Reviving my late mother’s garden soothed my grief

Writer Amy Oliver in her garden
Amy Oliver in her West Dorset garden, which previously belonged to her mother - Russell Sach

I loathe the wisteria that is coiling viper-like around the apple tree I’ve been coaxing back to full health.

Planted next to a fence in a shady ­border, it’ll never flower. I’ve tried to dig it out on numerous occasions, but something always stops me before the spade touches the earth.

This climbing thug was my mother’s pride and joy when the garden was hers. Now it and the thug are mine, but even three years after Mum’s death, I still can’t let the bloody thing go.

I’m discovering that taking over the cherished garden of someone you love when they die is filled with this kind of hand-wringing. I had to reach for the rosary beads when we replaced an established flower bed with a Wendy house, and don’t get me started on the veg patch I created in another border. I felt Mum’s celestial eye-roll boring into me as I planted out the chard. ­Vegetable growing was, she said, a “phase everyone has to go through”.

amy oliver garden mother grieving
Let it slide: Amy with husband Rob and daughters Peggy (in blue) and Dot by the playhouse that replaced her mum’s flower bed - Russell Sach

She died suddenly in 2020 just before my 40th birthday, not from Covid like so many others, but advanced heart ­disease she didn’t know she had. She was 77, but people in our family tend to go on and on. Consumed with grief, a year later, I imploded my life: I went part-time from my editor job and moved my husband and our two young ­daughters from ­London to West Dorset after buying my brothers out of her cottage.

Family members had kept her ­size­able garden in a picturesque village from becoming a jungle in the year after her death, but when we moved in on a balmy August afternoon, it was still overgrown – and utterly daunting.

My love for gardening only really got going in my mid-20s. Despite being in a London house share, I grew vegetables in window boxes. The cucumbers got powdery mildew, but the courgettes romped away – much to the amusement of passers-by.

After I was married, our first flat had a shared garden that we commandeered, putting in a raised bed for veg and the world’s smallest greenhouse.

Before all this, I had zero interest in anything green. My childhood was spent watching Mum toiling away in another garden in a tiny hamlet in ­Dorset whenever she got a moment. Weekends were spent dragging my heels around garden centres and plant fairs with her and my grandmother, who was even more obsessed than Mum was. How I wish I could spend a day at the garden centre with both of them now.

amy oliver garden mother grieving
Green roots: Oliver grew up spending weekends with her mother around garden centres and plant fairs - Russell Sach

From an early age, Mum would walk me around the garden, pointing to plants and asking for their names. I never had any idea.

“Oh, you doooo,” she always said before giving me the answer.

Years later, when I would ask for the names of plants I admired in her ­garden, she was the one who could never remember.

“Oh bum, it’s on the tip of my tongue,” she would say.

I was just as clueless in those first few months after we moved in.

Although an experienced and ­passionate gardener, Mum’s planting plan seemed to follow the “buy and shove into any available space” school of thought. As such, everywhere I looked, the borders were bursting with all sorts of shrubs, perennials and an apple tree that soared into the air from lack of pruning. I didn’t know what most plants were, let alone how to care for them. I was out of my depth and ­constantly plagued by the idea I would kill it all and let her down.

“But she’s dead,” my cousin said rather brutally when I disclosed this to her. “It’s your garden now, you can do what you like.”

In desperation, I downloaded a plant-identifying app and wandered around snapping photos like a deranged David Bellamy. When that didn’t work, I quizzed my uncle, a retired gardener, about every single stem.

amy oliver garden mother grieving
'I felt Mum’s celestial eye-roll boring into me' says Oliver of making changes to the garden - Russell Sach

That first autumn and then a long and wet winter passed, but by spring, the garden and all its mysteries started to reveal themselves.

Seeing those first shoots of peonies, hellebores and bearded irises Mum had chosen and nurtured push through the soil momentarily replaced my bone-crushing grief with joy.

