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The Forever Acer

Our acer was dead, plain and simple. Very dead. So dead, in fact, that I’m surprised there wasn’t police ‘do not cross’ tape around it and detectives in long trench coats drinking cheap coffee trying to work out the motives of the murderer. Where once it was adorned with ruby red leaves - which I later found out could be identified as the ‘Matsumurae Group’ - it now stood petrified and skeletal. It was like a macabre monument amongst all our other living flowers. 

    Gardening is new to me after years of simply ‘watching’. We moved into our house a few years ago and the modest garden had very little in it; a blank canvas that I’m sure a more experienced gardener at the time might’ve jumped for joy to get to work on, like an artist hurriedly setting up their easel and paints ready to make a masterpiece. The only thing growing was the grass, a large bush (which years later I found out was called Lady-in-Red but I think that’s just a nickname. Go easy on me, I’m still learning) and the aforementioned Japanese acer.

    “I’m not taking this with me, so if you could look after it, that’d be great” said our landlady. 

    “Sure,” we said. After all, we loved the house we were now renting and this request would be very to fulfil.

    Only, it would have been if we had actually done it. Aside from the rain, the garden sadly for the first few years of our tenancy didn’t actually see any sign of regular water, food, or any sense of being ‘looked after’.

    I’ll say here that my enthusiasm and knowledge for gardening has got immensely better since then. Where once I might’ve said gardening doesn’t really appeal to me, I’d now go so far as to say that I love it. And what’s not to love? Being one with nature, all that colour outside your window, getting that sunlight on your skin, and so much more. If you haven’t tried it, I implore you just to give it a go. With what I know now, I think back to how that poor acer must’ve been really waving for our attention from a distance. At first when I realised this I thought it was funny, picturing it like a might be a zany character in from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, but actually, it makes me kinda sad thinking that it was left neglected when it was in perfect health to begin with.

    Anyways, back to my story. Or the acer’s story. Or, really, the garden’s story.


A few years into our tenancy, longer than we had expected to our surprise as we fell in love with the house and the area, a switch went off in my brain as looked out of the window drinking my morning coffee; the grass was tall and unkept, with dandelions running amok like they were gathering for a summer party and inviting all their friends and friends of friends, the lady-in-red looked misshapen like it had had a wild night out and walked itself home in the morning, and the weeds - Jesus, the WEEDS. The less said the better, but I will say that I expected some bengal tiger to jump out from the depths of all this at any moment, it wouldn’t have surprised me. We had crocosmia which was situated on a side boarder that always did well, as well as some tall flower that I still don’t quite know yet in a corner bed (I’m waiting until it blooms so I can document it properly this year). That’s maybe that’s were we went wrong - a false perception. We saw things growing year after year, (*ahem* perennials, if you please) so just assumed the garden didn’t need any kind of real maintenance. I had an inkling in that moment over the coffee that I could be wrong. Later, I discovered it was very, very wrong.

    So, that morning I went out into the garden and doused everything in water using the long hosepipe the landlady had left us.

    “There you go flowers!” I said proudly to myself. There was no real plan, I just aimed and sprayed. Like a dog cocking it’s leg, I guess. 

    Well that’s not all that bad, you might say. And you’re kinda right. I mean, five year olds know that plants need water. But they do also need things like good soil, nutrition, the right amount of light and some kind of defence against things that can and will eat them too. So it’s no wonder that after my heroic watering escapades I was still at a loss as to why things still looked barren and wasted.

    I should point out here that this epiphany of checking in on the garden (and not let it be a slowing changing picture on a kitchen wall, of sorts) was too little too late for the acer. By the time I was doing my best attempts with the hosepipe I noticed at the time how frail and dry it had become. Believe it or not, I thought I could bring it back from the brink of death. If I just watered it enough, it’d be alright. I’d one day scream “it’s aaaallivvveee!!” much to the confusion of all my neighbours. 

    Needless to say, I might as well have been watering a table leg at that point for all the good it did.

    After the best part of a year of doing the morning and evening ritual of just spraying water on things, I got stumped as to why our garden didn’t look like Eden. 

    “Seeds!” I said one day as the lightbulb hung over my head. All I needed was seeds, and everything would be right again. The acer was only sleeping and would come roaring back into life if it had some friends to hang out with. So with my hard-earned money I went to my local supermarket and bought - wait for it - one small pack of wildflower seeds. Eat your heart out, Alan Titchmarsh. 

