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Obituary: Kathleen Pickard Smith

UNTIL HER very last years, Kathleen Pickard Smith worked in her garden every day. It was full of rare and unusual plants, often British natives that even experienced gardeners could not recognise.

In the 1950s she wrote a book about the making of the garden around the 15th-century cottage, "Harveys", in Glynde, East Sussex, where she lived for nearly all her life, but it was never published, "pipped at the post", she said, by Margery Fish. Although this book was not published, her book called Living with Reptiles was, in 1961.

Her house and garden had become increasingly the home of lizards, terrapins and tortoises. It was common for new visitors to be surprised by the sudden appearance of an iguana running up the curtains or to assume that "Iggy", who spent much time of the top of the piano, was stuffed, until he turned his head to look at them.

One friend once discovered Pickard Smith in the ladies' washroom at the Royal Horticultural Society Halls in Vincent Square on show day standing over a basin full of baby terrapins all swimming about happily. She took them out, dried them and put them back one by one inside her bra, and went back to the show to look at the plants. They had not long been hatched, she said, and she could not leave them behind all day.

She was born Kathleen Pickard, on Lady Day 1902. Her father, Tom Pickard, was the agent for the Glynde Estate in Sussex and she was born and lived for several years at what was then the home farm. Later the family moved to Harveys, on the other side of the road. Kathleen became interested in plants at a very early age and spent much time looking for wild flowers in Sussex and all over Britain with members of the Wild Flower Society. Her initials can be found scattered thickly through The Flora of Sussex (1937), edited by A.H. Wolley-Dod.

Many of her articles on the wild flowers of Sussex appeared in the Sussex County Magazine. Her interest in garden plants and particularly in alpines followed. She was a member of the Alpine Garden Society from 1933 and was well-known for her ability to name plants, which stemmed, she always said, from that early grounding in botany. Among her friends were many famous earlier gardeners like Claridge Druce, A.T. Johnson and Will Ingwersen.

Kathleen Pickard was also an LRAM and between the wars went on to run the Brighton School of Music where she had originally studied. Her brother Cuthbert had, after surviving service in the Army during the First World War, died in the influenza epidemic that followed it. She was therefore the only surviving child of a very autocratic father - well-known for terrifying the villagers of Glynde - and it seemed as if her life was set, divided between music, plants and animals and remaining in the family home with her parents.

During the Second World War, however, Canadian troops were billeted in and around Lewes. Kathleen Pickard met Frank Smith, one of the Canadian officers. One of her dogs was reputed to have bitten his ankle and effected an introduction. At the age of 43 she married him, much to the annoyance of her father, who commented, "If I had known you wanted to get married I would have fixed you up before."

In her unpublished book on the garden at Harveys, Frank comes across as a much more useful husband than Margery Fish's husband Walter, being always willing to provide useful muscle for any of Kathleen's garden schemes. They remained happily married until Frank's death over 25 years ago.

Later, when Kathleen Pickard Smith was already confined to one room and all her reptiles had either died or been found other homes, her dogs and a pair of robins remained with her. She would open a little tin box and scatter a handful of meal worms over the carpet. The robins would fly into the kitchen, through the hall and round the corner into her room and peck them up. Unfortunately they usually left a few behind to writhe on the carpet, much to the dismay of her carers.

She grew more eccentric and did not mellow with the years. Those of us who loved her continued to do so and she was always a lively topic of conversation among her friends.

Barbara Abbs

Kathleen Pickard, gardener and writer: born Glynde, Sussex 25 March 1902; married 1945 Frank Smith (deceased); died Brighton, East Sussex 23 November 1998.