Today, the Daily Mail in London published an article I have written about how gardening helped me cope with my mother's painful battle with Alzheimer's. It was incredibly difficult to write as I'd buried so many of the most disturbing memories. But it was also cathartic and helped bring back so many happy memories as well. It confirmed more than ever before just how much of a link plants and gardens were between me and my mother and that is a link that can never be broken. I hope others find this helpful and comforting.
How gardening sustained one woman as she watched her mother's
decline to Alzheimer's
Even today, I can’t dead-head a rose or plant a bulb without
thinking of my mother.
Eight years after her death, these
routine jobs in the garden still have the power to bring her back to me
with pin-sharp clarity.
Because for virtually the whole of my
adult life, my mother and I shared a passionate love of anything
A passion shared: Catherine Horwood developed a
lifelong love of gardening thanks to her mother
Every phone call began with us comparing notes on our plants;
weekends were happily spent together visiting nurseries or other
It was a bond I thought we’d always share — but
that changed when I was enjoying the last day of a wonderful holiday in
It was particularly special holiday because my three
daughters had joined my husband and I on our two-week trip, which was
unusual, as since they’d grown up they’d stopped coming away with us.
the last evening, we partied until dawn as our favourite local
restaurant — the one we’d been going to since the girls were tiny —
celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The next day my eldest daughter,
who was then 26, was the first to leave to fly back to Britain, and once
home immediately got on the phone to tell her beloved grandmother (my
mother) about the holiday.
Granny was looking forward to
hearing all our stories.
So when, on the way to Barcelona airport,
I got a call, I expected reassurance that all was well, not that our
lives were about to be lurched forward into blackness.
something wrong with Granny — something very, very wrong,’ my daughter
explained in distress.
My heart sank but I was not entirely
This daughter lived away from London and couldn’t visit
her grandmother very often, so she had been shielded from the gradual
mental deterioration I had been witnessing.
The three girls hadn’t
seen her tears of frustration when she found she could no longer read
(something she had loved ever since I can remember) because by the time
she’d finished a paragraph she couldn’t remember what the first sentence
Nor had they seen her struggling to button up a
cardigan — this once-elegant woman who had taught me so many years ago
just the right way to wear a silk scarf.
But this day, when my
daughter called me, was in a different league. My father had told her
what had happened.
Earlier that day, it seemed, my mother had got
out of the chair she now rarely left and made for the front door. Once
in the street, she’d stood outside the house, motionless, frozen to the
spot, until a concerned neighbour approached her.
‘There’s a man
in the house,’ she hissed angrily. ‘He wants to kill me. I can’t go back
I sat holding her small fragile
hands, fighting back the tears. I could
see in her eyes that something had switched off inside her brain
There was indeed a man in the house: my father. The most patient man
in the world and her companion of 50 years, now the object of her hatred
Rooted to the ground, she could not be persuaded to
budge. My father brought a chair out for her to sit on in the street as
puzzled neighbours passed by, but it was to be hours before she could
be induced to go back inside with ‘that man’.
Me, my husband and
our two younger daughters were all flying back that day anyway, but this
time the flight seemed to take for ever. I drove straight round to my
old family home, thankfully just a couple of streets away.
mother’s relief at seeing me was palpable, but she had no memory of
what had gone on the day before. She wasn’t even really aware that I’d
been away for a week.
I sat holding her small fragile hands,
fighting back the tears. I could see in her eyes that something had
switched off inside her brain. I knew I’d never be able to reach her
My mother’s mental deterioration had begun insidiously
about two years before, but this was different. Yes, gradual memory loss
had been followed by anxiety and mild agoraphobia, but she’d never
taken out her anxieties on anyone else — and never on my father.
mother was an intelligent woman who had been a ballet dancer in her
youth and was painfully aware of her changing condition. She had watched
her own mother disintegrate with senile dementia in her 80s, and
although it was never talked about, she knew that this was most likely
what was happening to her as well.
As for me, I didn’t need a
doctor’s diagnosis to know that she was changing.
For she and I
had a common interest — gardening — that had bonded us for years, and
when she lost interest in her plants, I knew that something was deeply
There is something about tending a garden that is
It aligns you with the rhythm of the
seasons; it disciplines you to do the necessary jobs at the right time
of the year. It brings solace from stress and, best of all, it brings
the deep satisfaction of nurturing plants and flowers into glorious
Funnily enough, I never thought I was going to be interested
in gardeningwhen I was growing up. Having to endure my mother and my
aunt always comparing notes on roses and clematis, I’d innocently
thought as a teenager: ‘I’ll never be like that!’
But as soon as I
got a garden of my own, of course I was.
Even the rigours of
looking after a young family didn’t stop me escaping into the greenhouse
whenever I could. Soon sandpits and climbing frames were being edged
out by herbaceous borders and vegetable patches.
Joy: Catherine's mother Clothilde pictured at a
public garden in 1992. The mother and daughter spent years discussing
their love of gardening
And the loveliest part was that I could talk to my mother about it.
