Beyond Mourning

This time of year, we’re supposed to be looking forward to new shoots bursting through the soil, to spring, bringing hope and warmth and better times. Yet this morning, while looking for photographs of something else, I found images of my garden from 2018 which reminded me of garden losses I thought I had dealt with.

They provoked feelings of loss that perhaps only fellow gardeners will understand.

Of course mourning plants is nothing like mourning humans – believe me, I know all about that kind of loss, and it is possible that extreme reactions to losing plants is wrapped up in deeper kinds of grief. But losing a much loved plant or planting scheme can be painful in its own way.

However much you know that ultimately that is what happens, that nothing lasts forever, it hurts. You might even kid yourself that it’s an opportunity for new things, that any replacement will be trendier/cooler/funkier. Then you see just one image of what used to be and your heart sinks.

The images I found this morning are of a garden that now lacks two main features.

I always knew my Ceanothus was living on borrowed time. It was already mature when I moved in in 2003, but its billows of blue in mid spring filled me with such joy, and after I pruned it into a majestic tree, in whose branches I hung a chandelier, it became a summer treat for a night-time garden on those rare, still evenings when I could light all eight candles.

The other feature was even more predictable in its loss. I loved the low, double box hedge that edged the path to the shed. My garden’s tiny but that little piece of formality gave my little terraced house an elegance beyond its modest dreams. The lawn-side had to be regrown after the path was laid – here is is in its first year after replanting.

In a very little garden that gets only a tiny sliver of sunlight, on one side, you have to be very careful about the choices you make in light-loving plants, but I was happy with the solutions I’d made.

I lost both features around the same time: the hedge to box-tree caterpillar…

…the ceanothus to sheer old age:

I left my poor dead plants far longer than I should have done, in the vain hope that maybe, just maybe they were ‘having a rest’ and ‘would recover’ – they didn’t. The ceanothus just got barer and barer:

…while the box just looked bloomin’ awful:

Eventually, with a heavy heart I removed first the box hedge, which came away in my hands, and (cough) most of the ceanothus. I’m still waiting for burly friends to help me with the ceanothus trunk, which I can’t shift alone and which fills me with sadness every time I look at the remaining, shattered branches.

I spent ages trying to work out what to do with the resulting gaps. I visited RHS Wisley’s alternative-to-box garden, for something I might make a new formal with but nothing sang to me for the kind of clipped formality a teeny-tiny garden needs to make such features work.

I told myself I’d go informal, and last year planted two rows of stepover apples. They may work yet but the very fact that I’ve been looking for images I took of the planting and not finding them suggests that I’m not yet totally won over by the idea.

My main border is in chaos, as until the stump comes out I can’t plant anything at all, and I’ve put the surrounding perennials into temporary pots while I wait.

It’s a mess.

Perhaps I’ll replace the ceanothus with a small-growing rowan, one of my favourite trees. I’m looking at Eastern Promise by

Alas, it won’t have the density the ceanothus provided. One of my garden’s chief problems is being overlooked from three angles; that puffy cloud of brilliant blue and ever-green brought more than beauty, it provided much-needed privacy.

I thought I’d made my peace with losing these two. I kidded myself that I was okay with the garden ‘now’, that I was ‘enjoying the challenge’. But this morning, looking at images of two old plant-y friends, I realise that it is possible to mourn for living green, and if not as much as one might for humans or pets or (heavens) the state of the world we live in, that plant-grief – yes – it could be called a kind of grief – is, in a small way, real.

Or course, there is only one way to deal with it – the same way we work to embrace the bigger, deeper forms of grief. We must remember our loved ones with fondness, think of them often – then spend as much time as we can with the living.

That doesn’t stop the occasional pang when we see a reminder of those loved ones, human or otherwise.


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