A little over two years ago, Alison Cutland received the news that no parent would ever want to hear that caused tremendous grief. Her darling daughter had died in highly unusual circumstances whilst on an internship in Madagascar as part of her degree at Cambridge.
Having passed away in a way that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen, the grief and loss felt by her family was monumental. It still is.
Alison and I were talking via Zoom. She was in her car outside a hotel having delivered a training session for work. I was on the farm (as per).
Her strength and tenacity amazed me. As a mother myself, I cannot imagine the grief and heartbreak she has felt. But here she is, taking each day as it comes – and growing beautiful flowers while she’s at it.
“Life still seems difficult,” she tells me. “But every so often I take a breath and look at how far I have come in the last two years.”
The admiration I have for Alison is huge. I think she’s amazing. To keep going through the loss of a child and to have come as far as she has is just incredible.
“I’ve learned to be kind to myself, to take time for myself. Small as it is, I’m proud to say that’ve managed to get out of bed each day.”
“There were times when I thought I couldn’t carry on. But every day I woke up, my heart beating. So I had to carry on for myself, for my husband, for my son, and for Alana.”
With her youngest child having flown the nest for university, the last two years has seen Alison completely throw herself into charity work (more of that to come) and growing her own cut flowers.
“I have always quite liked gardening. I’m not a huge gardener, but I have always loved flowers.”
She followed the journey of a YouTuber who had acquired some land and decided to use it to grow cut flowers. Alison started her own lockdown growing journey, growing Dahlias and Cosmos and others from seed. The growing bug had truly bitten!
“I got to the point where I wanted more space but moving to a new house is not an option, so I applied for an allotment.”
The lease on her own allotment space was signed in January 2021 which coincided with her coming across an advertisement for the Cut Flower Collective.
“I decided that if I was going to grow, I was going to do it properly, so I signed up.”
Alison joined the Seed to Vase course as part of the 2021 intake, immersing herself in the community and her growing journey fully.
“I have picked up so many tips along the way – the whole experience has given me a real sense of joy.”
“Sometimes, I just sit back and say to myself ‘look at what I’ve achieved’. I am just so proud.” As she should be!
The pictures of Alison’s allotment are just breath-taking. She’s created something so incredibly beautiful.
“The other day I sat down, and I listed all the things I have grown this year. I thought crikey that’s loads.”
“I have grown so many things as part of the Cut Flower Collective that I wouldn’t have even thought to try before. Cornflowers, Zinnia and so many others. I love that I’ve learned things about roses. I’ve always wanted to grow long stem roses, and I’ve learned all about that. It’s been amazing!”
For Alison, gardening has been a vital tool in helping her to work through her grief and manage her mental health. Like me, she uses it as an antidote if she’s feeling anxious or fed up, by allowing herself to
get lost in something that absorbs her entire concentration.
“Most people hate weeding, but I just love it,” she told me. “You have to really think about what you’re doing to make sure you only pull up the weeds. A good stint of weeding allows me to completely zone out. It’s so rewarding and is wonderfully mindful.”
“Growing has really helped me over the last 18 months. It’s brought me so much happiness and peace, and I am so grateful for it.”
It is well documented that gardening is good for mental health. Studies have shown how it can help alleviate the symptoms of dementia, reduce stress, boost confidence and self-esteem amongst a whole host of other benefits. I have seen this first-hand so many times. In Alison, I can see how it’s helped her too.
“You don’t notice with your own mental health just how you improve day to day. But when you look back over a long period of time you can see how much you’ve come along.”
“I can cope with things I couldn’t before, and I think growing has helped that.”
Growing gives me hope. Everything comes back around again, and seeing new life each spring gives me such optimism.
“Yes – the same stands for me,” Alison agrees. “Planting things, nurturing them, growing beautiful flowers – every bloom is a reward.”
“This year I’ve grown the most gorgeous orange dahlias, which I just love. I find that while I’m nurturing my flowers, I’m not thinking about all of the things that have happened over the last two-and-a-half years.”
It’s not only on her allotment and in her garden that she has been growing hope. In the wake of Alana’s passing, Alison and her husband threw their grief into setting up a charity in their daughter’s name. They aim to leave a legacy that will help others.
The Alana Cutland Bursary was set up by Alison and Neil with two key aims. The first is to rebuild a school in Madagascar as a way of saying thank you for their support in wake of their daughter’s passing. The second aim is to raise money to help women studying at Cambridge receive the support they need to work on projects that do good across the world.
With an initial goal of £5000, at the time of writing, the bursary has raised more than £35,000 and shows no sign of slowing down.
“Alana was passionate about women and their roles in society and how, at school, they outperform boys. Yet when they get into the workplace, they’re on the back foot, struggling to earn as much as their male counterparts as they progress through their careers.”
“We’d have really animated conversations about it. She was so well informed and really cared about equality and fairness. So, we decided that part of her legacy should be a fund that finances girls that study at Cambridge to go off and do projects to help others.”
The other purpose of the fund will help rebuild a school in Madagascar. As one of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries, the gift of education is invaluable and will make such a difference to lives there. Like Alison, I agree that the best route out of poverty is education and share the same hope as her. That this legacy will change lives.
“I am proud to say that the Alana Cutland project has helped so many people – it’s a wonderful legacy.”
Alison’s story of profound grief and strength has touched me deeply. To know that she has found such solace in growing is something so incredibly special. I am so glad she signed up to join us, and so, so glad it’s helped her through this incredibly tough period.
“The grief is always there; it never goes away,” she continues. “But gardening – it helps me reset my stress levels, gives me direction and purpose, and helps me to cope.”
“I stand at my plot and think ‘wow’ – it’s made a big difference. It’s given me another interest and kept me busy in a really positive way, so thank you.”
This blog first appeared in my book, Seed to Vase, which you can find out more about here. You can read more stories from past students here and here. Want to find out more about Seed to Vase? Click here – our next cohort will start in February 2023.