99 Red Balloons

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Today is my mother’s 99th birthday. This picture of her sitting at her potting bench was from earlier in the summer when lockdown meant that we could enjoy gardening together regularly. Amazingly she still lives on her own and still has a passion for gardening. She tells me that she started gardening age four which means that she has spent a total of ninety five years in various gardens. 

When I was growing up we had a large garden of two acres in Surrey which my mother landscaped and maintained almost single-handedly. In those days her real enjoyment came from trees and large shrubs but as time progressed, she became fascinated by both propagation and the art of bonsai. Her obsession with propagation knows no limits and these days I really have to try and curb her need to constantly create more plants, either by cuttings, division or saving and sowing of seed. A few years ago, every time she pruned her fig tree, she would strike the cuttings and nearly every one of my friends now owns a fig tree created by my mother. Even during lockdown, she divided a potted azalea which my sister had sent her for Mother’s Day so there are now three, where once there was one. She also took pelargonium and redcurrent cuttings, despite needing no more of either. She is still fond of bonsai and is seen here with a bonsai-ed flowering crab apple which she started from scratch and has nursed for many years. To a slightly lesser extent she is also keen on topiary, particularly cloud topiary and has only this summer been shaping a potted buxus into a new cloud shaped tree. 

Since my father passed away, my mother has had rather more interest in growing vegetables, a task which used to fall to him at their last house. She moved from Surrey to Cheshire in 2004 and set about growing an enormous amount of produce that she could preserve by either freezing, bottling or pickling. Two years ago, she was happy for me to take over the majority of the fruit and vegetable growing but wouldn’t dream of letting her greenhouse stand empty , so each spring I grow enough plants for both of us and install some in her garden and greenhouse. Inevitably this means a lot of picking and watering but at least my mum still feels as though she’s eating from her own garden, something she has done all her life. 

In their sixties and seventies, my parents studied with Merrist Wood Horticultural College and formed a garden study group which visited important gardens up and down the country. They also used to inspect garden centres on behalf of Gardening Which magazine in their spare time. In her eighties my mother won a National Trust award for the Greenest Granny and whenever Mr P and I have opened our garden to visitors she has always stocked and run the plant stall, virtually single handed. 

Since she turned 80, to celebrate her birthday we have regularly organised what has become known as  ‘Granny weekends’ where we’ve hired a large house and the whole family have stayed for a party weekend. This year we celebrated, as many other families have, in more subdued style. I introduced her to the marvel of a Zoom birthday so she could share it with the rest of the family and then we had a lovely family lunch in the garden – without doubt her favourite venue!

I think it’s fair to say then that she is my inspiration in so many ways, always on the go and never giving in. I am certain she will still be gardening at 100. Further evidence of this is that she secretly asked my daughter for some particular seeds for her birthday (aware that I would roll my eyes if I knew!) So Happy Birthday Olga – may there be plenty more garden adventures to come…

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