How strange that so many of us are compelled to do something that can be so tedious, that is such hard, dirty and repetitive work. The endless battle with persistent weeds that we know is doomed to failure. The weeds will still be there when we are long gone.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you do it? Can you remember when you first started and why?
Many years ago, when I was very young and had my first garden, I was determined to be as good a gardener as my parents and grandparents. I took it for granted that if you had a garden then you dug it. I found a very old gardening book, published in the 1940s, in a second hand book shop and determined to teach myself the black art of gardening. But oh, what hard work it all seemed. And how impossible to fulfill all the tedious tasks that were set out for each month. The chapter on digging almost made me give up altogether. It was called: BASTARD TRENCHING. I promise you, this is what it was called. With many diagrams, it showed you how to dig up your whole garden and then move it on a foot or two. Whoever invented this method of digging up the garden and moving it about? You never hear anything about ‘bastard trenching’ now. The name says it all. The illustrations in this book showed an old gardener in a cap, with a pipe in his mouth and clearly a hinge in his back.
And then there was LAWN CARE. According to our friend in the cap, you cannot call yourself a gardener if you don’t spend vast amounts of energy, money and noxious chemicals in turning your lawn into a velvety, greensward. The rolling and stabbing and raking and spraying that went on in that book made me feel quite exhausted. Anyway, I like daisies.
I found another old gardening book, presumably written from the perspective of the employer of the man in the cloth cap. I can’t remember much about it, just the wonderful sentence: ’No matter how small your kitchen garden, always set aside a quarter of an acre for potatoes’. I imagined this man grandly giving out orders to finish the bastard trenching, plant hundreds of potatoes and then spray the brassicas with DDT. Just imagine having an estate with something as magical as a walled kitchen garden and filling it up with potatoes and bastard trenches. Not to mention annoying, know-all gardeners with caps and pipes.
I hate to say this, but these dreary books could only have been written by men. And men with no poetry in their souls. Where is the magic in bastard trenching? To gardeners like this, gardening was all about control. You don’t work with nature, you control it and poison it and batter it into submission. Maybe we have moved on from this idea of the natural world being something which must be tamed and poisoned and bent to our will. I do hope so. But I suspect that one reason that some people garden is still a need to control their environment. Perhaps this is understandable in a hostile, unpredictable world.
But to most of us, and I am sure this goes for all my blogging friends; it is something else that keeps us digging and weeding and sweating. Firstly, I believe, it is a desire to be part of the natural world and to work with it, rather than against it. We grow food to nourish our families and in return find spiritual nourishment. I don’t like the word ‘spiritual’, it sounds ‘new ageish’ or religious and I am neither. But still, many of us are pantheists at heart. Long before the religions of the Near East spread their (not always benign, in fact very often extremely pernicious) tentacles across the world, our ancestors felt a presence in stones and trees and worshipped them. For centuries, gardening was an attempt to create paradise on earth. And still we do it today. To most of us our little patch is our own little Eden. These days, most of us are keen to create an unpolluted Eden; a little bit of earth that we can nurture, on our poor raped and exploited planet. It started with many of us having just a small corner devoted to wildlife and then gradually we realised that the whole ecosystem of the garden is delicately balanced and we couldn’t use herbicides and insecticides and keep a healthy environment. The whole garden needs protecting and what a privilege it is to share it with the local wildlife. It’s as much theirs as ours. I have to admit I used to use slug pellets now and then, until I realised that the active ingredient, metaldehyde builds up in the soil and is beginning to show up in the water we drink. Besides, what agony the slug must suffer as he dissolves into slime. And disgustingly, there is so much of it . Poisoning them always used to make me feel really guilty. It made me think of Lady Macbeth saying ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?’ after murdering Duncan. Except for blood, read slime. And slugs do have a use; they eat up all the waste and debris. I have found I can keep them off special plants by surrounding them with a cordon sanitaire of coffee grounds.
Moles and badgers make a mess off the lawn but I feel privileged to have beautiful badgers in the garden. As for moles, the mole hills are unsightly but if you have been brought up on Wind in the Willows you can’t help feeling affection for dear old Moley. Anyway, molehills are a great source of ready -sieved soil.
Squirrels are a nuisance and they have their own ideas about tulip planting and like to rearrange them. But fair enough, they have to look at them more than I do and from a different perspective. I’m not allowed to plant new crocus corms, every single one gets confiscated, although existing ones are permitted. Walnuts are for squirrels only, they are not prepared to share them at all, any surplus gets buried. But however irritated I get by their rules, I love watching them. They bring the garden to life with their acrobatics.
I must admit I don’t have a laissez-faire attitude to all my pests; lily and asparagus beetles are picked off every day in summer and squashed by hand, but I never use chemicals.
I went to a talk by Rory Stuart a couple of years ago. He wrote the book ‘ What are Gardens for?‘ There was a discussion about why we garden and he suggested that many of us are trying to recreate a magical Eden remembered from our childhood. It was interesting how many hands went up and how many people said that they have never forgotten their grandparents’ gardens and they were always trying to capture the remembered magic from long ago. Maybe many of us are trying to recreate the golden days of our childhood when the sun always shone and the flowers were brighter and the landscape magical. That would explain the perennial appeal of the book ‘The Secret Garden’. In my next post I will tell you about my secret garden from long ago.
Meanwhile, please tell us why you garden. I suspect that for most of you, it’s because like me, you can’t not. It’ s hard, dirty and frustrating at times. But utterly compulsive.
Many thanks to lovely Beatrice for the picture of me battling with weeds with little Hector looking on.