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Sharing the language of the garden

By
Essay | 14 minute read
A poet, and son, writes about his magnificent green-fingered mother and a loving bond that has grown, and been fed, in the garden

1.

In November 2016, me and my boyfriend brought our first house, on the northern fringes of the city centre of Manchester. I say ‘first house’, but the process was so stressful and arduous that I can’t really envisage it being anything else than our last house as well. Incongruously for someone who has always sworn that the outside is something I’d much rather look at from the inside rather than be ‘in’, the garden of the house is one of the main things which attracted me to it.

It is what could be euphemistically described as a ‘long-term project’. There are two mounds of earth at the top, one gregariously bigger than the other, where the previous owners attempted to bury an entire patio’s worth of white stone chippings in what I believe Gardeners’ Question Time would call a ‘Fuck It’ moment. From there, the garden settles down into a stretch that’s relatively tame, though it gets a bit boggy in the middle when it rains a lot. After this calm stretch, you have to squeeze between two overly confident shrubs to get to the next bit where an old gay couple who lived in the house years ago buried their (presumably beloved) dog, and where the land begins to fall down on one side. There are fruit trees (which so far have only borne withered fruit – yes I am living in a East European folk tale) and a bench made out of the remnants of old concrete gate posts.

Then there’s the knotweed. Those familiar with it will already be suitably worried on my behalf; those who aren’t sure, feel free to google it. That’s what I did when it first turned up on our mortgage offer, and the first thing that comes up during an internet search is a story about a husband and wife who entered into a murder-suicide pact rather than deal with the stress induced by the Japanese knotweed in their garden. It’s under control now, and periodically a man in an all-in-one red boiler suit arrives, tells the neighbours to keep their dogs inside, and sets off down the grass as though in search of alien life.

After the knotweed, which is now dead canes and scorched earth, the garden drops down into wild abandon, some old leaning trees, squirrels, the badger sett over to the right, the sound of the neighbours’ ducks over to the left, and then ultimately tumbles down into Moston Brook.

Faced with all of this bucolic chaos, I knew it was time for me to call my mum.

2.

Faced now with writing this article, I realise I’m going to have to take the same approach here as I am taking to the garden, section by section, bit my bit, working my way down it, hopefully avoiding getting too tangled along the way.

3.

I’ve just texted my mum a picture of the daffodils that are growing in the backyard flowerbed, pushing themselves back up through the snow; ‘It’s amazing how everything survives isn’t it,’ she texts back.

Photo by Katherine McCormack (Unsplash)


Years ago, when I was on a summer holiday from university, I was tasked with helping Mum re-roof the shed. Dad must have been working away, and my sisters’ boyfriends must have been unavailable, so it fell to me, the child of least practicality. Wearing Mum’s old gardening cardigan, a pair of gym shorts and some old black walking boots that were fashionable at the time, I trekked down my parents’ garden to where my mum was already on the shed roof, nails in her mouth.

We managed it, ripping off the old felt and replacing it with the new, unrolling it, nailing it down. It lasted pretty well until a new shed was eventually purchased years later; it kept dry the old plant pots and the lawnmower and the bikes and the detritus of our childhoods. From the roof of the shed, you can look over into the cemetery which sits right up against the garden fence. There’s the grave of Mum’s dad, and Dad’s mum and Dad as well.


My maternal grandad always liked working on his allotment, which is common for men who worked down the mines. It’s to do with the fresh air, it’s to do with the daylight and the space and lack of walls. Maybe things like that are inherited.

It’s amazing how things survive.


When we’d finished re-roofing the shed, I couldn’t help but remember this scene in Tenko, where they finish re-roofing an old burned-out hut in their prison compound that they’re going to use as a hospital and, it being Tenko, they decide they should mark the occasion with a song. I used to love watching Tenko, which I know is a strange choice for a young lad. Mum used to have the VHS tapes of it, and so I’d sit and watch it with her and it became a thing we had in common. It’s an old TV series about women existing, surviving and thriving outside of the traditional roles they might have been pushed into by society. As a young boy, I was drawn to the programme because it was of interest to my mum, and because it took place outside the domestic world of which young children see themselves as the centre.


