskless. I reassure myself that I am not alone.
It is not enough to say that this work is therapeutic for me and I will forever be truly grateful to Fee. I am now 18 months old in my grief for my darling boy James, my only child. All this writing, all this gardening, my passion for this job, is all because of him. He was six. He had an incurable brain tumour. I am sorry to end the summer with such a sad diary, but I feel I must write this because I know of no other way of writing except to be honest. I can’t pretend to simply be a sane gardener. There is nothing sane about grief. BUT I believe so profoundly that a strong connection to nature can heal us and if any of you reading this are suffering with loss, I really hope you can find strength to go outside and notice something beautiful, something changing, growing. Like a rare and splendid flower that blooms for a brief time, James had a short but truly inspirational life. He came to me, to teach me that all we need is to be inspired by something and to find hope in order to live fully inside each day.
I dread to think what state I’d be in now if I had not turned to gardening. By letting me loose in her garden, with no qualification or experience, Fee has helped me to heal myself with the beauty and magic of growing. James had only been gone for four months when Fee offered me a few hours a week. I found a place where I could be useful. With a backlog of weddings from the previous year she was busy; the garden needed me and I needed it. But I think Fee also knew that it would be a very gentle step out into the world. Some things are just meant to be.
My introduction to gardening has been a unique journey. To learn a new skill without feeling scrutinised is an organic experience. I have been blessed with time alone to connect with the language of plants, feel for my instincts, learn by doing, trying, experimenting. In those first few weeks Fee said to me, ‘Sow anything you like.’ So, I started out completely winging it, playing at gardening. I remember nervously reading instructions on the seed packets and thinking it couldn’t be that simple. There are times when I have done things wrong; pruned too late, used the wrong compost, sown seeds too deep, watered too heavily etc. Fee, always so encouraging and relaxed, said it didn’t matter, said that we could move things, sow again, wait to see if it would grow again. This approach was strange to me after growing up working in the bakery with my dad, always the perfectionist. Traying up pasties for the oven he could easily position every pasty three times before he was happy. Everybody has their own way of doing things and now I am finding mine. I’m connecting with my instincts and growing my passions.
After a week off in early July, the morning I am due back I receive a message from India.
- It’s gone a bit wild, she said.
When I arrive, I feel I have shrunk, made smaller by a jungle-like beauty. It’s silly but I can’t help feeling as though I missed the magic. I look at the Jerusalem artichokes - giants that have outgrown their canes - they say, We’re all grown up now, we don’t need you anymore. The sweet peas, frilly and lacy, reaching for the sky have tripled in size, the lovage is in the clouds, the Globe artichokes look too heavy to stand the way they do, so solid, thick trunk-like stems. A new dahlia called Cafe au Lait has creamy blooms 10/12 cm across.
The Sweet Peas fill me with joy. The perfume is carrying me through the summer. They are opening faster than we can cut them. Standing between the four wigwams, I wonder if there is anything better than this scent? Snipping away with one hand, collecting with the other (always slightly shocked that this is my new life) I can feel my brain come alive, stimulated by this heady immersion. I am hidden. I have joined the bees. I close my eyes and ask, what is this smell like? It reminds me of vanilla ice cream. So sweet and yet so fresh. With a big handful I smell them as hard and as fully as I can, breathing in deeply, filling my head. As I do this, I feel bad for a good friend of mine who lost her sense of smell years ago after a bad cold.
I wish you could see what I am trying to describe. I try to take photos but it’s useless. Nothing of the moment is captured. I’m ingesting the goodness, taking medicine for my soul. It’s the soothing cool pea greens, luscious and sunny. As I walk into the garden on my left the sight of the four wigwams are always the first thing. I can’t wait to get my scissors out. It makes me feel like my mother. Until she retired, she was a hairdresser and as I am snipping away my hands become hers, shaping someone’s head. Unruly laxed strands have come loose and reach out into the air looking for something to wrap around but there is nothing and so tendrils bounce on the breeze, suspended. We’ve been adding more canes around the outside of the wigwam and tying in the loose ends.
The way plants grow in this garden is incredible. It’s a very open, sunny site and stems are spoiled for choice, branching out in all directions. When I sit still and silent, just watching the being and the growing l can sense how much the plants love being together. In my garden at home in Wadebridge my Cosmos and Dahlias are a quarter of the size, like different plants all together. Here in Rock, just five miles down the road, everything is light and airy, so much taller, swaying with pride. I assume it’s the sand. What you see above ground - long stems branching out, loose and roomy, reflects what is going on below, roots freely spreading in warm, well-aerated soil. It is perhaps also an effect of the drought. A lot of lettuce and rocket has bolted. Sensing danger, they panic and shoot up, producing flowers to spread their seed.
