At the time of writing, it seems I am a gardener. Green? Yes. Still reluctant? Perhaps slightly, though more with the tag than the forks and trowels… I’ve never been a big fan of labels. But seriously? A Gardener? Well why not? My name is Jon… I am currently in my third season as a Co-Worker at the mighty Sydenham Garden… and I am a Gardener.
I started in The Garden in June 2019 whilst struggling with anxiety and depression. Amidst high temperatures, I queued at the single outdoor tap, watering-can in hand, to help quench the thirst of the beautiful Wynell Road site; I planted, fed and watered cucumbers… and radishes… and Wong Bok; I admired the Honeysuckle and drank tea in the shade with my indomitable Wednesday Morning group… in my mind, we are The A-Team; and I shared the acrid stench of Comfrey Tea with my new-found friend Paul, laughing together between gulps of air, as we strained this potassium-heavy plant food through a pair of old tights.
Come the Autumn, I found the ‘fleeceys’ in the Boot Room… and started using them. I said goodbye to the cucumbers. The Radishes never appeared. And the Wong Bok was distributed amongst the groups. I picked up barrow-loads of wind-fall apples; cut back hedges; made more Comfrey Tea… and some Nettle Tea too; and I helped ferry woodchip from the back-gate delivery point to the various paths across the site. I also saw the garden change for the first time. There is, it seems, little sentiment in gardening. Under the ever-caring eye of our group leader Rachael, we just got on with the tasks of the day. I did, however, linger from time to time at the cold frames next to the greenhouse. I will always remember those cucumbers.
And now, Winter. Over the last three weeks, I have been in a small sub-team tasked with creating a path around the mud hut, allowing access to pond-side whilst controlling that route with the private-hires in mind. Nothing dampens a children’s party more, I would imagine, than a sodden six-year-old. Health and Safety is always the number one priority at Sydenham Garden… with Well-Being coming a close second. Our new path ensures both. Constructing a Wicker Fence surround was surprisingly straight-forward. I bashed in the branch poles with gusto and a wooden mallet… it’s been a tough few weeks in my life away from The Garden… and then joined the weavers as we fed the donated willow branches into our build. Today we built and installed a rather nifty gate. It’s a useful path, a great fence… and an awesome gate. I am very proud of our A-Team.
Away from The Garden, my life has also changed. I am no longer on medication and I have started working again. I enjoyed my school job but I ran out of steam there. I am now teaching one day a week in a prison, which I love. I am also volunteering at a local Food Bank; I am a parent-governor at my son’s new school; and I’m editing a friend’s book on camping. My life is full again and, overall, I am happy. There are still challenges, both now and ahead, but I feel more equipped to deal with them. I know better who I am now. I know about loss… and I know about new growth.
My Mum died in August.
It was a shock, despite her cancer diagnosis at the start of 2019. She was in hospital from the summer. I would tell her stories from Sydenham Garden. The fresh cucumber was the last thing I remember seeing her eat. God love her. She really didn’t have the appetite, but she took the slice I offered her, moved it around her mouth and assured me it was very tasty. I knew it was. There’s nothing like fresh cucumber from the garden… particularly Sydenham Garden.
Diana Pauline Crawshaw was moved to St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham four days before she passed. She went quickly in the end… maintaining her stoicism and dignity until her last breath. I was there. Strange as it will sound, I look back on it as a privilege to have been present at her death. She saw me into the world… and I saw her out. It is, I reflect, the natural order of things. I wasn’t on my own… and I don’t speak for the others… but for me, it was a life-defining moment. I knew, in that instant, that my life is not over yet. I have lots more to do. I’m not finished. It’s not my time. I thank my mum Pauline for that. It is one more gift she has given me, and I am now living my life with her help. It’s not easy, of course. Grief has stages… and I’m still going through mine… but I have support. In that, I consider myself fortunate.
The tomatoes were very late this year. We remarked on it at Sydenham Garden and my Stepdad Andrew confirmed it. He should know. He’s been growing tomatoes most of his life… and lettuce… and rhubarb… and the rest. They were tasty… the tomatoes. Sweet and juicy. It was with some surprise, then, that on my recent visit to the greenhouse in their garden… I mean his garden now… I saw some tomatoes still left on the plant. The leaves were shrivelled, and the plant stalks were brown… but the tomatoes shone red. I was tempted to eat them… to conjure a memory… to taste something remembered. Andrew advised against it. “They won’t be any good. I wouldn’t touch them if I were you.” In all- things garden… including the crops… I listen to Andrew. I took a picture of them on my phone instead.
And I thought about my Mum.
Jon Preston, Feb 2020