    Now the thing with wildflowers is that the need bad soil, strangely. Good soil is bad for them. Bad soil is good. Go figure. Why this is, I’ve no idea, but it is. So when I planted them next to the acer thinking that in some scientific way it would just ‘wake it up’ as they grew, I was perplexed why this miracle didn’t happen. Well actually, my elation was misplaced when I mistook weeds for the wildflowers first. I had been telling my partner all that summer that was ‘looking after the garden’ with the same gravitas as building the next NASA space rocket, so when she came out to see that I had in fact successfully grown lots of weeds, it’s no wonder that I began to lose heart. 

    “I don’t get it,” I remember thinking to myself. “I planted seeds, I watered them, what more does this garden want?!”

    It was around this time that mushrooms or some kind of fungus had taken residence on the acer. I remember one day looking at it’s sturdy dried branches, recalling a scene in an old movie ‘The Secret Garden’; a kid believes a tree to be dead, but another kid takes a chip out of the branch to reveal green flesh under the bark. I can’t recall the exact lines, but he basically says it’s still alive because it’s green. Me being me, that’s the test I put the acer under. Only there was no whimsical delight when I snapped a piece of branch of like a chicken wish-bone, there was no rousing soundtrack when I had discovered that a bigger branch was as actually equally as brittle. My hopes of performing the impossible broke just as quickly. 

    Time of death; not a clue. 

    I looked around at the moss-covered and dandelion adorned grass, at the weed infested patios, at the weird creeping plant that was strangling anything that hadn’t been eaten by slugs, at the planters our neighbour gifted us that remained empty; we had a wasteland for a garden. 

    But fear not, for this is not where the story ends! Though the acer did remain thoroughly dead, the story does continue. Bare with me here.

    After I had hung up my hose that year and sworn off the garden, I watched it in the months that followed just ‘exist’. The croscosmia and lady-in-red did well of course, veterans that they are, the grass grew still along with the moss and weeds. I didn’t see any lurking tigers though I felt their presence for sure. The acer stood in the ground like a discarded misshapen javelin. 

    And still no wildflowers. 


I don’t know when it was exactly, but I remember the moment well enough. It was certainly spurred on by the appearance from our seasonal tête-à-têtes earlier that spring, the only thing that had successfully grown that wasn’t red like the crocosmia and lady-in-red, rising out of the ground trumpeting away triumphantly. They were magnificently yellow, to the point I didn’t really see whatever was around it for a bit, which to be fair wasn’t much anyway. 

    “I’m going to learn,” I told myself on drive one day as my mind drifted back to thoughts of our outdoor square bit of land (it didn’t deserve the name ‘garden’ in my eyes). “I’m going to learn and do it right. I want to do it right.” 

    Where once there had been an epiphany over coffee, was now a bloom of desire to learn. Shortly after this moment, I found myself in a garden centre, feeling a little bit like a new kid at school. I looked around nodding my head like an expert without the faintest idea what it was I was looking at really; flowers were flowers. Tools were tools. Now I know flowers are indeed flowers, but will flower better given the right care. Tools are indeed tools, but will perform better when you use the right ones, and not try to jam a trowel into the driveway to dig out roots of weeds (true story).

    I decided it was time to admit I hadn’t the faintest clue what I was doing. I swallowed my pride and asked for advice, but I made it as general as humanly possible to a nice lady who was very kind to my ignorance. I basically asked in as many words, “how do I do gardening?”

    After a long conversation and note-taking on my part, I bought several bags of compost, top soil, and treated to some new residents for the garden. After pursuing several shelves of a vast array of potential inhabitants of all different shapes, sizes and - most importantly - colours, I settled on a couple of simple violas and some lavender because I had always wanted to grow some. I liked the smell of them. I also bought a hanging basket, made up of small primroses, pansies, ivy and a large stipa in the middle (tall grass for decoration, basically). I found it interesting that I had noticed all these components individually on the shelves, but they had just been bundled together in a pot. Individual ingredients that you’d put together to cook a meal and not the ready-meal at a supermarket as I had always believed hanging baskets to be. Huh, I thought to myself. 

    It was an odd time when I got home that day. Like an intake of breath and hanging on to the air. I hung the basket out the front, and it was an instant beacon of colour. Huh, I thought again. I went round to the back. In one of the empty planters, I dumped the entire contents of one of the bags of compost. I learned from the nice lady at the garden centre that no, you do not need to just buy soil to grow things, compost for nutrients and top-soil would suffice very well. I planted the small yellow and purple violas in them and how they shined in there. Huh. I wonder if the violas looked at the mummified acer and thought ‘please return us’. I stood in the kitchen and looked out to the garden. 

    And then came the addiction. The exhale. Violas and a nice hanging basket wasn’t enough. Not anymore. No more watering and hoping for a pop-up-instantly-perfect garden, no more talking a big game to family and friends. I wanted colour, I wanted growth, I wanted the excitement and joy of nature, of quite literally reaping what you sew. I wanted to challenge myself, to make use of a nice space for myself and my partner. I wanted flowers, fruits and vegetables all year round, not just blindly hope I’m doing good in the summer when the garden is basically looking after itself but humouring me in the process; I wanted to be one with nature. 

