Sarah Coles

GARDENING FOR EVER. 1. Why Garden?

PREFACE

When the Hampshire Magazine, for which I wrote a garden column for over thirty years, folded, I spent a few years writing a book about the history of gardening which (amazingly, to me) was accepted and published by In the Garden Publishing (ITG) in the USA.  Fine, and it sold quite well.  Then ITG too folded.

Then, I gradually wrote a book about easy gardening – I mean gardening that’s not onerous and doesn’t take too long.  In it I touched on the fact – which I had never been able to discuss in the highly practical  and factual Hampshire Magazine – that gardening (for me) is a spiritual activity, and to be outside digging, picking, weeding, sowing or whatever, watched by trees, flowers and birds, is to be in touch with the earth and the cosmos itself.  It’s better than being at a church service.  At the same time it was practical, with suggestions of plants to grow and trees to plant

By the time I was finished the black cloud of Covid had descended pushing the world into lockdown.   I sent a few chapters via email and post to one or two publishers, and heard precisely nothing from  offices where I imagine unwanted ms were stretching sky high and unread emails reaching thousands.

So I wrote blogs on gardening, and Covid as a journey.   And now, here is the easy gardening book as a blog, in sections, the first out today.  Its style is slightly formal, not very bloggy, but hey!  There we go.

Gardening for Ever, Section One:

INTRODUCTION

This book is for those who like gardens but live in towns, where gardens are often small and shady.  It’s for those who never find enough time to garden.  It’s for those who are young and busy, those getting on in years, for everyone who wants a beautiful garden without it becoming on a burden.

The first section looks at why we garden, what we can get out of it and why we love or sometimes hate it, and a look through the centuries at gardening, and how various cultures regard the plants we grow.  The second section is practical, how to plant and what to plant to achieve all year beauty with a minimum of labour.  Here, although I have tried to be general, I am looking at my own experience of gardening over the years, writing about it and other gardens.

PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE 

Why Garden? 

In a garden, on the stillest day, something moves.  Leave a garden and come back, and plants  have grown or shrivelled, new shoots sprung up, others disappeared.  It’s alive.  Unlike an unoccupied room, it changes each day.  For Monet, it changed each second.  He painted the same objects time after time, and he might have been talking about his garden when he said to a visitor at his Haystacks exhibition, ‘For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment.  The surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the air and the light, which vary continuously.  For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subject their true value.’ *

‘I GARDEN THEREFORE I AM’, says a mug.  This is truer than anything Descartes meant with his Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am, because living is not just thinking, it’s doing.  In the garden, interacting with the soil, the plants, with nature – changing it, contributing to it and reacting to it, growing vegetables and herbs, flowers and trees, sorting and weeding, cutting and clearing, picking apples and parsley, I simply am. I’m not only thinking, I’m part of a vast conscious living changing organism.  The point of gardening is not only the end result, the flower in bloom, the beans, the plums, the potatoes.  It’s the doing.  It’s being there.

People have gardened since Neolithic times, with the dawn of early agriculture.  It’s in our genes.  It’s over two thousand years since Cicero, Roman statesman, surrounded by politicians and the viciousness of city life, wrote, ‘I look upon the pleasure we take in a garden as one of the most innocent delights in human life.’

It’s universal, this need and enjoyment.  ‘I found every breath of air, and every scent, and every flower and leaf and blade of grass, and every passing cloud, and everything in nature, more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet’ says Esther Summerson in Bleak House as she ventures outside after a long illness.

‘The soul needs to look at things and find rest and peace and beauty in the things that the eyes are seeing’ says the garden writer Anna Pavord.  ‘I think that it’s a need as much as having a roof over your head and food in your stomach.’

‘In the world at large, people are rewarded or punished in ways that are often utterly random.  In the garden, cause and effect, labour and reward, are re-coupled.  Gardening makes sense in an often senseless world.  By extension, then, the more gardens in the world, the more justice, the more sense is created’  says Andrew Weil, American holistic doctor.

Virginia Woolf sounds surprised when she records in her diary, one May, ‘Weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say that this is happiness.’  As Emily Dickinson gazes at a flower, she gains a knowledge of worlds with sensations and knowledge beyond ours: ‘The flower is … a living creature, with his stories written on its leaves, and passions breathing in its motion.’

 

There’s a hymn children used to sing at junior school, pure doggerel but still as true for me as all those years ago:

Daisies are our silver,

Buttercups our gold,

This is all the treasure

We can have or hold

 

Raindrops are our diamonds

And the morning dew,

While for shining sapphire

We’ve the speedwell blue.

Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy records in her journal the wild flowers she found while walking and later replanted in the garden she shared at Grasmere in the Lakes with him.  He wrote:

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,

The periwinkles trailed its wreathes;

And ‘tis my faith that every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes.

 

The birds around me hopped and played,

Their thoughts I cannot measure: –

But the least motion which they made,

It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

 

The budding twigs spread out their fan,

To catch the breezy air;

And I must think, do all I can,

That there was pleasure there.

All Wordsworth’s poetry is shot through with this symbiosis, his awareness that nature is a living part of his mind and body.  This animism, the earliest form of religion, where the community of souls can be perceived not only in all living things but in the inanimate, the rocks, hills, streams and seas, and is something each of us can know when we touch a tree, a petal, or a stone.  It is the core of Shinto in Japan, of Hinduism and Buddhism, and most tribal beliefs, and is more felt and understood than logically deduced.  Although traditionally dismissed by science, it is slowly seeping from neo-pagan and new age communities, who have long embraced it, into mainstream understanding, particularly in the fields of mental health, healing and ecology.

Professor James Lovelock’s hypothesis of Gaia proposes that our world is a vast single interlocking unit.  Botanists from Tel Aviv University have demonstrated a mutual awareness between flowers and bees – the flowers ‘hear’ the buzz of approaching bees and within three minutes produce a higher concentration of sugar in their nectar.*  And, a species of orchid at Udon Sunshine Nursery, Udon Thani in north eastern Thailand respond to sounds like singing or even mobile phones in the cool of the evening by floating their small leaves up and down. *   Touching plants, talking to them, smelling them: slowly we are learning scientifically what we have long known instinctively, the connectedness of all things, beings and activities.

Roderick Floud, an economic historian, sees gardening in England not as a hobby but a massive industry continuing through centuries as rich and poor, kings, merchants and peasants, spend billions trying to recreate their Eden.  The same is true of every settled society living above subsistence level, from China, to Afghanistan to Europe and across the oceans to Mexico.

Gardening, in short, reconnects us to the cosmos.

 

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