By Melanie Reid in THE TIMES, 3 November 2018

There is a wonderful old Gardeners’ Question Time joke – “When’s the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago” – which is really a universal truth in disguise.

When you get to the point in life of pausing to look back over your shoulder, you suddenly realise how many other things for which the 20-year tree rule is a metaphor. It’s that jolt of emotional and practical insight that arrives usually just a little too late. For me, it felt as if I only learnt the purpose of the game I was playing shortly before half-time.

Now, some people are born sensible. The rule is in their genes and they plant symbolic trees from birth. They never need fillings, because they’re never so drunk or up so late that they don’t brush their teeth. They start a pension at 22. Their child-bearing is wrapped up long before infertility looms. Their bucket list is signed off and completed by 50. There are no gaps in their flowerbeds, no regrets in their dreams. I envy them.

Others, like me, don’t properly wise up until their parents die. Being orphaned, even in middle age, tends to bring you up short. That’s often when you experience your legacy moment and start thinking about all the stuff you’ve failed to do. It happened to me in my late forties. What, when I die, will I leave behind – what monuments of achievement, security, generosity? What have I put back? Why have I been wasting my life until now? Eek – how will I be remembered?

At this point, people often change their job to something more worthwhile. Some people go back to university or become teachers. Start volunteering, or gardening – creating things with emotional and social value, rather than financial. For some time before my accident, I had been toying with the idea of joining the police, or training as a paramedic.

Children are trees. They’re the things you hope you plant in the right season, and pray they’ll grow strong and resilient. Dougie, my son, left yesterday after four days at home – precious time, filled with lots of fun and hopefully not too much hard labour for him. Potholes are filled, underfloor heating reprogrammed, phone be-apped. When I see him at ease with life, I am reminded, happily, of all the things I did right.

And reflect, I guess, on the things I got wrong. It took me a long time to get wise. I wish I’d had more children, but I blew it. I wish I’d worked less and mothered more. I wish, while there was time, I’d planted firm memories of my parents in my head, rather than be left with the darkness of their final years. “Remember me as I used to be,” my demented mother would plead. I’m still trying.

And now trying not to say exactly the same thing to Dougie.

The 20-year rule is easier if you stick to trees. One of the things I love about home is the memories that literally grow here. It’s thrilling how freebie plants I stuck in the ground have matured, unnoticed, over the years while I’ve been preoccupied with my wrecked body. Suddenly, I’ve got a mature garden to comfort me. The larch tree with the wonderfully kinked top now towers behind the barn, a happy epitaph. Decades ago it was one of two seedlings from a forest road spotted by my dear late friend Kate, a great gardener, one day when we were hacking. I dismounted and shoved the fronds down my jacket. She took one, I the other, and they kept the memories of their early crushing and have pushed the kinks into the sky atop great big trunks.

There’s the monkey puzzle and three vast rhododendrons, which I planted 20 years ago (mostly, damn it, in the wrong place) and can remember how tiny they were. Or the little cotoneaster cutting my mother gave me, which now covers about 30sq metres of wall. Not to forget – it’s not a tree, and it’s only 15 years, but it counts – a long row of yellow we call Dougie’s Penance Daffodils, planted by him as punishment the morning after his first teenage drunken rite of passage.

See? There was a creative police officer lurking inside me even then.

@Mel_ReidTimes

Melanie Reid is tetraplegic after breaking her neck and back in a riding accident in April 2010