I am learning the importance of free draining soil. How can you flourish if your feet are tied? If something in a pot is not doing well, often I take it out and the bottom is clogged and bogged. There is the downside - a lack of water retention means relentless watering, but Fee has a well with pump and hose attached. Watering can seem like an early morning or late-night chore when you’re exhausted or in a hurry but once you get started it's a lovely way to start or end a day. It’s not back breaking; it’s nurturing. If I arrive early, I want to make myself scarce because Fee is having some peace alone in her garden, quietly wandering with the hose. There is only the sound of the breeze in the Eucalyptus and the Bamboo. The sparrows and blackbirds are dashing in and out of the hedges. Mornings belong to nature. I don’t want to interrupt. I am keen to blend in, crouch in a bed with the smells of the earth, up close to the traffic of ants.
As I write now it is the 10th of August. Earlier in the month I could feel the sense of tiredness amongst the beds. It’s time to feed everything and top up with compost. I’m still using the nettle and seaweed fertilisers we made. The well is struggling to cope with demand. I can’t remember the last time it properly rained. Maybe one shower in the last week of July. Fee has been watering well into the night, even in the dark. It seems we had little time to acclimatise. The heat is sudden and strange to us. The mind panics before the body needs to. I’m not one for regulating my temperature, always with backup garments, socks, cooler footwear, and oddly a scarf, jumper and raincoat. Cornwall can be March on a mountain top and July in the Med, all in one half of a day. I’m prepared for a slight change, ridiculously carrying a wardrobe full of variations in my van, so afraid of discomfort. The thicker layers are now a distant memory having lived like a Mediterranean for the longest time. Sustained HEAT- What a treat to my bones - they feel soft, loose and nourished. It has been challenging at times. We are not used to it. ‘Wet collar and wet cuffs’ have helped. I always wear a long sleeve cotton shirt so when I get too hot, I can soak my collar and cuffs, keeping my neck and wrists cool.
I worry for the garden. I can’t protect it from this fierce heat. But it still looks so beautiful, with many plants relishing it and others adapting. I’ve been telling myself - I can adapt too! Plants do not have additional layers to add or remove. We want to feel ambient and comfortable and are quick to panic when in fact if we accept our circumstances, breathe and relax then we can adjust. The survival instinct can bring real beauty with so many bursting buds and colour to bathe in. Some gardeners say tough love is best. I guess, when threatened, we thrive.
Last month I left a clump of nettles in the corner by the bean canes, (runners, French and borlotti all mingling and twisting together). I’d read something about the nettles attracting something and it being good. I couldn’t remember the details but left them anyway. They attract the Cabbage White butterflies. I can think of more comfortable foliage to lay eggs on but that’s the cleverness of nature. They do it of course to protect their eggs from grazing animals and many species are dependent on nettles. Now hundreds of caterpillars have devoured the prickly foliage until skeleton stems can barely stand. Less than a foot away from this hot bed of munching, the old CD’s strung up around the Cavelo and lettuce have worked well; scaring off the birds. However, as the butterflies have run out of nettles, they have chosen the kalettes, which are now being devoured by the caterpillars. Perhaps next year we’ll have a nettle bed!
Monday 5th September
As I sit here writing, my shoulders are braced for a storm. I am watching my flowers being knocked this way and that by the abrupt arrival of autumn and I am willing them to live another month. The window is open. It is a warm wind. As clouds race across the sky the sun fills the room for a moment or two and then it is gone. Sudden gusts are mean, the way they burst into the garden surprising the late flowers. Tall perennials (that have lived a sheltered life in the kindest August that I have ever known) are not prepared and I’ve been out staking them. What a treat it was to have a proper long hot summer (although there were days when I thought that every plant might collapse, when I had no energy to water again) and now all the stillness of that strange exotic heat has been replaced by flickering fading light, falling leaves and blustery sprays of rain. Tomorrow I will go to Fee’s Garden after three days away and I know there will be a change. A feeling of the earth’s thirst thoroughly quenched. But also, a beaten-up feeling. The beds have been through it all - a cold but dry spring, unsure of whether to get going or not, crazy temperatures and weeks without rain and now of course the winds have returned. This week we have been cherishing the last few sweet peas. We are still cutting courgettes daily. Pulling up rhubarb and picking tomatoes and chillies. We can’t take our eyes off the shocking pink of the Borlotti bean pods and of course there are still hundreds of Dahlia buds.
At the far end of the garden the pumpkins have grown themselves a whole world of their own, like a miniature forest hiding pockets of go. Spying them, growing bigger every day under their canopy of sprawling foliage, gives us the hope we need for this period of transition into colder, darker months. And now thinking back to midsummer - when one day we were saving the falling rose petals to make confetti - the long days of warmth and everlasting light feel like a dream. I remember taking a mountain of silk and velvet petals indoors to lay them out on some newspaper on the dining table. In layered shades of dusky pink and deep magenta, each petal so delicate and weightless, it looked like a piece of art, a mosaic, framed by the edge of the paper. When I returned later the whole house smelled of roses. I think I’ll remember that forever.
And so with the rain now pouring and the sun further away, we say Goodbye Summer, and what a summer it was. But with every goodbye there comes a hello - and now we look forward to enjoying autumn, with beans and squash with everything.
If you want to read more of my writing you can find me at www.jessicaedwards.substack.com - Substack is a brilliant writing platform I am using to remember my late son James.