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Joy around the corner

       I have a ‘things to do when I’m old’ list in my head. On this list is wine-tasting, birdwatching, knitting and my family tree. Also on the list is re-reading the classics, a refresher course in the Irish language, baking, and at the top of the list is gardening.

      My parents and my parents-in-law are all keen gardeners and over the years I have been delighted to admire the colours and textures of their flowerbeds whilst maintaining a state of blissful ignorance about the processes that keep their flowers standing upright. I have walked around the Chelsea Flower Show marvelling at the beauty of it all, without ever wanting to try and grow things at home. Flowers took too much time to grow. Gardening was an exercise in patience and foresight, and I was known by my friends and family for being impulsive and impatient, for wanting everything now. There would be plenty of time for all of that kind of work when I was a more tolerant and less busy retired person.

      Then last year my mother in law gave me a present of a square concrete pot planted with tulip bulbs. As lockdown played out, for the first time since owning a garden, I was there to see every little detail of these tulips’ growth. I watched the shoots push through the soil and turn into sturdy stems. I watched the buds bulge bigger. The blossoms when they revealed themselves, were dark dangerous colours; burnt orange and velvety maroon. They were so extra. So deliciously opulent. And having these pots filled with tulips to ogle at genuinely improved my life. That was the essence of it. Every time I looked at them I felt happier.

      So this year when my mother in law bought me a voucher for a gardening shop, I chose some plants to go with the bulbs. Are they perennials? My mother asked me. I shrugged and said I just liked the look of them. They were called Thalictrums. The word Thalictrum sounded anatomical to me, like it could be a bone in your jaw, but it was a plant with small, showy, purple-blossomed flowers and yellow stamen. I could only guess how they would look in the context of the garden because Thalictrum blossoms wouldn’t show themselves until Summertime. And for the bulbs, my mother said with an air of knowledgeable authority; I must acquire a dibber. I looked at her slack-jawed. What in god’s name was a dibber? At first I was reminded of the joys of the sherbet dib dabs I used to eat as a kid. A dibber sounded like a fibber, or a dabber, or jibber jabber. It sounded like someone with a specialist role in a niche sport, or some sort of tool for candle-making or oil painting.

      The dibber arrived with the Thalictrum and the bulbs a few days later. It consisted of a T shaped handle attached to a foot long rounded piece of wood sharpened into a point. The point was covered in metal, giving it the feel of a weapon. A dibber was a utensil uniquely designed for planting bulbs. When you pushed it into the soil it created a hole just round enough and just deep enough to accommodate a bulb. For the first time since living in my house, I felt an urge to get out into the garden.

      It was one of those Autumn days where it felt like nature was showing off. The leaves had turned yellow and red and fluttered down onto the grass with every gentle gust of wind. The sky was a big bowl of uninterrupted blue. I flattened a plastic bag onto the grass by the flower bed, knelt down and spent some time poking around in the soil. I dragged away the leaves, pulled up fat worms and followed the course of errant roots under the earth, trying to find their source so I could pull them up. The metal point of the dibber allowed it to enter the soil with ease. I twisted it around, pulled it out, inserted the bulb, filled the hole in with soil and moved on. I planted clusters of the bulbs in pots, pointy side up, mixing up the colours. I planted more around the base of the trees. Then I dug four small holes and patted down the Thalictrum plants into the earth. Four little squirts of green sticking out of the soil about an inch. I don’t know if it was the effect of the wind blustering around my face or the dappled light under the trees, but when I finished planting, I was humming a song. I was content. I felt like I had accomplished something.

      In the days after dibbing (do you say ‘dibbing’ gardeners? Is this a thing?), every time I looked out the window I felt a low thrum of excitement at the thought of the show these tulips were going to put on come Spring. It would be, if all went to plan, obscenely beautiful. The Thalictrum would blossom all Summer long, but the tulips would arrive and leave quickly. There would be five, six days of perfect blossom, then the petals would start to loosen and brown and eventually drop off. It was so much bother and wait for such a fleeting reward, but I realised that I was excited by that aspect; it added a sense of jeopardy to the whole thing. I wondered if this was the measure of me being old now. I was a few years into my forties and excited about bulbs. Was this the start of the end? I found a quote by the horticulturalist Allan Armitage.

      Gardening simply does not allow one to be mentally old, because too many hopes and dreams are yet to be realised.

      And it all made sense. In gardening I was giving myself something to look forward to, over and over again. Planting bulbs was like booking a Summer holiday in the darkest days of Winter; there was so much pleasure in the anticipation. For the first time in my life I was a person who revelled in waiting. There were bulbs under the soil. There was joy around the corner.

      Now I must remove gardening from the ‘things to do when I’m old’ list in my head. I found it earlier in life than I thought I would and It makes me feel more excited about life than I ever thought it could. I am the proud owner of a dibber and I have new hopes and dreams to realise.

Joy around the corner