We visited gardens together, went on day trips to nurseries, returning
with a car laden with plant purchases — and often with two of everything
because we both wanted the same rare claret-red astrantia or
Phone calls between us would always start with
a catch-up on the granddaughters, but then immediately turn to
discussion on some new seed discovery or garden worth visiting.
I was competitive (the gardening bug had truly taken hold) and entered
local horticultural competitions, Mum wasn’t at all. But it was no
surprise to me when I heard that she’d won a competition organised by a
local newspaper where the judges pick their favourite gardens ‘seen from
the street’, without the owners even knowing they’ve been to see it.
front patch had a magical air, looking more like the kind of cottage
garden you’d expect to stumble over in the country than pass in a busy
Plants toppled over the low fence, alchemilla
seedlings and lily-of-the-valley popped up between paving stones, and
the scent of shrub roses stopped passers-by in their tracks.
was not unusual to look out of the front window and see someone just
standing and staring at the wild beauty of it all. Sometimes, my mother
would surprise them by popping up from behind the plants she’d been
weeding to chat or press plant cuttings on them — cuttings they often
helped themselves to on passing anyway.
She never minded, always
taking it as a compliment.
In the past few years I’ve been
researching the links between women and gardening, and unsurprisingly
found that gardening runs in families, and often between mothers and
In the 1820s, Charlotte
Marryat — one of the first women to exhibit at the soon to be 'Royal'
Horticultural Society - passed her love of gardening on to several of
her 15 children.
One daughter, called Fanny (later Mrs Palliser) moved to Italy,
from where she supplied her mother with many rarities. I can empathise
with their relationship.
In a single year, Fanny sent her mother
around 100 plants and seeds, about half of which had never been grown in
Imagine the excitement when they germinated in one of Charlotte's
many greenhouses at her home in Wimbledon.
had been widowed in middle age and was one of many women I have come
across who saw their gardens as a sanctuary from loneliness, bereavement
Broken marriages, lost children, divorce and death: women who
gardened have always seemed to be able to escape mental anguish when
working on their plot.
The same happened to me as my mother's mental state continued to
deteriorate. Far from being a painful place to be because of memories of
our happier times, my garden became somewhere I could stay in touch
with the person she used to be. It was the place I'd rushed to on
leaving her the day I got back from holiday.
I would have done so anyway to check on my precious plants, but
that day they meant more to me than ever. I was trying to hold myself
together for the sake of the family, but in the garden I could be myself
and cry - which I did
frequently when I came across a favourite rose we'd bought
together, or while driving my spade into the ground with a force born
out of the unfairness of it all.
Broken marriages, lost children, divorce and death:
women who gardened
have always seemed to be able to escape mental anguish when working on
It was shortly after the incident in the street that my mother
stopped eating and seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, to lose the will to
live. Every day was spent trying to coax her to take some food, or
drink some revoltingly sweet dietary supplement.
But it was an impossible task and her condition deteriorated.
Only in the evening, back in my garden once more, did life seem
strangely normal, with birds singing and flowers blooming. It was my
sanctuary from the horror we were witnessing.
Few other degenerative diseases strip someone of their
personality quite so thoroughly as Alzheimer's. Watching someone you
love become so diminished is agony.
At the first signs, there is the denial that this can be
happening. Then there is anger with the illness itself; and sometimes
even anger with the person themselves for no longer being who they were.
And finally there is the living bereavement: mourning someone who
is still alive but no longer with you.
Most forms of dementia can be seen as a reversal of the rapid
brain development that happens during childhood. Just as the flower
develops and opens in early life, so it slowly shrinks and dies later.
My mother never recovered from that day she sat in the street.
She died less than two months later.
We moved her into a nursing home for what were to be the last
three weeks of her life, although we didn't know that at the time.
My father protested long and loud, but finally agreed that he
could no longer care for her himself. When she needed to be moved he
couldn't lift her, although her tiny dancer's body then weighed only 6
We chose a room for her overlooking the neatly manicured gardens
of the nursing home. The garden was not her style at all, but there was a
wild hope that it might jog some happier hor t icul tural memories.
Every time I left her bedside, it was torture. I never knew
whether I would see her alive again; but also I didn't want her to
suffer any more.
And so I retreated to my garden. Here was the peace, calm and
continuity which kept me sane. There were always jobs to be done that
made no emotional demands on me: plants to be watered, honeysuckle to be
tied, roses to be deadheaded.
I filled my mother's room with flowers from both our gardens,
told her how my battles with lily beetle continued, and that next door's
late-flowering clematis was in full bloom. I was luckier than most,
because I'm sure she knew me until the end.
It's been nearly eight years since she died, and like so many
people, I could spend hours in the garden. My husband says I must stop
calling it 'work' because I enjoy it too much.
In many ways, he's right. But it took this last journey with my
mother to make me realise just how therapeutic gardening can be to the
soul, as well as the body.
It saw me through my bereavement, and will remain a comfort for
ever. But only recently have I stopped reaching for the phone when I
catch sight of the first snowdrops in spring or a rare anemone on a