In The Garden
WE are living longer and it impacts upon our gardening. Graham Thomas once said—he must have been about 85 at the time—that it was difficult to get down and start weeding, because the ground seemed so far away. And there comes a point when your children mutter that you really ought to move into ‘something more sensible’ for your waning years.
That’s a big mistake. Most of us are much happier not being bossed around, but struggling on with the garden we know and love. The answer is to get a little more help in the garden and to buy a golf buggy to chug around it. Maurice Mason, one of the greatest all-round plantsmen of the 20th century, designed his arboretum in Norfolk with broad rides along which, in lame old age, he cruised very slowly in an elderly unlicensed Rolls-royce.
The great joy of living longer than you expect is watching how the trees you planted in your youth continue to grow and sometimes to flower for the first time. It sets you thinking how they’ll go on increasing in size and beauty when you’re no longer around to enjoy them.
Actually, one of the strangest urges that afflicts aged gardeners is the desire to plant ever more trees. I suppose it’s just another manifestation of what geriatricians call ‘inappropriate behaviour’.
I turned 70 in June and realised how much I look forward to the future. It would be wonder- ful to live long enough to see all my grandchildren grow into adulthood and, as for gardening, well, there are all sorts of new plants I want to grow and so many new ideas for laying out and planting the garden that I want to explore. However, most people respond to advancing age in one of two ways. Some hang on tenaciously to what they’ve done in the past, resisting all suggestions that require lifestyle changes. These are the people who won’t allow trees to be trimmed or shrubs to be pruned, so their houses are becoming surrounded by overgrown gloom.
Other people want to try out new ideas and keep themselves mentally active, no matter what limitations age may impose on their physical powers. Hannah Hutchinson, whose garden at Owl Cottage on the Isle of Wight was a treasure house for herbaceous plants, celebrated reaching 90 by digging out her roses and replacing them with colourful grasses and sedges. Christopher Lloyd told everyone that he was bored with his roses at Great Dixter and was going to pull them all out (actually, he left some in situ) and plant an exotic garden of bright colours and bold foliage in their place.
In the old days, when medicine was more basic, failing eyesight was more of a problem. Monet gardened as he painted, but eye trouble altered the way in which he saw the world. Yellow cataracts ‘desaturated’ his colour vision so his paintings showed more use of yellow and red as the years passed by; this was the period in which he began to plant trailing nasturtiums for summer and autumn colour.
My elderly grandmother, who had practised Jekyll-style planting all her life, reworked the formal garden outside her dining room and filled it with orange-flowered Floribunda roses. It turned out that she, too, had cataracts.
As for me, I’ve always loved nasturtiums and planted them to grow up through hedges. Bright Floribundas excite me, although I’m too timid to plant them. However, I do admit to a strange hankering for scarlet geraniums and have been thinking of planting hundreds of them in the turning circle in front of the house.
I’ll get my eyes tested, but I think this yearning for bright colours is no more than nostalgia for the days of my youth, when brilliant geraniums and lobelia were the staples of summer bedding. Because that’s the other effect of ageing: one looks back on life as keenly as one once looked forward to it.
Charles Quest-ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses
The Garden Path at Giverny (1902): Monet gardened as he painted despite his fading eyesight