A Natural Inheritance
On the pleasures and responsibilities of being bequeathed a garden
Bloom Magazine, Summer 2022
Most gardeners have, at one time or another, become horticultural beneficiaries, through the gifting of plants from one generation to the next. But it wasn’t until recently that I contemplated the notion of inheriting an actual garden, and all that this might entail: the good fortune, obviously, but also the weight of history and expectation, the sense of responsibility.
The son of a friend of mine recently inherited his 94-year-old next-door neighbour’s garden. When he was a mere toddler, Henry – currently eighteen – struck up an unlikely friendship with the grown-up George. They bonded, initially, over grass cutting (George stripped the engine out of an old mower and gave it to the four-year-old to ‘play with’). This was followed by a stripped-out strimmer. By the time he was ten, Henry was cutting George’s vast lawn for real, on his dad’s ride-on. This was just the start: pretty soon they were inseparable. Under George’s patient guidance Henry learned to garden.
They sowed, planted and harvested together. They pruned and dug and made compost. They tinkered in sheds. Turned wood on old lathes and routers. Nothing was ever said about the future of the garden, but Henry tells me it was implied. ‘He was passing on skills and knowledge so that I could maintain what he was already doing; it was all quite subtle.’
The garden had been George’s life. He and his wife, Hazel, had bought the land in the early 50s. They’d built a house. They’d made a garden. By all accounts, she’d been quite an accomplished horticulturalist, even ran a nursery for a while. He was a master veg grower. When Hazel died George’s great fear was that he would lose the garden to developers. ‘There had been many offers for the land over the years, but we took great pleasure in tearing them up,’ says Henry. ‘I didn’t know what his plans were until right at the end when he started making noises, like, “I’m not going to be around forever, boy, and you’re going to need to step up.”’
Much to Henry’s surprise, George left him everything in his will: the house, the garden, his possessions. ‘There were no covenants, no conditions, it was done on trust,’ says Henry. ‘Our relationship had been based on true friendship, and because of this George knew that I would always honour that and safeguard his legacy. They created this little island, George and Hazel, their own country, and that’s my vision for this place too.’
In a roundabout sort of way, I too inherited garden. Okay, so I had to pay for mine, but symbolically, at least, I was handed a baton. I’m a professional gardener and often work in a large public or private gardens, but for the longest time I didn’t have a plot I could call my own. After much searching, my wife Dona and I on a modest bungalow with a big blank canvas of a back garden in West Sussex. Perfect. Or it would have been, but for the bidding war. In the end we only secured the purchase because the owner (Maureen) and I had struck up a conversation on first viewing about gardening. I told her I was gardener, mentioned where I worked. She swooned a little. I complimented her on her own garden. And then months later, as we were being outbid and were just about to call it quits, she said, ‘Enough’s enough, let the gardeners have it,’ or something to that effect.
Months later, as I was tearing up the turf and plotting my new vision the thought hit me: I hadn’t acquired a blank canvas at all, I’d inherited the previous owner’s gardening DNA. And though her garden had been fairly humble – nice lawn, tidy shrubs, tiny borders – it had meant a lot to her, and she’d been nervous of selling to someone who wouldn’t continue to garden it
Stories of inheritance aren’t uncommon, each with its own particular set of circumstances. A gardening friend of mine recently introduced me to Pernille, a client of hers who had also inherited a garden, though arguably in a more conventional manner. In their late twenties Pernille and her sister were made legatees of their parents’ country cottage, fifteen-plus acres of woodland and a garden. Some four decades on, Pernille and her husband Bob have finally made themselves at home here. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
Pernille’s parents had spent over thirty years transforming bare fields into a cottage-style garden and planting thousands of trees. For her father, the woodland had been a life-long labour of love. Pernille went to Oxford to read botany and finished with a degree in agriculture and forest sciences so in many ways she was qualified to embrace her father’s legacy, but she was far from convinced that re-inhabiting her childhood home was a sound move. In the early 2000s, she stepped in to organise much-needed thinning of the woodland but was still reluctant to shoulder permanent responsibility.
‘I knew this work would be ongoing, but I didn’t want to stay here, I didn’t want to take it all on,’ she says, ‘The whole thing was an enormous pull-push emotional strain but in the end it was the woodland that sucked me in. In a way it was like coming full circle, coming back to my early education and training.’
INot that the emotional tug-of-war stopped here. She knew she would need to make changes. Trees in the garden had to be felled – including a prized magnolia – to improve light; her mother’s diseased roses would have to be uprooted. ‘I had lots of guilt about it all: the worst thing is chopping down a tree that your parents had planted. It’s awful.’ But there were other projects too, positive ones. Hedges to lay. Beds to create. Ponds to dig. ‘Improving the ecology of the garden has become the big thing now.’
So, after years of wrestling with the very idea of inheritance – the obvious benefits, but the emotional baggage too – Pernille has finally come to an accommodation. ‘My dad had said to me about a year before he died, “You could always sell the cottage, but keep the woodland.” That was what mattered to him, and I think he’d be very pleased that I’ve not only kept the trees but also developed them and lived here and been happy.’
Thankfully my efforts in ‘Maureen’s’ garden seem to have paid off too. She paid me a surprise visit last year and asked to see the garden. I was a little anxious, but also eager to gauge her reaction. Thankfully she loved it. The garden was mine now and bore little resemblance to what I’d inherited, but what I had created obviously resonated with her. She was somehow still invested in this humble square of suburban Sussex clay, and the fact that she approved of its latest iteration mattered – to both of us.
I say it’s ‘mine’ – of course, it isn’t really; I am merely caretaker, current custodian, and hopefully whatever I have sown here someone else will reap somewhere down the line. Meeting Henry and Pernille and thinking about the serendipitous manner in which I ‘acquired’ my own garden has given me a new perspective – on the nebulous concept of ownership, on the ephemeral nature of – well, nature really, and on the way gardening is fundamentally optimistic. You see, we gardeners are future oriented; it goes with the territory. Gardens are not about us, they are a process, an unfolding, and in this sense, they are the ultimate hand-me-down.