A spring chicken braves the botanical battleground armed with pruning shears, trowel and lashings of back rub.
My Dad ruined gardening for me. While you may associate the wonders of springtime with the smell of freshly mown grass and fragrant flowers, my scent associations are a mix of menthol, camphor, ammonium salicylate and a mixture of methyl and ethyl esters – commonly known to non-chemists as back rub.
Every Easter Bank Holiday Monday our back garden would turn into a scene reminiscent of a war time scorched-earth campaign. A botanical bloodbath that would see plants pruned to within an inch of their lives, hedges hacked, weeds and flowers ripped up with wild abandon and border edging so severe that the ever-decreasing lawn looked like a moated medieval settlement when it rained. On and on the battle raged, from morning until early evening. I was placed on tea duty – Mum knowing to steer clear – which I would place on the garden wall and shout ‘tea’ at the top of my voice before scuttling back to the sanctuary of the sitting room. Don’t get me wrong. Away from the garden my father was as congenial a soul as one could wish for – the very epitome of the ‘life of the party’.
But that garden changed him.
Hunched over, sunburnt, lacerated (“bleedin’ rose bushes”) and dripping with sweat – some of which would gather in pools inside his thick rimmed glasses that he refused to remove – he’d stagger, shell-shocked back into the house.
Mum knew the drill and had already run his bath. With exhaled oohs and aahs, and a touch of blue language when cut hands were first submerged into hot water, he’d then proceed to undertake the longest ‘soak’ in the history of bath-taking. Following the wallowing, he would slather half a bottle of back rub across his lower back, making the whole top floor of the house smell like Bobby Charlton’s kit bag. We’d all awake on Tuesday morning with clear sinuses and a terrible headache.
They say the sins of the father are passed on to their children and when I had a place to call home, I too found myself adopting my Dad’s approach to horticulture. It came down to this. You view gardening as a massive chore, so you put it off. Mother nature carries on relentlessly, so when you do come around to addressing the garden it is an even bigger chore. So, you embark on three or four big sessions a year – each time requiring a huge amount of backbreaking work which you hate, so you keep putting it off until the neighbours raise their eyebrows or a petition to remove you from the street.
I was of the firm belief that if God wanted us to be gardeners, he’d have given us hinged backs. I was officially a spring chicken – fearful of the four days of aches and pains that would follow the marathon eight-hour garden session of planting things, cutting things down, cutting them back and pulling them out. At one point I even thought about laying astro turf.
And then I retired.
Days that had previously been filled with meetings, reports, overtime and bustle morphed into hours and hours of free time. A huge empty vessel in which I could pour, within reason, whatever I wanted. Suddenly, rather than a chore, gardening became a release. I studied plants; cultivated a herb garden with my wife; even built a bird table. Now I proudly potter around, embracing the seasons and the different opportunities they bring.
Later life, after all, is about growing as a person.