As we stood, facing each other on the roof of the shed, I asked Mum if we should sing a song, like they do in that episode. But we couldn’t decide on what song it would be best to sing and so there was just the stillness of the afternoon air, the occasional birdsong, the silence of the cemetery.


I don’t know why this memory is the one which sticks with me over countless others; some things persist more than others, some things want to survive.

4.

If the awards ceremonies in literature allowed for speeches like the Oscars then I’ve always imagined that I might say something like, ‘And I want to thank my mum, who after being married to a poet for more than thirty years, was still nothing but supportive when her son announced that he wanted to go down that dark path as well.’

5.

If Mum and Dad are both in when I call, I usually start with talking to Mum, and then she’ll hand over the phone to Dad, saying, ‘See if there’s any poetry news’. Me and Dad have always been able to talk about poetry, that’s always been our thing, beyond the boundaries or walls of family, and relationships, and memories, there’s been poetry: whose new books are worth reading, what’s been happening in the poetry world, where I’m going to be reading soon or who Dad has coming up on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb (which he presents).

Mum is the one who I might mention the practicalities of the newly bought house to, the new front door, the decision to repoint the front of the house, the purchasing of new carpets.

It wasn’t until we bought the house that I realised there was a separate, creative, conversation that I should have been having as well. One with its expertise, its decisions about placement, its specialist language, its passion.

Gardening is an art, just like poetry. It’s not one I’m very good at yet, and one I should definitely spend more time on, but with Mum I have a good teacher.


University was either living in halls of residence or, for the final two years, in a terraced house which had a small backyard I don’t think we ever put any effort into tending. After university it was a series of flats, in Barnsley, in Manchester, in Liverpool, another one in Liverpool, and then back in Manchester. None of them had much outside space to speak of: a small balcony which invariably looked over a car park or a busy main road. Mum would come over and suggest putting some plant pots out there, some flowers to brighten things up, and I’d think about it and make plans to do it but never quite get around to it. There was something about things being planted which felt too permanent, perhaps; I was, on average, moving flats once every year.


One of the things Mum keeps saying to me about the garden is that there’s no rush. I want a little writer’s hut down at the very bottom, in amongst the trees. Yes, but there is no rush, it’ll take years to work your way down there. Gardens are an antidote to the city; gardens take patience and time, gardens resist speed and transience.


Gardens are also an antidote to writing. There’s an immediacy to the changes you can make in a garden: clearing a patch of weeds, planting something new. Writing is a slow, oftentimes painful process of slow accumulation and frustration. Gardens are timeless but immediately alterable.

You can tell where you’ve been, as my mum says.

6.

I guess the cliche of the mother–son relationship, especially for children who have both parents in their lives, is that the mum is always the one you would talk to about the emotional things, about love lives and relationships, and that the dad is the one who would give out the practical advice about different things.

Another way of saying it is that, traditionally, mums might be seen as nurturing, as tending something, as helping it grow into the light, while the role of the father is to stand back slightly, do the heavy lifting. This was never true for me and my family; I’ve always had great emotional support from both Mum and Dad and in my youth (who am I kidding, I still get it at least twice a week).

I think I would go to my dad for money issues (help, I’ve messed my taxes up!) and my mum for practical house-related issues (how should I mend this? what I should do about this?). The relationship of a mother and son is meant to be protective, mutually so as the son gets older. The relationship between a gay son and a mum is meant to be one of emotional closeness, of sharing.

One of the things which I think happens as we get older is that we realise that none of our relationships, least of all with our parents, are static things; they’re not solid, immoveable trees which just grow in the same direction year after year (though I think that’s what we imagine when we’re younger).

Rather, it’s an organic process, with both people changing over time (and hopefully, as in my case, remaining equally close).

There’s the necessary role of the child who needs looking after; the necessary stepping back as the child starts to grow; the teenager, stubborn as a shrub, who wants their own independence; and a growing back towards each other in adulthood.

I know, I’m labouring the metaphor. I guess all I’m trying to say is that one of the things I’ve loved most about the house is opening up a new part of my relationship with my mum.


