Moving into my first house last year brought lots of new lessons in home ownership but also in gardening. I had insisted that my next home had to be a house, with a garden, but probably underestimated both the care and reward involved, in that order.
On moving in, the small front and back gardens were doing a good impression of a grotto theme run riot: wiggly paths, wooden borders, multi-coloured round stones and a few sturdy, unruly shrubs creating dark caves. These were adorned by a hefty faux-greco-roman bird bath, yellow and blue sun feeder and blue lighting. The ornamentation alone filled an entire skip in the process of converting it into a plainer style with straighter edges.
This is all a matter of personal taste, of course, and the sturdy shrubs didn’t seem like such a bad idea when astonishing numbers of slugs devoured my first plants, still in their pots, before I built up the energy to plant them. As the summer faded, I began to wonder why I thought a garden was such a must-have. I was probably not alone: a recent survey reported that a very large proportion of people feel depressed when they look at their gardens. This is the flip side of other research that advocates the depression-combating and therapeutic qualities of gardens and gardening. The feelings exposed in the survey are perhaps similar to another phenomenon whereby women in particular – who are often responsible for, or feel they are expected to be responsible for, the care of their homes – cannot relax in domestic spaces because all they see is work.
This year I have started working from home and combined with a lovely early springtime I have been spending more time in my garden. At first, I just saw work: a pile of unused plant pots, old bags of compost, overgrown creepers and bare patches of stony soil being encroached on by weeds. Then I noticed the insects and the birds, the first inherited bulbs coming to life and realised I was finally willing to try to do the work to make it the haven I wanted. At the same time, I picked up The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf, which tells the story of how Britain became a nation of gardeners. It helped me appreciate why I was imbued with this need for a garden of the ‘right’ kind.
Reading about the efforts of what Wulf refers to as ‘my six men’ I began to understand how little I needed to do but also what my garden needed from me. I learnt more about where the plants I take for granted originally came from, brought by botanists and explorers from across the globe, which also allowed me more insight into what conditions they prefer and why. For the experienced gardener, this is learnt through practice, experience and time. For me, reading the book has been inspiring and eye opening. Of course it is not a coincidence that I picked up the book, which has been in the house for some time, as I began to ‘get’ gardening, but it did help me to get on with it.
I found Wulf’s narrative unusually entertaining and accessible. To begin, she explains what brought her to the topic, setting the scene through the eyes of a new arrival to Britain surprised by the nation’s attempts to garden even the smallest of spaces. The book then tells the stories of Miller, Collinson, Bartram, Linnaeus, Solander and Banks who each played a role in making Britain ‘a nation of gardeners’. Wulf has used an impressive array of sources to bring the central characters to life, using their own phrasing from their archived correspondence to give them voices and describing in detail their physical appearances, habits, homes, gardens and plants. The book is further enlivened by carefully chosen and equally detailed garden plans, plant illustrations and portraits. My only disappointment is that I came to all of this too late to catch the author’s recent TV series about British gardens.
My garden is far from a model of perfection and still has enough bare patches, weeds and slugs to keep me busy. It will certainly not be appearing in a garden magazine anytime soon, or, in fact, ever. After all, the main thing is that it is my garden, my space that I love to sit in and now, if I see some work that needs doing, I don’t feel guilty or sad, I get my gardening gloves.