In late summer, the hydrangeas fade, bleached by the sun. Instead of those impossible 1950s blues and purples that always remind me of my grandmothers, they look like they have been stained by tea; dusky and dotted. They stay like this as August slips into September, delicate, like an exhausted heroine unable to stop being beautiful, but thoroughly fatigued by it. They wait for the cooler days, the more reliant rain. They die as winter closes in, but keep their shape, like paper cut-outs, the colour of old lace doilies. I need to cut them back this year but I’m always afraid I’ll do it wrong and they won’t bloom next summer.
As these dusky, dotted hydrangeas begin to appear, I always feel a little melancholy, a little wehmütig. Another summer come and gone, those rich months of long days and the type of possibility so specific to the season already almost out the door. The children have grown again, their hair’s too long and so are their legs. Their long pants are too short, and the jumpers are all looking a little too snug, sitting a little too high. One of them needs a new jacket for autumn – not too warm, but something to keep out the early morning chill, something that can withstand the wind and a bit of drizzle – the other one needs to size up in gumboots. There are suddenly two large half-teeth filling in what was a two-tooth gap and this is going to have to be the summer we retire the bright yellow shorts with toucans – they’re his favourite, but they’re now almost indecently short. The children have shed yet another skin, yet another bag will fill of patterns and colours I’ll soon forget they ever wore, reminded only by photos. Yes, the new awaits, the growth is exciting, the seasons changing are so beautiful: but, still, I’ll miss the toucans.
Meanwhile, the early summer show-offs – the Damascus rose which shares a name with my daughter, the glossy white Lupins, the big, sumptuous apricot rose, the Pfingstrosen that shed their petals at the slightest breath – are looking straggly, their beauty long gone. Their leaves are browning and they’re bowing, stalks and branches weary. The plum tree looks tired and is shedding its leaves, crinkly things that were so mauve just a few weeks ago. You can see how much the plum grew after its spring-time hair-cut, the bendy new branches a deep purple. The veggie box only has tomatoes left and they redden by the day, splitting almost before we can pick them all. The butterfly bush was so full, but those long white conical blooms, magnets for the bumblebees and butterflies, won’t hang around much longer. It, along with the hydrangeas, is the last lovely thing left in a garden preparing itself for rest.
It has earned its rest. It doesn’t know it, but this year, we have needed it more than ever, this tiny patch of green and flowers, with its scurrying blackbirds and greedy bullfinches that hog all the seed, its two resident squirrels, one naughty, one shy. The little swing that hangs from the plum, the bricked patio that is just big enough to drive the increasingly-too-small Bobby cars around. The pots of tomatoes and basil, the splindly apple tree that is suddenly rather tall. The sandpit we turned into a veggie box, the square of grass the kids run around on being wild horses. This space saved us all.
Germany went into lockdown as spring, in an uncharacteristic show of punctuality, arrived in her full finery, the lemon light revealing both winter nakedness and new shoots. It was March, a month we’ve seen snow in, a month that makes no promises beyond bulbs and the smallest of new buds that won’t bloom for weeks. But this year, as shops shut down and offices closed and cities ground to a halt, roping off their playgrounds, patrolling their parks, spring did away with winter with record speed. We all got sick in the first week, fevers and chills and headaches and runny noses. If it was or if it wasn’t, the only thing to do was stay in bed and wait to see if it worsened. It didn’t, and after a week, we emerged into the weak sun.
The bulbs my daughter had pushed into the soil the previous autumn, came up first. We had forgotten where she had put them and they sprung up like tiny yellow surprises in the oddest of places. The red robins sent out all their new crimson growth, shiny and bold. The herb bed woke up, the roses got their buds. The purple-red shoots of the Pfingstrosen got a slow start, pushing up reluctantly. By late March the real show of spring had started – the pale pink blossoms on the plum tree were appearing, like tiny frothy ballerinas barely clinging to the branches. By April, it was fairy floss. The children filled their mornings with chalk drawings, or roaring around on their Bobby cars, with picnics and paints, playing in and on the springy ground cover around the side. They helped me pull out the rosemary and replant it, dig all the root-filled dirt out of an old pot, ready for a tomato plant that, come summer, would grow so big it would obscure a corner of the terrace. We planted veggie seeds in small troughs and the radishes shot through the soil seemingly overnight. We dug out the 25 kilos of sand in the sandpit they’d grown out of, and filled it with soil and fertiliser. Later we’d transport the veggie seedlings from the trough, put in tomato plants and a marigold to keep the slugs away. It didn’t work and they ate a lot of our zucchinis, but it didn’t matter. We were outside everyday in our little patch of the planet, digging and planting, observing. As the days lengthened and the hedges separating us from the neighbours bulked up and the blossoms turned to leaves, and all the trees that grow just behind our fence, obscuring a little dam, turned green and bushy, we put down a little strawberry bed, hung up an insect house, took to enjoying an Aperol Spritz of an afternoon.
