7 months ago

The Restorative Power of Gardening


Newly single after ten years, I was uprooted from my home and garden and nearly lost my mind. My books in storage, my plants in pots, my soul buried in some patch of earth I no longer had access to. I tried being a sort of nomad gardener; I gardened in an allotment, the shared house I lived in for a while, the gardens of friends who let me stay with them for a few weeks at a time. But it wasn’t the same. You can’t form an attachment to temporary things, fall in love, be so careless with your heart. Well, you can, but it only causes you more pain. And I try to avoid pain, on the whole, these days. – Kate Bradbury

I spend my days planting, raking stones and soil. I’m behind schedule (there is no schedule) and I need to get on. The books tell me to raze the whole thing, rake it over, add compost and/or manure and start from scratch on a blank, perfectly prepared canvas. Draw a design, they say, work out what should go where. And then plant. I don’t have time for that. To have a garden – any semblance of a garden – I need to act quickly. I can’t be waiting for the removal of a million stones and bindweed roots, the levelling and enrichment of soil, the ‘plan’. I’ll miss summer. I have to work, one scrap of soil at a time.

I carry the last of the decking planks through the flat and leave them outside to be collected, marking seven months since I unscrewed the first piece. The pond is slowly filling up. Bits and pieces of the back border have long been planted – the apple, teasels and odds such as  the common bistort and Japanese anemone. There’s white clover and comfrey from Dad’s allotment, the rooted honeysuckle cuttings, growing lady’s mantle and globe thistle from Mum’s garden. A thousand foxgloves that haven’t flowered – next year they’ll be busy. Everything is tiny, fragile, susceptible to the attentions of slugs and snails, a lack or excess of water, sun, shade or wind, or of being forgotten by me; I’m their guardian and keeper yet also the main benefactor of their success. I have to keep on my toes.

I rake soil, sow seeds, forget about them, sow more or plant things impatiently where germination hasn’t been quick enough. Greenhouse shelves burst with maturing plants not yet ready to be planted out, cuttings of box, perennial wallflower, climbing rose, honeysuckle – anything I had or could get hold of is cut and plunged into gritty compost to increase stock and fill space, gifted by Mum, Helen, snatched from the park, the street. My secateurs forever in my bag, stolen seeds and rogue stems spilling from my pocket.

I scatter seeds of love-in-a-mist into gaps in the borders. I weed selectively: mostly avens, herb robert and ivy-leaved toadflax, leaving a bit for the wildlife. Everything in moderation.

The couple four doors down are gardeners. Good gardeners, get-to-work-in-a-cold-spring gardeners. She leaves plants on the pavement for passers-by. One day a Geranium phaem and some Welsh poppies, another day a hosta so ravaged by snails that I have to cut it back to its rootball and hope it will start again. I wonder if it’s a game, if she can see my garden from an upstairs window, if she’s leaving things out for me. I walk past, hoping to bump into her, say hello, see if she’s left me any more presents. I leave the house to meet friends and then have to run back with an armful of treats. Sorry, there were some plants. A bag of plants.

The greenhouse has left me little room for anything else. But it’s good, in a way. A whole room of tomatoes and seedlings taking up space in a tricky part of the garden I might not have got around to planting this year. I can concentrate on the rest of the garden now, the back border and the side bit around the pond. The space in between? For lawn perhaps.

I like a lawn. I like to sit on it, stretch out in summer, delve into the thatch, looking at ants. It sets off the borders nicely. I can grow clover and daisies and dandelions in it, the starlings can forage for leatherjackets in it, foxes can eat peanuts off it. I’m sick of people saying lawns are sterile and bad for wildlife, that they’re a monoculture, high maintenance. Better to plant flowers for bees, they say. You can lay turf and in its first year it will be a monoculture. Some Italian species of rye grass that’s hard-wearing and suitable for anything from being turned into a football pitch or used as a landing pad beneath a climbing frame. But it’s not a monoculture after the dandelions have found it. After the daisies and the plantain have seeded in. After the other grasses, the native species, the fescues and the meadow grasses have reclaimed their space. Mow it weekly into stripes and dress with a weed and feed every autumn and you’ll kill all of that, of course. But leave it to write its own rules and it’s one of the most diverse habitats in your garden. Really. Some species of ground-nesting bee need closely cropped lawns. Green woodpeckers use short lawns to find ants, hedgehogs seem to prefer foraging on short grass. Let it grow a bit longer and insects will hide among the blades, house sparrows will pick them out and feed them to their young. Let the ‘weeds’ flower and seed, let caterpillars hunker down in the thatch. Watch the wildlife come in. A mixture of heights and weeds makes the perfect lawn, in my book. Stripes are overrated.

And yet all I have for this is a pathetic shady strip between pond and greenhouse and my hidey hole at the back, my little space between the pond and the climbing rose, that gets the most sun, where I can squeeze in my deckchair for the rare occasions when I sit down. This, reluctantly, is to be my lawn, my ‘seating area’, where I will lie and read books, delve down and look for ants. I dig the earth over, remove stones, rake it level. Water and sow seed. This garden will yet be a garden.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Muddy Hands by Kate Bradbury, Bloomsbury is out now, £9.99stg.

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