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March 2009

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Inherited garden interest, artichokes, hellebores and memories

Since I last wrote for this magazine I have lost both of my parents. They were frail and elderly but it was still a shock. My father, who was eighty-nine, died before Christmas and my mother, who was ninety-four, lost the will to live - something we knew instinctively would happen - and followed him in a short time. There were just forty days between their deaths. 
It was from my parents Jim and Kathleen that I inherited my love of gardening, albeit taking some time to develop for I was well into my thirties when that happened. Before that I was resolutely uninterested in gardening. I liked to look at beautiful gardens but recoiled at the thought of doing any actual work in them. However my mother, like all good gardeners, was patient and when her seeds of interest finally germinated she helped and encouraged me all she could.

My parents' garden was beside the house where they lived since they got married in 1940. My father Jim was only interested in vegetable growing and had no time for ornamental gardening. The vegetable garden was on about half an acre of ground away from the house and here he grew a very wide variety of vegetables, including courgettes and Jerusalem artichokes - usually called ‘fartichokes' because of their wind-making propensities - long before they were available in shops. Potatoes did particularly well in the fast-draining limey soil and he grew an early variety called ‘May Queen' which tasted better than any potato I've had since.
Jim was always urging me to have a vegetable garden and was very disapproving when I made a white garden in 1997 where the hen run had been when this was a working farm. However our soil is heavy and damp and much harder to work than theirs. In memory of my father I'm going to grow vegetables this year but I'm going to start off gradually by growing them in containers alongside annual flowers. Then if that is successful - and it's a very big if because I'm not good with seeds - I'll develop a patch of land next year.
My mother Kathleen loved flowers and created garden ‘rooms' in any place where there was soil. Their house was a mill house so the garden ran right alongside a river, on both sides of a waterfall that came from the mill dam and on one bank of the dam itself. She even had a small walled garden inside a roofless building that had been there since the early 19th century in the days when linen was manufactured. The light soil was easy to work but constantly needed humus added to it. Before the use of peat was unacceptable she used copious quantities of the stuff. A man used to drive a tractor and trailer load from about eighteen miles away, near the shore of Lough Neagh. She was able to grow a camellia which still flowers abundantly every year.
Kathleen managed to have flowers every day of the year and hellebores, in particular, always thrived for her. In fact so well did they bloom that I was convinced for years that they would hate the acid soil of my own garden. I would never take any seedlings she offered me because I feared they would die. Then someone else dug out a clump for me and I discovered I could grow them too. There was much rivalry about who could grow the biggest clumps or have the most interesting seedlings or even whose flowered the earliest. She usually won!
Jim's vegetable garden has long since been built on as the engineering works that replaced the mill needed to extend. Kathleen's garden, despite being easy to work in, needs the attention that she gave it, before she was nearly crippled with osteoporosis, to look its best. I walked round it on the day of her funeral and already it's turning into a wilderness. Sadly this is what so often happens to gardens when their loving owner dies.


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