My mother divided her vegetables into godly and ungodly. Godly included Jerusalem artichokes because they sounded holy, salad stuffs, because they were known to induce sleep and act as a laxative – bodily necessities in keeping with spiritual health. Beetroot, she felt, helped us to think of the blood of Jesus, while cauliflower in its resemblance to the human brain, caused us to meditate on the marvels of higher creation.
Leeks were phallic – not good. Swedes and turnips were for the beasts of the field, potatoes encouraged indolence and cabbage caused flatulence.
Such was my introduction to gardening.
Our allotment in the 1960’s in the north of England was essential to our diet, because we were poor, but there were rambling roses in the hedges that kept the wind out, and a small bed set aside for cut flowers. In the grim hard working-class mill towns, allotments like ours fed the soul as well as the body, and although my mother was eccentric, she believed in the soul, and taught me that there was such a thing. ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ was written up over the oven. But then, ‘He shall melt thy bowels like wax’ was pasted in the outside loo – a warning against too much salad, I suppose.
I learned to garden the way I learned to write – out of necessity. We needed vegetables and flowers, and I needed to tell myself a long story about life – I am still telling it – a kind of beanstalk that grows and grows, and I can climb up it, both to escape the impossibility of life at the bottom, and to find another world where giants and castles and harp-playing hens are still to be found.
Gardening, like story-telling, is a continuing narrative. One thing leads to another. Like stories, there is always something going on in the garden long after the gardener has gone to bed. The thing grows, unfolds, changes, develops a maddening life of its own. For me, as a writer, I go to sleep with an idea in my head, and it takes hold during the night. I open the back door in the morning, and the tulips that refused to look at me the night before, have opened into the sun.
I think we need such continuing narratives. In the post-modern world of fragments and dislocation, uncertainty, insecurity, the powerlessness of politics, and where money exists one day and disappears the next, there are three things that seem to me to be the permanent stuff of life: Love. Art. Gardening.
And each is about relationship; our relationship to one another, and to the mythic narrative of our lives, and to our one and only real home; planet Earth.
You might be farming, you might be planting trees, you might be watering a window box in west London, you might have an allotment, you might be the next Gertrude Jekell, whatever you grow, grand or matchbox, holds you in relationship to the earth. Gardening is as broad as it is long. It is many things; wild, tame, manicured, manic. It doesn’t matter how you do it or why you do it, it always comes back to the simple basic of relationship. And that’s a good thing, because when I look at the state of the world now, every single problem in it – war or economic meltdown, happens out of a breakdown of relationship. So when you sow those string beans this month, or plant out your sweet peas, it’s a little bit of world that is positive, a little bit of life that isn’t in breakdown.
What I love about gardening is that it cannot be virtual. I have to get out there and get my hands dirty. My hands are calloused from a life of gardening, and not always quite clean. There was a terrible moment when I was queuing up to get my OBE from Prince Charles, all tricked out in Armani and high heels, (me, not the Prince), and I suddenly saw that I still had ingrained dirt under my thumb nails from squashing crocus bulbs into the ground the day before.
I always start wearing gloves in the garden, then end up ripping them off because I want the feel of the soil. There are people who use soil thermometers to tell them when the magic six degrees of warmth necessary for growth has been reached, but I know it through my fingers. It seems to me that to be in relation to the soil is at once vigorous and robust, peasant-like in its obviousness, and also strangely metaphysical. It embodies so much of what we are – the food we eat, the land we walk upon, our final end, the dust to dust that turns us all, inevitably, back to the soil that sustains us whilst we are alive.
All gardeners think about time, and time in the garden is not like time anywhere else – it is its own time, seasonal, rhythmic, neither fast not slow, and not the sort of crazy time that has become the rule of most people’s lives. If I plant a hedge, it will take five years to see the results, and twelve years for it to become fully established. Yet my sweet peas and Morning Glory and Evening Primrose, even my old-fashioned roses with their proud stripes, renew themselves every day, and in season the battle with the courgettes is such that to miss one for a week is to be loomed at through the sharp green foliage by a full-sized submarine.
My favourite gardening joke is this: What’s the difference between a good gardener and a bad gardener? Answer: About two weeks.
Timing is everything in the garden, both sowing and planting, and harvesting. That nothing can be hurried and nothing can be left, is a pressure for the new gardener, who tends to bring the rules of the office into the yard. I know that people often give up on gardening because they feel defeated by a time-cycle at odds with everything else that they do. But in reality it is our clock-driven lives that are at odds with the true time of the natural world. Gardening becomes relaxing and meditative not because it isn’t back breakingly hard work, but because it returns us to a freer mental and emotional state. It is therapy for the heart.
Nevertheless, there are times in the summer months when I have to crawl up the steps into the kitchen on my hands and knees because I am so exhausted. Yet, eating my five a day veg from my own garden for most of the year is really wonderful, and a satisfaction unlike any other. When I lived in London I used to turn every available space into somewhere for salad and beans, and there is no need to spend a fortune on fancy pots. At my poorest I have lined a cardboard box with a bin bag and grown salad and herbs in that
Just as there are two basic kinds of writers, there are two basic kinds of gardeners; the ones who are all about conscious control of the material, and the ones who believe in a certain amount of creative chaos.
I was fortunate to have my garden in the Cotswolds designed by Susan Ashton, one of Britain’s most exciting garden designers, and a Chelsea trophy winner for Alitex, the gorgeous greenhouse people. Sue is the sister of theatre director Deborah Warner, and like her sister understands that the process of making should be organic and flowing, with a feeling for creative chaos, and not a place to impose a theory or a system.
When I said that I wanted to come straight out of my back door and into my vegetable garden, she didn’t flinch, simply directed me towards formal and beautiful cage and greenhouse structures, around which to organise my crammed and often highly personal planting schemes. She put in a pond that looks as natural as a dew-pond, and advised me to order thousands – yes thousands, of native woodland bulbs and plants. When the stack of boxes arrived, I felt like one of those fairy-tale unfortunates who must spin all the straw into gold by morning, or be carried off by a goblin. I rang her and said, ‘I cannot plant all these bulbs!’ ‘It will be worth it in the spring’ she said, and I thought of Vita Sackville West, on her knees at Sissinghurst, her weather-beaten face looking up from miniature mountains of impossibly tiny bulbs, just like mine.
She is a patron saint of gardening, not just because what she did was so marvellous, but because she did so much of it herself. And in the end, the pleasure of life, or so it seems to me, lies not in what you can get other people to do for you, or what you can wriggle out of – that’s the office culture – but what you can do yourself.
Tell me what is better than your own garden in early summer; its colours, scents, harmonies? It is worth it again and again.