A grandmother’s garden
Home and Heritage: A Garden’s Story, by Natalie Warner
Hello everyone. A warm welcome back to all of you reading this first Radicle newsletter of 2022. I hope you managed to find moments of joy, rest and peace over the holiday period. We begin this new year with an article by Natalie Warner on the legacy of her grandmother’s garden and some lessons she has learnt on heritage, belonging, history and roots through her care of, and observations in, the garden. I hope you find as much solace, hope and beauty in her writing as I have.
Home and Heritage: A Garden’s Story, by Natalie Warner
My grandmother’s time in the garden was a ritual: every Sunday afternoon she’d make time for it, and every Sunday evening she’d do her nails with an emery board and a Braun electric manicure set, complete with various head attachments. I’d follow her around the garden, helping as only children can, taking breaks to suck mud clean off the dirtiest pebbles.
Years later, I found myself drawn to the garden as one of the last earthly touches of my grandmother’s presence. It has changed in places: some beds are now used to grow vegetables, some shrubs have died away, some others have a new zest for life. The garden was my inheritance, and I wanted to recover its past glory as a site of happy memories.
I began by looking at the plants I confidently knew and remembered, asking my mum to fill in any gaps. Old photographs filled in more puzzle pieces. One thing I could be fairly sure of was the age of the shrubs; my late grandparents bought the property from the daughter of the original owners. Like my grandmother before me, I chose to work with what was there instead of overwhelming myself by building from scratch. My garden’s ancestors had taken the time and effort to create something beautiful, and I knew I could learn a lot from their decisions.
The position of the roses told me where the sunniest spots were; the relatively depleted soil in another area was a history lesson, telling the tale of a tall tree in a neighbour’s garden – one that a childhood cat used as a hunting ground for daybreak gifts. King Fern reigns in the darkest, wettest, northerliest corner, and woe to any plant that attempts a coup.
But the real surprises came when I conducted more research into plant varieties, and quickly found out that very few shrubs in the garden were native to the UK. The escallonia, ever-heaving with bees during the summer? A Chilean native. Hebes, another pollinator favourite, were from New Zealand. The camellias were Japanese; the lavender from warmer climates of north Africa and south Europe. The snapdragons, a surprise gift from the breeze, had actually come all the way from west Asia.
These flowers are typically found in many British gardens; they are at home here. Who would reject the tickle of squeezing a snapdragon to make it roar? Very few children; past, present, and – no doubt – future. If you haven’t tried it, you should! Horse chestnut trees are also responsible for happy childhood hours playing conkers; they have become an indelible part of our British existence. They are also from Turkey.
Attempts to define Britishness in the shadow of the government’s “hostile environment” are harder on the heart. Like the flowers and trees, I embody the postcolonial tension created by blinkered definitions of inheritance and heritage. I was born a British citizen, like my mother before me; my family tree can be traced back to the Caribbean and South America before two taproots head east to Africa and north to Europe. The proof is in my documentation, family surnames, and DNA, as surely as I bleed; and yet, I am made to feel uncomfortable in the only home I have ever known, the only home I have ever loved.
Nativeness and belonging is beyond the physical: the physical level is the culmination of emotional, spiritual, and mental cultures and attitudes. In the passage of time between introduced plants and people being welcomed and rejected from their new homes, life has continued – a life in which they have been part of the landscape. Plants may die or be removed, but their organic matter lives on beneath the surface, and for as long as that nourishes other beings that continue their lives, it will never die. It will live on at the cellular level, as a hologram, not an unwanted slice of a pie chart.
Memories do not die with the people in whose head they reside; every person that the memory-keeper has made an impression on will leave something of the horse chestnut trees and conker combat with them. Years ago, I met a colleague of my late grandfather’s – a joyful experience that reanimated the life of a man whose patient, gentle nature supported his students and peers in a way that I hope my teaching does today. His love of photography inspired my mum and uncle, who have encouraged me to upgrade from my camera phone to a DSLR, and are helping me to understand the exposure triangle. I practice as often as I can, taking such photos as you see here – and are enjoyed by hundreds as I document the life of my garden via Instagram Stories. Both my grandparents had an eye for beauty, but their spirits compelled others to see, to know, to create.
As a temporal steward of the plot – not only of my garden, but also my life and practices – it’s vital for me to know what has gone before. Rose replant disease is a recognised hazard; if I hadn’t observed the placement of old roses, I could’ve killed new ones and never known why. Allowing native violets and geraniums to remain comfortable solved two dilemmas: these ground cover plants are brilliant at suppressing weeds, and they are beautiful in the spring and autumn, when my garden is either side of its peak. I had no idea what wood avens was, but I noticed that the seven-spot ladybirds loved it, and let it have its way. Aphids? What aphids? I barely have any!
It’s impossible to know if the geraniums, violets and Michaelmas daisies look hatefully at the hebe, escallonia and lavender, muttering that they don’t belong here. But it is eminently possible to observe that the plants have found a way to live together. How they got there is a far less important consideration than how they successfully continue to live there. There is no anger at the situation, no discernible attempt by one plant to bully another…just graceful acceptance and coexistence. They respect their lifegiver by making the most out of all they have, much like the bees, drinking as greedily and as quickly as they can from all specimens.
It is easy to destroy life and culture if you don’t understand how it came to be. Yet the problem is not to do with novelty or difference; the problem is the lack of value afforded to the humble power of home, the misappropriation of heritage, and the love and energy needed to create a living space. The invisible labour of homemakers, carers, and Earth to sustain life; that labour’s transcendence of physical geography; the Sunday ritual of my grandmother’s gardening sessions; the passing of the seasons and the promise of renewed life. The knowledge I have the responsibility of passing on to future residents, family, students, and garden-loving readers. In the present, I create, caretake, and share with a sense of future responsibility, and I cannot do that without fully acknowledging the past.
Natalie Warner is a knitwear designer and fashion lecturer specialising in garment construction and pattern cutting. Through her writing, she explores how local and personal spaces can be sources of emotional nourishment and wellbeing; how the clothes we wear and spaces we inhabit support and root us. Natalie posts updates from her garden on Instagram (@natalieinstitches) stories every Monday and Friday. You can also find Natalie on her website where she blogs and shares knitting patterns at natalieinstitches.com.
Natalie has been paid for this article.
Photo credits: Natalie Warner