On a summer day, Mum and Dad pull up on the unadopted road that runs along the back of the row of five houses we are sandwiched between. Mum unloads some new shears, a huge sack of compost, some practical gardening shoes (I’ve not quite got there yet with the attire; I’m currently switching between ankle height Doc Marten boots, which at least have some pretence of practicality, and Givenchy trainers that I ruined in the wash because I didn’t know they were leather).

It’s going to be a gardening day; weeding, digging up the tangled trunks of brambles, lopping off the gnarled limbs of trees which are blocking the light.

In much the same way that I’m always amazed at my grandma’s ability to recall the names and lives of everyone who has lived on the streets around her, or Mum’s ability to remember the names and stories of all the children I went to primary school with, I’m always impressed by the ability to spot what things are, to be able to name things just by looking at them, and to be able to predict when it is they’ll come into themselves properly.

‘How can you tell which ones are weeds and which ones aren’t, even though some weeds have flowers?’ Dad asks at one point, ‘Who decided which ones were weeds and which ones were flowers?’

‘I don’t know,’ replied Mum, ‘they just are’.

I suppose it’s a little like asking why a certain words sounds the way it does, or why a certain line of poetry sings, why it beds itself deep down inside your brain and keeps returning year after year. Some things just are.

7.

I think I’d be, in a taxonomical chart of such things, a ‘slow gardener’; through lack of confidence or being easily distracted. I’m always amazed at how quickly Mum can get things done. While I’m still deciding on the best angle for lopping off a branch, Mum’s been down to where the blackberry bushes have gone feral, running across the grass, and has already pulled up and cleared them all, fighting them back to their corner.

Gardening is incredibly cathartic though. It’s calming in a way few others things are. It’s a space in which to think, to relax and, if heavy exertion is needed, to let some anger out.

It’s the necessary daylight after being down too long in the darkness of yourself.

I think that’s why I want to take it slow, to savour that release.

 

Photo by Annie Spratt (Unsplash)

8.

My dad’s mum had huge hydrangea plants which flanked either side of the entrance to their greenhouse where Dad’s dad would grow grapes and the mulchy heat of the place would get up your nostrils.

Hydrangeas were the plants my eldest sister chose as part of her wedding day, and one of the first things that Mum brought over to the house for us to plant. There are two growing now, on that top mound of earth: the one Mum brought, and one from my auntie who dug it up from her garden when she was moving house.

Plants become a way of marking memory. At the dog grave down the garden there’s a little plaque and there was a beautiful pink rose bush, presumably planted as a tribute when the animal was buried. I admit to you now that I dug up the rose bush and attempted to move it to the backyard. I thought it would look better there, and it was so hidden down the overgrown sides of the garden; I wanted it to be seen.

It lasted about two weeks and then slowly died, dropping all its flowers, each limb of it losing colour. I should have left it where it was. I should have realised it’s not possible to take a thing which has grown lush with its own memories of why it was planted, and for it to flourish somewhere else. It wasn’t my memory to move. A love that calls for the planting of such a beautiful thing cannot be cut up from its roots, it can only be allowed to grow in its own way.

My mum would have told me not to do it, if I’d asked her.

9.

Just after Christmas, my grandma and the rest of the family came to see the house, and Grandma wanted to have a look down the garden. Despite the broken, crumbling steps and the mud and erratic curves and falls of the garden, she wanted to see it all, and so I clung onto her arm as I walked her down the various bits, pointing things out to her, just as I’d done with Mum when we first moved in.

There’s another part of Tenko that’s always stuck with me, the end of the first series when the women are moving to a new camp and two of the main characters are the final ones to leave a hut. ‘Will they ever know…’ one asks. ‘Will who ever know?’, replies the other one. ‘The people who come here, after… so many ghosts.’ ‘My dear,’ says the other one, ‘one could say that of anywhere.’ And they walk out together, leaves swirling around their feet like any autumn day, as the credits roll.

10.

Gardens don’t have fixed endings; they just have gradual change and bloom as the years haul themselves onwards. On Mother’s Day, we think of those who have protected and supported us and helped us to grow; so yesterday, and today too, I’ve been thinking of my mum, both of us standing at the head of the lawn, looking out over what still needs to be done, and me pointing at things, and her naming them for me, as though I were a child again.