Cicero observed in the first century, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Does what Rome’s greatest-ever orator believed still hold true today? A garden and a book – everything I need?
Well, maybe. Gardens, and flowers in particular, have been brought into sharp focus for me recently. In one of the two manuscripts I am attempting to complete, it was pointed out that the small and seemingly inconsequential, but recurring, details about geraniums in the story might be important. Seizing upon this fact, the book has now been turned on its head, with a different plot and another title entirely. For any author writing fiction, some percentage of fact always creeps in. In this particular case, plenty of it: the geranium motif is directly related to my mother Mary Elizabeth, upon whom one of the book’s characters is based.
My earliest memories of her include geraniums, red ones in particular, and long after her early and untimely death, I still find myself consoled by the sight of them. Okay, I confess, I press my cheek against the coolness of the pot on occasion, remembering. When the sun is high, blinding in the driest terrain (think South of France, or maybe Cicero’s Italy), geraniums seem to thrive, glow even. They take on whatever is thrown at them—rain or shine, dust and heat—and they bloom. Like the spill of dominoes, once my repeated mentions of them were pointed out to me, one geranium image led to another: from massive earthen pots towering over my young head, spilling over with multi-coloured flowers, to my mother wrist-deep in rich, black soil, planting seedlings while at the same time telling tales of her first job, her first (very small) pay check, and of buying her own beloved mother a small geranium. Every Friday, apparently, her whole family would watch the collection grow. When recounting this to me, Mom would rock back on her heels and together we would breathe in deeply, surveying not only the newly planted geraniums, but also her whole impressive garden in its entirety.
When I look at my own rolling garden today, it is a bit like pressing my cheek to the side of that cool clay pot and remembering Mom: her green thumb, her tenderness, her gardening successes, which stemmed quite simply from a love for all things living. There have been times when I have planted things and times when I have not. Mostly my gardens have run wild, or someone else has done the dirty work, while I merely took the secateurs and stole a bit of this and that—roses to adorn a table or lavender to welcome home my son.
I have an extensive jade plant collection that dates back at least twenty years, having originated with an interior designer who bought a fifty pence plant to dress my first London flat, which she had designed and furnished for a song. The collection now bursts out of a conservatory in Oxford, and I am forever having guests, Chinese ones in particular, sing out as if I didn’t know: “These are lucky, very lucky! Especially placed in the south-west corner.” My chief good fortune lay in discovering from the local arboretum that jade plants are the easiest things to care for, ever. They just grow and grow, and on a good day I just water. In other words, it’s hard to kill them.
As I reflect on my mother and what she taught me about gardens and gardening, I am instantly reminded that I bought my home not so much for the house itself but for the garden. In everything we did, we brought the garden into the house—from drapes, to carpets, to cutlery. Green, green, green.
While like Cicero I would like to believe a library and a garden are all I need, I can attest to the library of my garden that through the year feeds me with food that originated with my mother, and hers before her, and obviously hers before her, and to rock back on my heels today and to look up and marvel at the very nature and beauty of life, the cycles, the birth, the bloom and decay, all that gives me the courage to do as my Chinese friends say (and I am paraphrasing here) as they look up at the rare redwoods transplanted into my garden at least some 100 years ago from North America, towering strangers in an Oxfordshire landscape—that it is a mature woman who plants a tree whose shade she will never know.
Enjoy this summer, the rain, and whatever bounteous garden you find in July, when all things come to a magnificent head, in full blooming glory.
All my love,
On sale, paperback released 28th September