Peter Dowdall muses on the bittersweet relinquishing of a much-cherished space in the face of old age.
Watching farmers cutting their fields on a rare sunny evening recently, I was thinking about how much hard work is involved in that life.
But of course, I know working on the land and with the ground is different — it’s not work, it’s a lifestyle. There are few things as relaxing and rewarding as tending the garden well into the night-time hours on a sunny summer evening.
You can get lost in the moment, absorbed by the shadows and summer scents, become positively annoyed at the darkness creeping in to stop you from pruning and weeding. There’s a calmness about dusk and late evening, the day drawing to a close, bees weighed down and drunk with nectar finding their way home to the hive. The air feels slightly heavier as everything begins to slow down for the evening except for the odd bat flying past and hedgehogs making their way out and about with other nocturnal creatures, in search of tasty slugs and snails and other garden pests.
The scents seem to be so much stronger at night, indeed my own plot welcomes me these evenings with the nearly over powering sweet aroma of Matthiola longipetala or Night Scented Stock as it’s more commonly known. Plants like this release their perfume in the evening to attract nocturnal pollinators and they certainly bring another level of enjoyment to the garden.
Of course to those that don’t ‘get it’ yet, I and those like me must seem strange. I use the word ‘yet’ because while maybe not everybody ‘gets it’ in the end, more and more people succumb as they get older. I am certainly in the minority having developed the gardening bug from a very young age and it only gets stronger and stronger as I get older.
Addiction isn’t always bad, sometimes a hobby can become a passion and gardening is one of those pursuits that can become all encompassing. The search for that particular variety, persisting with that plant that just hasn’t established for you time and time again, tinkering with the soil to try and change nutrient levels and pH. That desire to get back from work, or whatever is keeping you from the garden, so you can get stuck in, can become an overpowering impulse.
Similar to plants, we humans too put down roots - the house that we live in be it newly built for us or a house that was some other family’s beforehand - becomes a home. As children are introduced the house bustles and is truly alive and full of energy. The garden too becomes part of that home and part of who we are. These roots that we put down can’t be seen but they are physical, they come from within.
So what happens when we age? That garden that you have created and tended, nurtured and developed, in which you spent those dusky evenings - what happens when it becomes all too much? Are you just supposed to just sit back and watch nature take it back, watch it go to rack and ruin? That can only be heart breaking when the ageing body no longer allows you to dig and prune with the gusto of the younger you.
Do you downsize because the nest is now empty and you no longer need all the bedrooms and living space? It must be difficult to leave the house that was home to you and your family as it grew and matured, but it must be impossible to leave the garden behind. I can’t imagine what the wrench must be like, a bit like lifting a mature tree out of the soil I guess, you can nearly feel the tree’s pain as the roots are pulled unwillingly out of the ground.
So yes, more people get into gardening as they age, and the older we get, the more enthusiastic we become but it’s one of the bitter ironies in life that the more we appreciate it the less we are able to maintain it. I’m not looking forward to the day that I can’t garden because my aching back or leg tells me to sit down - I hope it never comes. So what’s my suggestion? I don’t have one, I don’t know the answer.
Do you downsize and leave the garden you have loved for so long and hope that the next family will care as much as you do, or do you let nature take its course and become accepting of the fact that not everything may be as you would like it. The answer is as individual as the person asking the question.
But what I do know is that we must enjoy everyday, appreciate every moment in the garden. While I am fit and able I thank God for the ability to be able to enjoy my garden, to seek out those missing plants, to be able to dig a new bed and move plants if I’m not happy with where they are.
I will truly appreciate this evening as the sun goes down and I enjoy once more my perfume filled patio before the stocks fade at the end of the summer and one more season ends.
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