A Stroke Of Genius

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When, in the winter of 2011, Michael Pell received, what he thought was a huge kick in the back by a large animal he couldn’t have been more wrong.  He’d had a vascular spinal stroke, an injury that threatened to jeopardise his overwhelming passion for his Devon garden, a project some two decades in the making, one which was about to change direction dramatically, both in terms of his life, how he gardened and in fact the whole future of the garden itself.



“It had been a wonderful Christmas and with the New Year festivities almost upon us, I thought a spot of gardening would help work off the excesses of the last few days.  I decided to pop down to the Birch Tree Spinney and make a start on clearing away the overgrown holly bushes that were threatening to block out the light that allows the spring bulbs to flourish.

Sawing away with my pruning knife I was suddenly kicked in the middle of my back by what I thought at first was a deer, or something similar.  My goodness! I only wish it had been a deer; instead I’d experienced a spinal stroke (not that I knew that at the time – I thought I’d pulled a muscle!!) one that had taken away all feeling from my waist down.  I managed to drag myself up to the cottage to tell my wife Penny and was rushed straight into Exeter General Hospital for treatment where the diagnosis for the spinal stroke was confirmed.

Lying in hospital for three weeks does focus the mind somewhat and can allow for one to wallow in self-pity.  Although being possessed of a generally positive attitude to life, even I was beginning to wonder how on earth I could carry on gardening on the scale I was used to.  More than anything, my biggest worry was how on earth would we be ready for our first public garden opening in aid of the National Gardens Scheme in May that year?

Ever since my wife Penny and I, and our friend Richard bought Lewis Cottage in 1992, the garden has been a passion for all of us, and it had always been a distant hope that one day we would open the garden to the public to raise money for charity and to share our patch of the English countryside with others.

As a result of opening for our local garden club, we were so proud to be asked if we would consider opening in aid of the NGS in 2012.  Of course from that point on, all our efforts were geared towards getting the garden as near perfect as we possibly could for that day in May.  New paths created, borders replanted, trees tidied and gates repaired.  Which is how I came to be pruning holly bushes at the end of December.”

Richard and I work well as a gardening team coming at it from completely opposite ends of the creative spectrum.  Whilst I have a clear idea of the bigger picture and scale of what is required, Richard focuses more on the individual plants and the propagation of the large numbers of plants required each time there are new borders to fill.  As he works away for most of the time the day to day running of the garden falls to me.  How on earth could this continue now?

At my lowest point my thoughts turned to cancelling the opening later that year and to resigning myself that we would have to move house and leave the garden at Lewis Cottage behind incomplete.  I simply couldn’t contemplate the thought of watching two decades of hard work disappear before my eyes.

Allowed to return home, albeit attached to a zimmer frame, after three weeks in hospital, those thoughts vanished the moment I stepped through the door.  We all know how special a house Lewis Cottage is and what a wonderful soul it has and I had come to realise that in effect, IT OWNED US and that I would simply have to find new ways of doing the things I took for granted.  I just HAD to garden and to garden there, at Lewis.

Almost two years have passed since those dark winter days in 2012 and we are all so glad that we didn’t give in to those inner demons that urged us to give up, downsize and move out.  Whilst the effects of the stroke will remain with me for life and don’t allow me to garden at the same speed or in the same way, the positives that I take from the stroke are strangely similar.  Because I can’t garden at the same speed as I used to, I notice things happening in the garden that I hadn’t before; because I don’t garden in the same way as before new opportunities have opened up for the garden itself, transforming it into a far more relaxed space than it had once been.

Time was when I would mow the lawn by hand mower, walking back and forth trimming the grass within an inch if its life.  Now I use a ride on mower everywhere I can and where it won’t reach we have created wild areas that encourage bees and dragonflies, butterflies and frogs and so much more.  In the more open parts of the garden we now mow meandering paths to wander through, encouraging wild flowers to grow, water meadow like in their thousands.  To think that something so life giving is a result of a thing potentially life threatening is a salutary lesson indeed.

The prospect of opening the garden for the NGS was exactly the motivation I needed to get well again and we have been in turns, delighted and amazed at the response we have had over the last two years not only to the garden itself, but also with the plants we grow to sell on those open days.  So much so that we are now contemplating establishing a small plant nursery based on plants that can grow in the garden at Lewis Cottage.  How many times have we visited a popular garden, been inspired by the planting and hoped to be able to buy a choice specimen to take home, only to be disappointed.

Primarily a woodland garden on heavy clay soil, it isn’t everyone’s ideal choice of garden in which to grow a variety of plants, but it can be done and Richard has begun to propagate a range of plants either from our own seed or from cuttings that will form the base of this new enterprise, one that I can manage in my own time and at my own pace, from home.

The enterprise is intended to be a “not for profit” one, with proceeds from sales going back into various garden projects, including improving accessibility for our visitors, and planting more structural specimens that extend the season, enabling us in turn to open more often for the NGS , thereby raising more funds for the charities that the NGS support.  I never realised at the time we committed to opening for the NGS how much being part of that organisation would help me overcome the stroke.  I have no doubt that had they asked after the stroke occurred the answer would have been no.  Instead, the encouraging comments from visitors each year, are a constant inspiration to develop new ideas and to keep looking forwards.

We are, none of us by any means professional gardeners or horticulturalists, we simply love every part of this peculiarly wonderful British hobby that pulls people together.  From a totally personal point of view I know that through gardening I can forget my condition and move on.  Life is as ever changing as the seasons and we do well to learn great things from that.