Garden seats die like trees. There isn’t a heart-stopping moment when the beeping on the monitor beside the bed goes silent. First, the paint goes scaly and starts to peel off like bark, revealing mortal rot beneath. Then a slat drops off like a dead limb. Wood filler provides remission for a season or two, but even when the blobby yellow bandages are disguised under layers of paint, you know the end is near.
This is the time of year when the rocking chairs receive a fresh coat of Cuprinol Forget Me Not. The painted benches are given a new lease of life in varying shades of blue. Last year, I converted to a Swedish paint called Beckers that is matte and protective, but the seats are old and the mortality rate is high. If the garden wasn’t open to the public, we would muddle along with crippled seats in the same way that close family members always knew how to navigate safely the mosaic of rotten boards on my grandmother’s long verandah.
Come Easter, however, paying visitors will expect to be safe if they decide to gaze at the peacocks from a Gothic seat painted Jorn blue. I’m always touched by seats in municipal gardens inscribed ‘In memory of many happy hours spent’, but inscriptions such as ‘Don’t lean back’ and ‘Take care’ don’t induce the same spirit. Instead, I consign the dying seats to the old fruit cage, where they spend the twilight of their lives as perches for the turkeys.
I can’t remember a year when getting the garden ready for opening has been such an act of faith. Signs of spring have been slow and intermittent and, until the first lambs were born last week, I began to think that the ewes had succumbed to the same cold melancholy that claimed all my ceanothuses and the trio of olive trees I planted in old copper tubs eight years ago. Even then, I knew it was risky to fall for tender plants native to California and Italy, but a few warm winters had lulled me into thinking that this farm would soon be growing bananas and coffee beans.
I now go through the garden like a consultant oncologist, weighed down by the folly of dishonest optimism. It’s human nature to ignore experience and push on with dreamy hope. All week long, I’ve been digging up the dead ceanothuses and replacing them with new young plants, racing to get them in before the weather warms up. When they burst forth in a riot of true blue, I will forget that they are vulnerable, just as I will forget that I planted them the week that the UK and the US followed France into the skies of Libya in a last-minute effort to prevent Benghazi from becoming another Guernica.
Timing is everything. My husband advised me to wait and plant the new ceanothuses in autumn, to get them established with winter rainfall. He is patient and cautious, qualities useful in a gardener, but disdained in a leader. When President Obama is reflective and cautious, he is accused of being weak and indecisive. As I plant my ceanothuses, crowns slightly raised above ground level, I feel relieved that America has a President who hesitates when he hears the drumbeat of war, who is haunted by the tragic fiasco of Iraq. Who is wise enough to know that the ‘no-fly zone’ is just another way of saying war.
Unless I write it down, I won’t remember that the ceanothuses were planted at the same time that the full wrath of Gaddafi’s vengance was repelled by last-minute airstrikes. I don’t keep a journal, just a notebook of paint colours and plants. It won’t interest future horticulturists or historians, but it will be a useful reminder to me when my memory is as unsafe as the garden seats. My entry for March 20, 2003: ‘Planted Ceanothus Julia Phelps by Sam’s bell, Yankee Point by barn. Last night: the invasion of Iraq. Shock and awe.’