Over the last few weeks I have spent many hours locked down in my garden. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to do those tasks I usually avoid: clearing paths of aluminium weed, thinning banks of Renga Renga, digging out invasive anemone japonica. This rather ruthless gardening has been modulated by planting bulbs and weeding around the delicate autumn crocuses which have just started to appear. I often find myself starting one task and ending up doing another, responding to whatever takes my eye. As a result the vegetable garden remains luxuriant with weeds.
Working in the garden is a great place to ruminate about life. Recently, I found myself thinking about my maternal forebears, especially the story of my great-grandmother, whose life has always been a mystery to our family. Delving into the records of her life has helped make other family members more robust – a case of history illuminating the path ahead. I’ve been thinking, in particular, about her son, my grandfather Richard Victor McGarrigle. He was a great amateur gardener. He believed in order and routine as a basic principle, and would never have had a weed in his vegetable garden. I learnt gardening at his knee. Now I wonder about what his garden meant to him, and where his meticulous devotion to the daily tasks of looking after his plants sprung from. What were his thoughts while gardening?
From his great repertoire of stories, we know that our grandfather was a larrikin, living in South Dunedin in the 1890s and early 1900s, getting up to all sorts of mischief as he stalked the streets with his best pal Arch Hill. He also told of travelling to Skippers in Central Otago with his father on mining trips. Dangerous days of precarious journeys by horse and cart, a hair’s breadth away from the cliff’s edge. Now, however, I can see great gaps in this narrative. We knew about the adventures, but what about the fundamentals? Did he have any siblings? Who was his father? What about his mother?
My discoveries began with a notice of his parents’ marriage in The Southland Times. 14 April 1882: Richard McGarrigle, miner, to Margaret Scott, widow. For eight years they moved around Southland and South Otago. When he wasn’t gold mining, Richard worked as a labourer and a draper. One child, Bridget, was born in Invercargill. Richard Victor was born in Tapanui in 1887. By 1888, aged 38, Margaret was dead, leaving five children, two from her previous marriage. She died in Dunedin hospital of a cerebral tumour and is buried in the Southern Cemetery in a grave without a memorial. My grandfather was just eighteen months old. His mother had been ripped from him at an age when he could not begin to understand. The gap in his narrative was real. There are records from 1902 and 1905 showing that my grandfather was living with his father in Alexandra Street, Caversham, but it seems there was no-one else living in the household. I have not been able to find any record of his father having married again and no record so far of what might have happened to the other children. It was only after marrying his best pal Arch’s sister Marion, in 1916, that my grandfather found a settled life.
Richard Victor began serious gardening soon afterwards. I have a battered silver tulip vase he won at the Dunedin Horticultural Society’s 1922 show for “12 roses of at least 6 varieties”. I remember his mature garden as a neighbourhood wonder. The flower and vegetable garden behind the house was enclosed with a pittosporum hedge and had a path running through the middle with vegetables on one side and flowers on the other. I would sit on the path under a cloud of gypsophila (baby’s breath) and swaying cosmos, watching him weed nimbly between the lettuces, thin the carrots, deal with his earwig traps and gently drop the leek seedlings into their prepared holes. On other days there would be the construction of frames for the runner beans, supports for the climbing roses and checking for slug and earwig damage. This work was done wearing the most bedraggled clothes imaginable: trousers faded and baggy, his cardigan shapeless with holes in the pockets from his still-lit pipe, and his cap scruffy and worn. By contrast the beauty and order of his garden was dazzling. His attention to detail is clear from this report published in June 1943 in the Otago Daily Times, describing a talk he gave on growing chrysanthemums to the Gardening Circle of the Otago Women’s Club:
‘All types of chrysanthemums should be propagated by cuttings which appear round the base of the plants,’ Mr McGarrigle said in [his] talk. ‘Varieties that were ‘shy’ in sending up cuttings would respond to leaf mould mixed with fertiliser pricked into the soil.’ Single chrysanthemums were well worth raising from seed. Some beautiful specimens raised by this method were shown by the lecturer. Feeding once a week with liquid manure and diluted fertiliser, used alternately, could be commenced in December and continued till the buds showed colour.”
