I grew up with parents who were always bottom- up in the borders. Lurking round the edges of their horti-conversations, I couldn't see the point of it all. Gardening seemed to be one long roll call of disaster: black spot on the roses, black fly on the beans, canker in the apples, pigeons among the peas. Why did they bother, I asked myself? The shops were full of excellent vegetables and blight-free flowers.
I used to hate gardening. The garden always seemed to get in the way of things that I wanted to do. There was no end to its demands. Hedges needed cutting week after week, as did lawns. Weeds grew with hideous persistence between the big flat flagstones of the terrace by the French windows.
So family expeditions became nerve-wracking affairs for me. Would my father, who had promised to take me to spend my pocket money in town, finish hooking out those weeds from the terrace before the shops shut? He didn't believe in weedkiller.
Could I drag my mother away from the lupins (very Fifties) and towards the Coliseum cinema where there was a film she had said I could see? Being a country child, trips to town had huge significance. Glamour hovered around the hissing coffee machine in the town's Italian cafÃ©, not over the ancient stone troughs where my father cultivated alpines with exquisite care and attention: gentians were his speciality.
Both my brother and I had gardens of our own within our parents' garden, though I think they were probably given to us, rather than asked for. He had a pear tree in his. The centrepiece of mine was a 'Beauty of Bath' apple tree, planted by my mother way before I was born because it was her mother's favourite fruit.
But, as a child, I never grasped that this was an early, short season apple. If my grandmother wasn't about in early August, then the chance to shower her with booty was gone. And nobody explained that it wasn't my fault it sometimes didn't fruit at all. 'Beauty of Bath' is early into blossom, as well as fruit. If blossom and frost come together, you kiss goodbye to your apples.
Marriage brought with it a patch of ground where once again I tried to grow things. You couldn't exactly call it a garden. It was 80 feet of riverbank on the Thames at Shepperton where we were living on a sailing barge. It was a fantastic boat, with a hefty wooden hull and vast fat tree trunks for its masts. We had an Aga on board and stoked it with coal we kept in the fo'c'sle. We had to row the coal up the river in our clinker-built butty boat. Once we overloaded it. The coal (it was a kind of Phurnacite) started to soak up the water oozing in between the wooden boards and by the time we arrived alongside the barge, we were practically rowing underwater.
We spent the first few months clearing the rubbish from the riverbank against which we were moored: plastic bottles, fertiliser sacks, hunks of rusting iron. Then my parents brought us flag iris to go at the water's edge, together with primroses, primulas, snowdrops and small Welsh daffodils for the bank and a wildish kind of rose ( R. gallica 'Complicata') to go on the railings by the towpath. The dream was romantic - very pastoral.
But in our first winter, the flags got washed away by the torrential floods that surged down the river. The following spring, all the daffodils and primroses we'd planted were picked by people out on their Sunday promenades along the towpath. The rose finally gave in to the determined onslaught of the horses in the paddock on the other side of the railings. 'Perhaps some pots on deck?' asked my mother hopefully, but pots were dismissed as un-nautical, as was safety netting round the sides of the boat. When our first daughter began to crawl, my husband hitched her by her harness to the barge mast on a rope just long enough to encourage the spirit of adventure but short enough to stop her falling off the edge. So, with the loss of the flag iris, our first grown-up foray into gardens came to an end with yet more disasters to add to the list.
It was at our first house and on the first patch of ground that we actually owned that I really discovered the point of gardening. It wasn't a Pauline conversion. There was no sudden, blinding vision of beauty. I didn't see myself (still don't) trolling through bowers of roses, straw hat just so, gathering blooms into a basket. Nor had I any idea at first of the immense joy of growing food. But I had at least begun to understand that gardening, if it is to be satisfying, requires some sense of permanency. Roots matter. The longer you stay put, the richer the rewards.
I also realised how completely I had missed the point as a child. Gardening was not necessarily about an end result. The doing was what mattered. At this time too, I learnt about gardening as therapy. Banged up with small children all day for the first time, I thought I would go under. When a confrontation seemed to be looming of a kind that had no solution (apart from giving away the children to the first person that passed by on the lane outside) I would race to the newly made vegetable patch at the bottom of the garden and furiously hoe beans. Their legs were shorter than mine and if I was lucky, I'd have at least a minute and a half on my own before they caught up with me and wanted to hoe too. Later on, at five or six years old, gardening with the children became a pleasure. But at this early stage - not.
This first garden (I don't count the river bank) was a square patch in front of a brick cottage. It was a pleasant jumble of roses, honeysuckle, japonica, white iris (the iris are with us still - the only plant to provide a connecting thread between each of our three gardens), peonies and madonna lilies, planted by generations of previous owners. It was tidy enough not to be daunting and provided enough unfamiliar plants to keep me tethered in the evenings to the first gardening book I ever had: the Reader's Digest Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers. It hadn't the sexy pictures that you take for granted in gardening books now, but I learnt a lot from it and still use it more than any other in a library that must now contain more than 1,000 gardening books.