After a while, riding their bikes up and down the street every morning became a part of their new routine, and I’d take my morning coffee out the front. There, I tidied up the strip of front garden, one eye on the kids, moving silvery curry plants and a wily little rose from the back into the dryer, sandier soil of the front. The eucalyptus I had planted the previous summer as a bit of fun, found its legs and doubled in size. The front garden filled in, took on some colour, and by then, the whole neighbourhood was in bloom. The kids would ditch their bikes and go wildflower picking, bringing back fat bunches of buttercups to put in yoghurt container vases. Sometimes I’d find stalks sticking out of the soil in pots, put there in the hopes they’d take root and keep growing.
Eventually, the animal parks opened up again and the playground across the road opened its gate with a stern sign telling us all to maintain our distance. There were other places we could stretch our legs. We were allowed to be in other people’s gardens, ride our bikes along the beach promenade. By June, after eleven weeks at home, kindergartens reopened and they could spend their mornings in their sectioned-off area of the playground. Then it was summer – barbecues and bee stings and a blow up pool. We could go to the beach, we could go to the local pub for a pizza, we could go on little day trips to other towns albeit with masks and hand sanitiser and following ‘one-way-streets’ in the museums and aquariums. The garden, meanwhile, was in full flight, green and lush. It seemed to fold around us when we were out there, closing us off from a world that felt as if its foundations were splintering. Out the back, we only had to look at trees and listen to birds, watch the cumbersome, furry bumblebees try to fly, worry about the nesting doves and whether or not their nest would survive the winds. We could pass the time digging and planting and pruning and picking, talking to neighbours over the back fence. The garden was a shelter, we were unreachable when we were in it.
Now autumn, with her golden light and glint in her eye, is knocking. I can feel her under my feet when I stand on the cold, wet grass in the morning, hoping to catch the hedgehog snuffling behind the back fence again. The bees have given way to the wasps, the mornings are chilly, the afternoons surprisingly warm. My daughter has to wear a mask when we drop her off at her Vorschule room on the school campus. We still don’t take them grocery shopping and they’re excellent handwashers, but by and large, the children’s lives have returned to a state of normality. But it was not lost on me – and it never will be – that our tiny little garden meant our children were profoundly lucky so as to maintain a sense of normality even as it was all going terribly awry. This little patch, those couple of hundred square metres of earth and grass and its handful of trees, held my children in a season of life none of us had ever known.
And so rest it should, rest it must. The drooping stalks and threadbare flowers, the emptying veggie box, the curling climbing rose that never quite took off because I underestimated how greedy potted roses are – they have earned their approaching season of sleep. And autumn, I will try not to resent you, which I so often do, even for all of your chestnuts and woodsmoke and big crackly leaves. I don’t resent you because you aren’t lovely – you are, everybody knows that – but because you always come too soon. But this year, as another season ends and we look ahead to the Erkältungszeit and the ‘second wave’, as the noise of those splintering foundations shows no sign of abating, as we plan for a Christmas without Australia, for a stretch of time without our family down there, I cannot resent anything. As the hydrangeas fade, as the plum gets patchy with lost leaves, and the baskets with their chrysanthemums slowly lose their splashiness, I cannot resent anything. The garden looked after us and now we must leave it to replenish – who knows what lies ahead. And when the time rolls around for my daughter to push more bulbs into the soil, we will do it knowing those little onions of hope only get planted because we trust the earth will keep spinning and months down the track, we’ll open the door one cold morning and see a handful of tiny yellow heads. That trust feels wild to possess this year. But, since those tiny yellow heads all those months ago, there has only been one constant – the plants and pots and bushes and hedges, the flowers, the herbs and vegetables, the fruit trees. The weeds, the birds, the bumblebees. And so possess it we do.