“Some people have so much respect for their superiors they have none left for themselves.” Peter McArthur (1866-1924)
She was by far my favourite gardening customer and our friendship began one soggy day in April when I arrived at her expansive British Properties residence for an interview. I was decked out in raingear and rubber boots – she in a cream pleated skirt, a silk blouse with a large strand of pearls, a light cardigan, high-heel pumps and a tiny umbrella. The elderly Mrs. K was also what some people might disparagingly describe as a ‘big-boned woman’, although to me she seemed quite suited to her frame. She spoke no English and my German was abysmal to say the very least, so the only language we really had in common was botanical Latin.
The interview was comprised of her walking up to a plant and pointing at it, expecting me to identify it by its proper botanical name. Except for her high-heel pumps occasionally sticking in the mud, everything seemed to be going just fine until she pointed to a mophead hydrangea, which I identified as Hydrangea macrophylla. She immediately shook her head and chanted “nein, nein, nein…das is Hortensia”. While I assured her that it was indeed Hydrangea macrophylla (Hortensia is the archaic botanical name for hydrangea, and is still commonly used in Europe), we agreed to disagree and the rest of the interview went quite well. She was actually rather impressed that I knew one perennial (Incarvillea delavayi or hardy gloxinia) that she didn’t – so I met with her approval. From that day forward I was her once-a-week gardener while she was in town – as she lived in Europe and this was just her summer home.
She could be both stern and demanding, while also being quite kind and softhearted (she brought many thoughtful gifts back from Germany for my daughters) – and it was this dichotomy that much reminded me of my Austrian-born grandfather. Mrs. K expected her gardener to put in a hard day’s work, and I had no problem doing that for someone I liked and respected. Respect was the core of our relationship and even though we came from entirely different social classes – here in the garden we were equals and we treated each other as such. She would often join me for at least a few hours, usually doing a little light pruning or planting her latest acquisitions. On one such occasion I heard a loud groan behind me, followed by the distinct snapping of branches. When I turned around there was no Mrs. K in sight and a hydrangea seemed to be missing. After taking a few steps, I found her lying flat on her back, laughing hysterically – beneath her a completely flattened blue hydrangea with the flowers splayed all around her like a peacock’s plumage. Apparently, her high-heels had once again sunk into the wet soil, propelling her backwards into the waiting arms of the closest shrub.
I did my best to pull her up, to no avail – so I had to go to the house to get her travel companion and the cook to help me out. The three of us (two pulling an arm each and one pushing from behind) managed to set her upright. She immediately took off her pumps and walked through the mud in her stocking feet, stepped in and came back out with a huge glass vase (about 3 feet tall), which she left on the patio before returning inside. Mrs. K didn’t even have to ask, I knew she wanted me to cut the flattened hydrangea stems for her to arrange – so I pruned them all off and made a pile next to the vase. She came out about a half-hour later, all cleaned-up and dressed impeccably, like nothing had happened. I just got back to work, but I couldn’t help but glance over from time to time and admire the grand dame as she arranged her beloved Hortensia.