I was delighted, for example, when the hosta I remember her diligently plucking snails from before hurling them over the neighbour’s fence, emerged from what I thought had been an empty pot.

But there were also moments of heartbreak. Hacking down her beloved collection of clematis – mostly montana but also a viticella – clogged to ­strang­ulation with bindweed felt almost like taking a knife to her throat.

One of the first changes we made was to replace a flower bed with the Wendy house for our two daughters, now six and four. The bed was packed with everything from an enormous ‘Tuscany Superb’ rose to self-seeded honesty and even a statue of the Virgin Mary – the imagery was not lost on me. When I confessed in hushed tones to one of Mum’s gardening club friends what we’d done, she gasped. “Not the bed with her Daphne?” she said.

amy oliver garden mother grieving
'Seeing those first shoots of peonies, hellebores and bearded irises Mum had chosen and nurtured push through the soil momentarily replaced my bone-crushing grief with joy' recounts Oliver - Russell Sach

Mum took mischievous delight in inviting my husband, Rob, to “Come and smell my Daphne” whenever we visited from London; it was her email password, she adored the thing. ­Watching as Rob slammed a spade around its roots, eventually having to break them to prise it out, was almost unbearable. In an attempt to save it, I pathetically planted it in another part of the garden before ripping it out again on discovering it was in entirely the wrong place. It spluttered on in a pot, producing one or two tiny leaves, but is now destined for the compost heap.

I wish I could say the same about the Choisya ternata shining away at the back of a border. A fixture of every ­manicured West Dorset garden, its teenage body spray scent clogs up the spring air and I hate it. Mum clearly loved it. How can I let it go?

I haven’t yet been struck down by a lightning bolt, but there are moments when I think she’s trying to send me a sign. Earlier this year, I squealed with delight on discovering an entire row of her favourite plant, lily of the valley, growing weed-like next to the fence. It had never appeared before.

I longed to tell her about that and about winning first prize for her ­beautiful red camellia at the village spring show this year.

I put the sprig on her grave in the ­village church with some grape ­hyacinths I had planted. “There you go,” I said. “For you.”

How to help beloved plants live on
How to help beloved plants live on

There are so many other things I wish I could ask. Mainly what possessed her to plant a hebe behind a magnolia ­soulangeana in a tight border, and just how the hell she kept the ground elder at bay. She would often say she had been “out there, pulling up that bloody weed” when I phoned for a chat.

So ­desperate was she to eradicate the damn thing, she bought an electric weed killer. At 5ft 2in at most, operating what is essentially a flamethrower was an experience she never repeated. The weed terminator gathered dust in the shed and the ground elder lived to see another day. I can attest that chasing its creeping roots through the soil of the entire garden, and now the lawn, could easily be a full-time job.

There are numerous studies that prove gardening is great for mental health. Certainly, grieving for my mother as I toil in her garden has been and continues to be such a soothing salve. Friends and relatives worried – and perhaps they still do – that it would bring more heartbreak and make it harder to “let her go”.

flowers amy oliver garden
There are numerous studies that prove gardening is great for mental health - Russell Sach

In fact, the ­opposite is true: it has been a way for her to live on with me through the changing seasons. I still daydream about days out to National Trust gardens that will now never happen, and I don’t think I will ever be able to step through the doors of my local garden centre without feeling wretched about the trips we would have made to it had she survived.

But taking over Mum’s “sanctuary” as she often referred to her garden, has really changed my life. In a move she would no doubt find amusing, I’ve recently finished an RHS level 2 in practical ­horticulture at Kingston Maurward Agricultural College. If that wasn’t enough, I’m also looking into doing a gardening apprenticeship with the Women’s Farm and Garden Association charity and am developing an increasingly unhealthy crush on Monty Don.

It’s taken nearly two years to say “my garden” instead of “Mum’s garden” and thanks to the RHS course, I feel I am now the boss of it rather than the other way around. The hand-wringing about changing things persists for now, but I hope this will ease with time. Until then, the wisteria – and possibly the Choisya – will reluctantly remain.