Last autumn my sister rang me in tears. Her partner had inadvertently dug up a patch of primroses in their garden. Why this reaction to an innocent gardening mistake? Because these primroses came from our late mother’s garden. My sister, brother and I had carefully transplanted a few of her beloved yellow Primula vulgaris to each of our gardens, hoping to keep something of her alive; they were her favourite flower. Every time I see them begin to flower in the shady patch opposite my kitchen window, I remember her joy at their springtime blooms.
My mother died from cancer nearly six years ago. While the initial shock and sharpness of the loss has ebbed, I am still learning to live with the gap she has left in the world. We were close and, among other things, shared a love of gardening. When she came to stay she would bring muddy carrier bags full of slug-nibbled lettuce, handfuls of chard or surprisingly small leeks. We would set about pruning or weeding together, talking mostly, but also happily working in silence.
This garden, like our house, is not actually ours. We have rented it for the past 11 years, becoming one of a string of tenant families to call it home. The previous inhabitants had planted some red clover, wallflowers, geraniums, daylilies and herbs in the beds stretching along the northern wall, but the rest of the garden was rather wild and unruly when we moved in. I have gradually tried to tame it, creating vegetable beds and a pond, and planting up the flower beds to fill with astrantia, nepeta, roses, penstemon, salvia and other cottage garden stalwarts. This year I bought a secondhand greenhouse and am hoping to grow a steady supply of lettuce, rocket, cucumbers and tomatoes for my family and friends.
In their previous two houses, my mother and stepfather had small courtyard gardens and little time for gardening. When they moved to their last home 24 years ago, they finally had a decent sized plot to get stuck into. As well as renovating the house they set about rescuing the garden, which had been used as a scrapyard for years. They made vegetable patches and created a wide, sweeping flowerbed crammed with hollyhocks, roses, irises, asters and foxgloves. My mother planted a herb bed near the back door and was thrilled to discover an old well, which she restored and fitted with a water feature she would turn on for the grandchildren to splash each other or fill buckets to help her water the plants. She would walk me around the garden, pointing out what was flowering and telling me what she was planning for the next season.
When we were clearing out my mother’s things, I found her garden diary, written from 2004-2016. It is a small notebook, bound in blue cloth, with handmade paper inset with pressed flowers inside. The entries record what is in flower and the jobs she has been doing: “Irises have been stunning. New space under lilac planted up & annuals sown.”
It plugs me straight back into a moment in her garden – I can suddenly see her dividing irises, planting lavender and harvesting peppers and courgettes. I conjure the salad she is making from her lettuces, complete with the odd overlooked stray snail. I smell the Paul’s Himalayan Musk rose she picks for the kitchen table. I paint her back into that patch of land with imaginary brushstrokes.
Her notes offer comparisons and prompts – for this month, a reminder to mow the grass. She always recorded the first mowing of the year, as this excerpt from March 2014 shows: “I mowed the grass, pruned the roses and manured them. Daffodils, primroses, hellebores all looking beautiful. Spring has sprung.” She also recorded things that hadn’t gone well. I have learned now to remember what every experienced gardener knows: there is always next year.
When she was alive, gardening became a way we could merge our lives, crossing between time and place with harvests, seeds and stories of triumphs and failures. She offered me advice on pruning, and I gave her jars of cosmos and dahlias, thrilled to show her how I was learning to grow in this garden of ours.
Although I had always been vaguely interested in gardening, I became bewitched by creating an intentional garden when we moved to our current house. With a big space and the freedom to experiment, calling on my mother’s help when I was overwhelmed with motherhood and life, I found myself dreaming about what I would plant, or wishing I was outside plunging my hands into the soil.
After my mother’s death, poleaxed by grief, I initially gave up on the garden. But when spring arrived I was drawn back outside by an inexplicable sense of wanting to make it look beautiful and abundant for her. I sense her presence more strongly in my garden than anywhere else. It feels as if she is part of every leaf, petal and crumbling fistful of soil.
My garden became a place where I could plant hope, feel defiance instead of the helplessness of loss, and connect with the history of this small plot of land and the people who tended it before me. My mother gave my daughter a rose for her second birthday and brought me some soft apricot-hued hollyhocks she had dug up from her garden. These now grow happily alongside our shed, the rose and my daughter (now 11) both growing taller each year.
The primroses I transplanted shine their pale, yellow faces among the daffodils and ferns. The peony cuttings I took on my last visit to her now-empty house – which, since the death of my stepfather in 2020, is waiting to be sold – are thriving in pots and beds, readying themselves for their summer show. As I deadhead a flower, I feel my fingers using the same pinch-twist-snap motion that I saw her fingers make so many times. Summer blooms have become bouquets for her grave. I have said several farewells to her garden, but will probably return for one final goodbye.
Reading about her successes and struggles, I find echoes of my own – the grand hopes at the start of spring, and the disappointing failures as the growing season unfolds. I love seeing my own tasks reflected in her work over the years, finding solace in the sense of continuity that gardens offer us. Like generations both before and ahead of me (climate change-depending), I pull weeds, earth up potatoes, sow seeds to feed my family. We can take cuttings from friends, uproot and replant plants from places we leave, collect seeds from faraway landscapes and hope they take root in our soil. In contrast to the stagnation of grief, our gardens are constantly evolving. They contain multitudes and reach beyond their defined boundaries. Even when we are long gone, parts of us remain.
Lulah Ellender is the author of Grounding: Finding Home in a Garden, published by Granta (£16.99) this week