In The Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Charles Quest-rit­son

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

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