During the five years we stayed there - caretaker years, in terms of gardening - we planted nothing new, but learnt how to cope with what we had got, mostly under the guidance of our hawk-eyed neighbour, a magnificent woman called Jo Schwabe. 'Don't touch that border,' she would shriek from a hastily opened window, as I stood poised with a fork over a narrow border under the east wall of the house. 'There's lily bulbs under there. Madonna lilies. You'll ruin them with that fork.'
And as I prowled with secateurs round a summer-flowering jasmine that, in season, scented the whole house, she would yell, 'Leave that bush alone. You'll have no flowers next year if you hack at it now. Do it in September.' At the beginning, it made trips into the garden nerve-wracking affairs, but she was right. I could easily have murdered a perfectly good garden in my ignorance. She hid Easter eggs in old birds' nests for our small children to find and gave me anemones to plant in front of the house.
Over the years, she taught me the value of patience. She also, in no uncertain terms, taught me that plants are not designer playthings, not merely accents, dots, drifts and drapes, but living creatures with needs and desires of their own. She introduced me to the witchy belladonna ( Amaryllis belladonna) and explained why she'd put it in a sunny gravel patch at the foot of a brick wall. She showed me how to prune the Hybrid Tea roses that had been planted in a bed by our back door. When she asked us to water her bonsai while she went away for a rare break, I felt I had passed a very important test.
Once upon a time, you would have picked up all this information from your parents. But so few of us now stay where we were initially put. In this first house, I was at least four hours' drive away from my home in Wales. But my parents saw what was happening. My Christmas present that year was Hiller's Manual of Trees and Shrubs in the old, green paper-covered edition. I started marking it up, asking them for the names of the rhododendrons and camellias that I liked in the garden where I'd grown up.
But that's when I discovered another thing about gardening. If you move away from home, you'll probably end up in a place where the soil and growing conditions are different. Hiller's Manual, with its vast list of rhodos and other lime-hating shrubs, was my parents' gardening bible because they gardened on leafy, acid soil. Our first house was in Sussex, with a garden made on heavy clay. They had shade. We had sun all day. Fortunately, I cooked only one rhododendron before the penny dropped.
Herbaceous plants grew well though and I learnt that they had a way of putting themselves in combinations rather better than any I had thought of. It would have been lunacy not to take advantage of all the self-seeding that went on, even if the end result did not fit the plan that had taken me three months and 10 library books to prepare.
The children went to bed promptly at six o'clock. I longed for the clocks to go forward in spring because then, in the extra evening light, I could climb over the wall to the field at the bottom of the garden where, in a fenced-off corner, we made a fruit and vegetable garden. In clay so thick you could have made pots with it, I grew the best sprouts I have ever produced. Carrots were more difficult, but I grew globe artichokes from seed, leeks, potatoes, courgettes, beetroot, asparagus peas (a waste of time), French beans, lettuce, onions, shallots, tomatoes and sweetcorn. We had several rows of raspberry canes, brought by my parents from the beds at home, strawberries, gooseberries and three different kinds of currants. That patch was my salvation.
It was also, in a roundabout way, the reason we left Sussex and came to West Dorset. England was weird in the early Seventies. Things you needed - like bread - kept disappearing. Oil went on the first of its expensive sprees and I got slightly obsessed with the idea of self-sufficiency. I don't mean the full-on, weave-your-own-clothes kind. I just wanted to be somewhere where we could raise enough food to feed the children and have some spare to barter. I wanted chickens and a good supply of firewood. And Sussex, though lovely, was slightly too brushed and combed for me, raised as I had been in the wild border country between Wales and England.
So we bought a Queen Anne rectory, the kind of house nobody wanted then: too big, too cold, too demanding. Little remained of the roof, but it had an acre and a half of garden. I had another baby (odd how often that goes with moving house); the health visitor called and found me crouched over a fire in the scullery, ivy growing up the insides of the walls, the stone floor covered in plaster and rotting timber. There wasn't an entire floor or ceiling in the whole place. To her credit, she said nothing. Nor did the health visitor who, several years earlier, had visited the barge in winter and found me on all fours up the gangplank to the deck with our first baby strapped to my front. It was too icy to risk any other way of getting aboard.
For more than 30 years, the rectory was the lynchpin of our lives. At the beginning, it took 18 months just to hack our way through to our boundaries. Standing, eventually, on the space that became our top lawn, looking over the valley, I saw our neighbour, a farmer, staring at me. 'Well,' he said, after a long silence. 'I've not seen anyone up there since the last war.'
This place, which I loved with a passion, taught me everything else I learnt about gardening (though actually the more you go on, the less you realise you know and the more extraordinary the whole process seems). Although, at the beginning, we couldn't see it for elders, brambles and general chaos, the rectory had a walled kitchen garden. We made monumental compost heaps, hauled in heroic quantities of manure and, a piece at a time, got this garden back into full production. I plastered the walls with fruit trees - pears, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, and taught myself how to train them into espaliers and fans. We made an asparagus bed (a real sign of roots).
The garden became the focus of all my dreams: I would lay paths of intricately patterned pebbles, brought up from the beach; I would make a flowering meadow, build a stump garden. Reality gradually tempered the megalomania, but importantly, I learnt that the blackfly, the bitter pit, the blossom end rot didn't matter. Gardening makes you an optimist. But it also teaches you the importance of the long view. The future - and our gifts to it - is what matters.Reuse content