Something nasty in the urban garden

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The Independent Culture
I WAS sitting on the London Underground last week, enjoying the fact that I was going to the office instead of the supermarket, when a colleague said to me, "Well, you're a bit of an old moaning minnie in that column of yours, aren't you?"

"No I'm not," I said defensively, my good mood evaporating on the spot. "Not always. Sometimes I write about very cheerful things."

Take this week, for example. I am full of the joys of spring, and what could be more delightful than to share them with you? The daffodils are sprouting in my back garden, and the grass is too (albeit in a straggly, blobby sort of way). My potted jasmine has survived the winter, against all the odds, and the crocuses have survived the neighbourhood cats, which is even more of an astonishing feat. I could also tell you about the glorious magnolia and the superb climbing roses; but I won't for fear of becoming a bore.

This burgeoning interest in gardening is, no doubt, a sign of my age (33). It started as these things tend to do, when I was pregnant with my first child, six years ago. We didn't have a garden, as such, just a windy roof terrace on which I lavished love and potting compost. When we moved to our new house a couple of years ago, I was worried that the garden was too small, but in fact I never seem to have enough time to make it quite right. This is, however, one of the pleasures of gardening: unlike a messy house, a messy garden has charming qualities all of its own. (You can always claim that it was planned as an organic wilderness if it gets completely out of control.)

Unfortunately, my next-door neighbour clearly objects to this particular brand of messiness, and recently chopped down vast quantities of our ivy and vines that were invading her garden. I do not blame her (these plants are green hooligans which probably need the occasional short, sharp shock) but it has left our own back border looking rather bald. To be honest, the slugs had already decimated it last summer: I had envisaged a veritable cloud of frothy lupins and exotically scented lilies, but the baby seedlings were eaten right up before they'd reached an inch high. The slugs ignored the boring creepers and a few dull, dwarfish conifers, but no doubt they'll consume anything vaguely attractive that I plant this year; so now I'm at a loss about what to do with the sad, half-empty bed that should really be the centrepoint of the garden.

Still, I'm not about to start complaining: which is another sign of the therapeutic qualities of gardening. If a rampant household pest had eaten most of our furniture, I would of course be frothing at the mouth with rage, and calling in a masked squad of bug control men. A garden pest, on the other hand, seems to have some rights; who am I to destroy the natural ecological order that exists beyond my four walls? We did try slug pellets last year, but the carnage was too horrible: a gastropods' Gallipoli. And then I started worrying that the dead slugs would poison the local hedgehog and birds - quite apart from the fact that (a) they looked more horrible dead than alive and (b) I couldn't actually bring myself to pick their carcasses up and remove them to some other, more convenient location.

Anyway, my problems with slugs are as nothing compared to the difficulties that my friend Melanie faces every day in her garden; for she has a horror - a full-blown phobia, in fact - of large leaves. I never knew this until last Sunday afternoon. We were wandering around our local garden centre admiring the flourishing collection of flowering cherries, and then all of a sudden she came to a standstill in front of a rhubarb plant.

"I'm not too keen on rhubarb," she said, with a slightly tense note in her voice.

"I love rhubarb," I said. "Rhubarb crumble, rhubarb fool... Maybe I should buy a couple of plants for that difficult back border."

"It's the leaves," she said, edging away. "If you started whacking me around the head with one, I'd be hysterical. I've been like this ever since I fell into some plants when I was a child. It was in Ireland, and the soil was very fertile, so the leaves were particularly large, you see."

"Is it just rhubarb that disturbs you?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I don't like anything bigger than a spinach leaf, though I'm all right with house-plants. I could jump on top of a huge cheeseplant, and it wouldn't bother me at all."

You'd think her phobia would be a terrible handicap when it came to horticulture, but no, Melanie has a very nice garden. It has a lawn and many flowers and lots of shrubs with relatively small leaves. One can only admire her fortitude.

As we continued on our way around the garden centre, I began to see that Melanie was not alone in having to confront slightly sinister elements in the landscape. I looked at a weeping willow, and the knotted trunk and crown looked as if they might strangle anyone foolish enough to stumble into their reach in the middle of the night. We turned a corner, and saw a sign saying: "Heavy Stone Ornaments can become unstable. Please do not allow your children to play in this area." Nearby, two old ladies were discussing some curious disembodied stone hands that were for sale (garden candlesticks, apparently).

"I don't think I like those hands," said one old lady.

"Horrid, absolutely horrid," said the other. "Like something out of Edgar Allan Poe."

Slimy slugs; big hairy leaves; spooky, possibly psychotic garden ornaments that hurtle through the air and smash you over the head when you least expect it: they may lurk outside our back doors, even in springtime. But never let it be said that I'm moaning about this. It is all part of the appeal of the outdoor life; the chance to grapple with the dark wilderness that exists in the far corners of even the sunniest, most cultivated gardens. !