Alison StewartDeath and the garden

I disappeared from GardenDrum for a while over Christmas and January. It was partly lack of garden inspiration in that cold and grey time of the year, when British gardens generally look soggy and brown and you wonder how the professional garden photographers ever manage to get those shots of seed heads crisply rimed with frost against a clear blue sky. And it was partly because my mother-in-law was dying. Sitting by her bedside during those dark winter days as her life slipped away made me think a great deal about death.

All that’s left of the lost trees in the Edinburgh Botanics

Those thoughts came back to me during the visit to the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens that I wrote about in my last blog posting. On the 3rd of January the Botanic Gardens, along with the rest of Edinburgh and a good chunk of the south of Scotland, was blasted with 100mph winds, the most violent for many years. A notice at the entrance to the Gardens noted sadly the loss of 35 entire trees, and substantial damage to many more. The losses included many rare and historic specimens, some from collections made by explorer-botanists Joseph Rock and Ernest Wilson.

But here’s the thing: I could see hardly any difference. It was a good six or seven weeks since the storm, and armies of garden staff and volunteers had, in the meantime, chain-sawed and chipped and swept their way through the fallen trunks and severed branches. They’d done such a good job that, except where there was the odd give-away pile of timber or heap of wood chippings, I couldn’t see where the trees had been.

It reminded me of the nation-wide demise of English elms about 30 years ago. The English countryside was changed forever but I suspect that very few people, now, have any real memory of the pre-Dutch elm disease landscape. Other trees have taken their place or, in some cases, we have simply become accustomed to a space, or a vista, where once there was the silhouette of an elm.

The terrifying Hindu goddess Kali symbolises death but also that from death comes new life

There are positive ways to think about death. I used to be horrified by the Hindu goddess Kali, striding through piles of blood-soaked corpses with her pitchfork, sword and necklace of severed heads. (Well, let’s face it: she is one scary lady.) But in fact Kali represents the understanding that death is essential for life and destruction provides the material for creation.

Death and renewal are at the heart of gardening. The loss of favourite shrubs or trees, though sad at the time, offers opportunities for new ideas, new shapes, patterns and colour combinations. The wood chips that are all that is left of the lost trees in the Edinburgh Botanics are now mulching fragile new saplings throughout the garden and, in some places, the loss of a dense canopy and greedy roots has opened up new areas for planting.

Woodchip now makes mulch for newly planted saplings

In the higher latitudes, where the seasons are strongly defined, every autumn is like a small death, as the garden is stripped to its bones and the last season’s growth returns to the soil. Then spring comes and life bursts through again. So, the Edinburgh Botanics is moving on from its winter losses and they’re actually sounding pretty excited about the new trees there will now be room to plant

(See the 18 January entry in the ‘January highlights’ on the RBGE’s website.)

And I have decided to train myself to be philosophical about death and decay. But here’s my challenge: can I get to like Gunnera? (Take a look at the Gunnera graveyard near the pond at the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens and you’ll see what I mean.)

The Gunnera graveyard….

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