What strikes me about this report is the amount of care devoted to ensuring that not only did his young plants thrive but that they survived from year to year. It’s possible to imagine the intensity of his gaze on his nascent shoots as he adds the thoughtfully prepared food to the soil around them. Was he perhaps giving his plants the maternal care he was deprived of as an infant?
It is a cliché that gardening is therapeutic. Let me indulge that cliche for a moment. It feels quite possible that, for my grandfather, creating a world that he could control and keep alive met a deep need linked to his tragic experience in infancy and early childhood. It also seems important that this world had a secure boundary and repetitive patterns within which creation could happen. In other words, it was a safe space in which mistakes could be made and rectified, experiments carried out, plants pruned ruthlessly and maybe discarded, and weeds, those difficult thoughts, struggled with. The pinnacle of this activity would have been the nearly obsessive production of dahlias, chrysanthemums and gladioli for exhibition, the aim being perfection and beauty. For him, true mastery, and an aesthetic and (dare I say) emotional triumph.
But, what about those plants that thrived in the garden without his intervention? Was my grandfather able to see what a gift they were to him and the environment he had created? Take cosmos, named from the Greek kosmos, meaning order, harmony, the universe. It is a common but well-ordered plant with a harmonious arrangement of petals in the flower and a symmetrical progression of pairs of leaves along the stem at alternate right angles. Perfection in itself. Yet it will flourish on waste land and roadsides just as well as in a well-tended garden. It’s nice to think that through cosmos, able to be left to its own devices, the wild scallywag that was my grandfather had found a place in his garden. It is emblematic of his resilience and points to his good fortune in finding a patch of earth for himself.
In history, as well as in the popular imagination, gardens are seen as places of calm and repose. Describing my grandfather’s garden with its paths and hedges has reminded me of the mediaeval concept of the Hortus Conclusus or enclosed garden. The enclosed garden was seen as emblematic of the Virgin Mary, who is often depicted in mediaeval paintings sitting with her infant in a walled garden surrounded by roses without thorns: white representing the Virgin; red the blood of Christ; violets representing humility; irises, Madonna lilies and wild strawberries symbolising perfection and righteousness. As an actual garden it was both practical and symbolic, practical in creating a barrier against danger from the outside world, symbolic in that the space inside – with its formal design and arrangement of plants – was conceived as allegory for paradise or a lost Eden. It makes sense for me to think of my grandfather’s garden as representing the ideal of the mother, safe and forever present. I do wonder, however, if his mother Margaret ever felt that inner peace which comes with time and stillness after hard work. She had very little stillness in a disrupted life spent so often on the move, and even less time, dying so young. Perhaps her son, with his long life and his wonderful garden was involved in an act of restitution, transforming his own inner experience and bringing his mother to life in his mind’s eye through the fruits of his labours. I’d like to think so.
In this time of danger and isolation, the garden is a place of sanity in which we can forget the outside world for an hour or two. We still call it paradise when we step into a garden and in a sudden moment have an experience of the self, free from care, enraptured by the beauty of colour and form. As I drift about my garden, letting one task lead me on to another, I realise I am completely absorbed in the present, my worries evaporating as I stop to chat to the piwakawaka or catch the perfume from the cranberry hedge. I can allow myself to realise that this pursuit of paradise is never ending and that, in fact, there is no need for it to end. There will always be another chance to improve that border or shape the viburnum more gracefully, or even transplant that Rewa Rewa seedling. As I garden I think back, to my grandfather and his garden, and I think forward to the next task which contains the future in it. It’s a hopeful feeling.
Gwynnedd Somerville worked as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London where she also spend many years gardening with long term psychiatric patients living in the community after the closure of London’s large mental institutions. Now living in Dunedin, New Zealand, for the foreseeable future she is delighted to have an unruly garden to attend to.