    So I did my research; what direction our garden is facing, where the sun goes, what plants like what etc. At this point it made complete sense why the wildflowers didn’t grow, our soil was too good for it (proven by a purchased soil-acidity test kit which was so simple it might as well have been in The Simpson’s s as a skit). 

    Over a period of time I bought lots and lots of flowers, I’m pleased to say; pink and maroon primroses, salmon and red saxifrages, white magnolias and dahlias, orange ranunculus, blue gladioli, lupins (multiple of which is called a ‘band of nobles’, fun fact), lavender - the list goes on. It wasn’t so much like I discovered flowers like I had discovered colour, really. 

    I planted some forget-me-nots around the dead acer.

    Our garden suddenly burst into life, and looking out the window over coffee was never such a sacred tradition. I’ve never felt more connected to nature than when I go out and immerse myself in the flora on my doorstep. Our garden was finally, a garden. 

    Now, I know what you’re thinking; isn’t this story about an acer? And isn’t that acer, like, you know, dead? You’d be right. But we’re not done with the story, bare with me. 

    I was sat one late spring evening in our multicoloured sanctuary on some garden furniture we had inherited. The sun was low and the sky was gold, and the birds twittered away in nearby trees. I had been doing a tidying day in the garden; mowing the grass, de-weeding and putting slug preventative measure to help protect my plants. I had discovered the frustrations with slugs and snails which never bothered me before, and it was a daily battle. I didn’t want to kill them - one dead thing in our garden was enough for a pacifist like me - so I had been using beer, eggshells and coffee granules to deter them away from our precious flowers. 

    That same evening, I had decided after many years it was time to say goodbye to the lifeless acer. I had begun to dig it out from the bed, but didn’t get very far. It was - or had been - very well established with thick roots that ran deep. I felt a tinge of sadness as I was moving the soil; the blades of the crocosmia rippled in the breeze and I felt like it was waving, “bye…”. 

    I didn’t get very far with the unearthing, and that’s where after great effort I decided to have a sit to assess the situation. I was conflicted, though the acer was very, very, very dead with zero chance of being alive, we had looked at it every day for the past number of years, and I kinda couldn’t picture us not having it. We also hadn’t told our landlady that it was dead, but I had a feeling she knew when she came to do the yearly house inspection. The plan was to take it out and with my new-found superpower place a new living acer in it’s place as by way of an apology. But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to take it out. I felt sad for it, even though it was dead and completely useless. I was also worried that I might damage the nearby roots of the lady-in-red, and that was huge. I think our landlady wouldn’t turn a blind eye to that if that died too.

    My partner came and joined me in my musing, and gave me a genius solution.

    “Why don’t you put lights around on it and turn it into an garden feature?” 

    Bingo, and that’s exactly what I did. 

    I bought some solar-powered fairy lights and gently wound it around the trunk and branches like it was a bandage for a wound.

    “I’m sorry,” I said to it as I did so. At this point in my journey I had decided talking to nature was actually quite important, which party befitted more I don’t know - most likely both. “I’m sorry we didn’t look after you.”

    That night the acer, wonderfully, became immortal. It shone like a constellation of stars in the darkness, more beautiful than it had been in a very long time. And it gave us joy to see it living on in spirit, a ghost tree of sorts, that extended our pleasure of the garden after sundown. It was also a Dickensian reminder not to neglect that which needs help to survive, if you want to go down that route.

    So, to this day, our garden is abuzz with flowers, birds and insects. We’ve been growing fruits and vegetables too, which is very rewarding. No matter what is going on in life, this garden which was desolate pretty much for many years is keeping us happy and healthy, and every second in it is wholesome. The fight with the slugs and weeds is still ongoing, but I like to think I’m winning when I just pay the situation attention. Sometimes flowers bloom and sometimes they don’t for unexplained reasons, but that’s the real joy - “it’s trial and error” as one YouTuber said, and I like that. Like life, it isn’t linear and there’s always something to discover. 

    There’s a kind of peace within I’ve never known before. I invite you to try gardening if you never have before, trust me once you get the hang of it it will really work for you, or if you can’t then just immerse yourself in flowers wherever you can find them. My day isn’t complete until I’ve smelled the sweet floral scent of my primroses in the hanging basket. 

    Who would’ve thought this bustling garden brimming with life, this appreciation for nature and discovery of self and the world to some extent would have come from one acer that has now lead two lives; one with ruby red leaves and one in immortalised lights. 

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