A lover of all

2012-06-28 00:00

I MET Jean soon after we came up to Pietermaritzburg from Durban. She was part of the gardening scene, where there were many new things to be learnt and written about, and of the floral art community, something quite new to me. It was not only in these fields that she took me by the hand, but in the world of good manners, of honesty in dealing with people. So the friendship grew, with her ever on hand to inspire and encourage.

When I started to travel the country in search of gardens and gardening people, Jean came with me, and she surely enriched my life, with her quiet comments filled with wisdom. When I might be irritated by something or somebody, she would gently put me in my place with a few words of persuasion. So I came to look upon her not only as my close friend, but as a mentor, not only in gardening, but in many other aspects.

And we had great times together. Once we were going to a garden club — Jean to give a floral demonstration, me to show slides — when we came upon a large car halfway in the road, with a large man standing disconsolately near it. We had to slow down, and he said he had a flat tyre and a heart condition which precluded him from doing anything about either. So I got out the spare wheel and started to take off the rogue flat. And there was Jean, in her cotton dress, standing in the middle of the road directing traffic! Quite firmly too.

I never heard her say a word against anybody or criticise a garden or home in all the many years of our friendship. Things like: “The garden is probably still to come to its best,” or perhaps “but it was a lovely tea she gave us” would be the answer to my mutterings.

She had much to offer in the gardening world. “Plant the seedlings quite close together, so that weeds don’t have a chance,” she would say, or “this poor thing looks a bit sad. Plant it quite deep so that it has the soil to keep it upright.”

Gordon Stewart of Sunshine Seedlings talks of Jean going out to the nursery and seeing trays of seedlings which were overgrown and past selling. She would say: “Poor things I”ll give them a home,” then months later proudly show them off in all their beauty.

Gordon talks, too, of how she often spoke of how she would love to see some of the old-fashioned flowers back again in our gardens. Nasturtiums were among her special loves. She had such a loving respect for plants and flowers. She came often to our home, sometimes to arrange flowers, and walk in the garden, and Lucy my maid spoke of her as the “Missus we [of the] flowers”.

Dawn Pellew has spoken of how Jean inspired her in her garden and in her floral art, always encouraging her with her quiet, gentle comments. And so many people have spoken of this gentle yet firm approach and of her generosity; of leaving packets of surplus fruit on the pavement for anyone to take, of plants and seeds carefully wrapped, of spending time giving advice over the phone or of going out of her way to find answers.

Jean enriched my life greatly. She was my mentor, close friend and counsellor, and I feel sure there are great many people who can only give loving thanks for having known and loved her.

WITNESS gardening columnist Jean Mitchell died on Tuesday night. Mitchell, who was 82, wrote a column called Garden Notes in The Witness and then Weekend Witness for nearly 30 years.

In an article published in The Witness in 2010, Mitchell told how her father grew vegetables to feed his large family and it was this pastim­e that nurtured in his daughter a life-long love of flowers and growing things.

According to her granddaughter, Kate Dent, Mitchell would have loved to have studied horticulture but family circumstances prevented that.

“The end of World War 2 brought with it an end to the subsidies for food, books and education given to the families of enlisted men. Her family couldn’t afford for her to finish high school and she left Girls’ High at the end of her Grade 11 year to start working,” said Dent.

“Now, at the end of her life, one cannot deny her enormous influence in that very thing. Jean Mitchell is synonymous with gardening, and a large part of that is due to The Witness.”

Mitchell was active in gardening and floral arts circles and according to her friend, Nancy Gardiner, loved all aspects of cookery. “She was very much a home person, a great family person,” said Gardiner.

Mitchell and her husband Claude are credited with helping to start Clarendon Primary School.

She believed that children gained much from being exposed to gardening from a young age, and was quoted in a Witness article saying: “In a garden a child will learn so much.

“There are different shapes and sizes, hiding places, frogs, fragrances, nipping ants, friends and foes. They will see the miracle of a tiny seed growing into a flower or a crunchy carrot. They will learn about patience, discipline, achievement and disappointment.

“There should be no reprimands for wet shoes, grubby hands or muddy clothes.”

The reward according to Mitchell? “Joys galore. In a garden there is a spiritual awareness.”

She leaves her husband Claude and six children. A memorial service will be held at Epworth School on Saturday morning. — WR.

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