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BECOMING ELIZABETH




‘Some plants become weeds simply by virtue of their success rather than any other factor. You merely want less of them.’ - Monty Don



Looking at the weeds starting to mass in what I generously and rather loosely refer to as flower beds here at Grudordy, a mild state of panic is starting to set in. Underwater at the beginning of the week, they are now starting to dry out.


The first weeding of the year in these five enormous beds is a massive undertaking at the best of times for one person with a bad back. This year after back surgery? Well, it’s not going to get done. I will have to steel myself to let them go and take their chances.


Perhaps not only for this year either. Maybe for the future too.


The surgeon shrugged his shoulders when I asked him about continuing working as a gardener and said ‘You need to stop’.


His physio also said ‘No gardening for a year unless it is gentle, and at waist or chest height’.


None of these beds and their contents are conveniently so, this early in the year.



The weeds will have to flourish for the time being. At least until they become waist height and I can wrench them from their moorings more easily.


Back in the day, the early 2000’s to be more precise, part of the business included a thriving and very busy gardening round. Cambridge was desperately short of gardeners, being then as it still is, full of people with enormous brains who earn a crust using them, rather than doing so by wrecking their bodies with manual labour.


We had a particularly busy round there which meant busy, full days, making fighting the dreary, cortège-like traffic each time in and out of the city, almost tolerable.


Each round tended to be in the same area of the city, most often the same street, and usually involved two or three of us working two hour stints at each house, usually at three different gardens per day. Thus each customer had either four or six hours work done in the garden per visit.


One particularly lovely couple had a colourful and beautiful house, with a large city garden that needed improvements and tending. Their front garden was the last bit we revamped; very small but open for all the world to see. We redesigned it, making it stylish and contemporary, in keeping with the inside of the house. It was well photographed by passers by.


The lady of the house was very stylish, always dressed and made up impeccably, and with razor sharp hair cuts. Her husband was equally well turned out, and very fit. Both in their mid fifties, they were a lot younger than most of our customers. They held elevated positions within the hallowed University and were exceptionally charming people.


It’s never easy when you get the news. The fit, far-too-young husband collapsed and died on the squash court one evening after work.


A Jewish funeral happens very soon indeed after death, despite people needing to travel from all over the globe to attend. It was a particularly blustery and wet November day with at least 500 sorrowful people in attendance. Hearing the wife’s wailing address was painful beyond belief. Being right on the periphery of their lives, I could only stand back and watch the extraordinarily moving scenes from afar. An enormous yet surprisingly intimate ceremony, feeling the raindrops soaking through my coat and cold on my cheeks.


Devastating to witness such raw grief.





Gardening for people, doesn’t only mean gardening. As many of our customers were older and/or female, as a predominantly female group of gardeners, we quickly built up mostly very good relationships with our customers. They came to rely on and trust us. We weathered life changing storms with them and sometimes became close confidantes.


In the early summer our lovely customer sadly sold the house. I was so sorry to see her go and I hope she found peace and happiness elsewhere.


On one of our last days working for her, as Sue my colleague, and I were packing up the van to leave, we were stopped by a lady on a bicycle. A ‘typical’ Cambridge academic; more than slightly eccentric in her drapes and layers of clothing, sporting the largest patchwork beret I have ever seen in my life. She seemed away with the fairies, lost as she was in her own world. She introduced herself as Elizabeth, which for today’s purposes may or may not be her real name.


Elizabeth was looking for a gardener. She invited us round to have a look at the garden and asked us if we could help with weeding and pruning. The place was very pretty if somewhat chaotic, requiring taming and sorting out for the garden to look its best. Masses of fine weeding, and pruning when the time was right.


Clapping her hands with joy at the thought of us being able to start work there in the next few weeks, we agreed the price per hour and gave her a date and time when we would return. Four hours gardening booked, that being two of us, each for two hours.



Sadly closing the garden gate on one lovely customer and opening it to another on the opposite side of the road, we turned up at Elizabeth’s as had been agreed.


She greeted us and made coffee. It was a promising start. The three of us walked around the garden together, making plans to reduce the number of seedlings in the borders and generally tidy up. Trying to bring a semblance of order to the place, without destroying its character.


We set to.


As Sue and I worked in the borders, Elizabeth hovered perilously close, obviously anxious that we were going to destroy the place. It was more than a little unnerving. Sue and I both agreed afterwards it was very unusual but thought nothing more of it.


Until the next time.


Coffee upon arrival. A good start once again. This time Elizabeth could stand it no longer. For every weedling or seedling we removed, she stood watching over us at first, then started sorting through the growing pile that was heading for the compost heap.


She was beginning to irritate Sue and I enormously.



Despite me trying to explain that thinning out the seedlings of her beloved nigella would create better and stronger plants, she was having none of it. Sifting repeatedly through all of our growing pile she asked a question.


’So you believe in murdering handicapped babies, do you?’


I was momentarily stunned. Where the fuck did that come from? Thinking I hadn’t heard correctly I didn’t respond.


She ploughed on, this time addressing Sue.


’Every one of those plants deserves to live. Why do you condone murdering children?’


Right, that was it. I stood up. Customer or no customer I wasn’t having it. I do not condone ‘murdering children’, never had done, and would never so do. How we went from her asking us to do a bit of weeding, to us being murderesses in a few seconds I had no idea.


’I take exception to your comments Elizabeth, and because I find them so offensive and rude, this is it. Sue, we are packing up our tools and leaving this very minute. We will not be returning. Elizabeth, I will not have you insult my staff or myself in such a rude and disrespectful way. Ready Sue?’


That was it. We packed up and went on to our next customer early. At least Elizabeth had the good grace to hurriedly thrust money in my hand before we left, even though I felt like punching her. It was an extraordinary outburst and I genuinely think she was unhinged.


Now, as I look at the weeds starting to assert themselves in my flower beds, I can only hope they sort themselves out and some of them wither and die. Maybe I’m a murderer after all?


Perhaps the plants will suppress some of them? I doubt it.


You know what they say: one years seeds, seven years weeds.


Oh goody!





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695AEEC6-3DB7-419E-923D-827D8640B2B0_4_5

Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I’m Jill, a RHS gold medal winning English professional gardener, garden designer and landscaper living in South West France since 2012. This is a personal account of my gardening life, some of the jolly and occasionally not so jolly japes that ensued while working, that probably caused my subsequent back problems.

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