Spring into action: National Gardening Week is upon us
But as a nation of impassioned horticulturalists, we hardly need reminding why plants are our pride and joy, says Anna Pavord.
Do we need the Royal Horticultural Society, which has less than half a million members, to tell us that next week is National Gardening Week? No we don't. There are already 26 million of us gardening like mad. The real news would be the announcement of a Non-Gardening Week.
But among other initiatives, the RHS has kindly arranged a Gardening SOS day (this Monday) when we can ring in and ask questions of their experts (01483 226540) and on Wednesday has set up a Careers Day hosted by Alan Titchmarsh at the RHS Conference Centre which is just off Vincent Square, London SW1. "Our aim," says the RHS Director General, Sue Biggs, "is to get as many people as possible involved in gardening and enjoying its rewards." You can find a full list of activities at nationalgardeningweek.org.uk.
But in Britain, we garden because we'd be mad not to. We have so many things on our side. We have a temperate climate (usually). We have fertile soil (mostly). We haven't seen invaders since 1066, so we can plant a tree and hope that it might still be there in a hundred years' time (if the planners don't plough a new road through it).
And now, right now, is the most brilliant season of them all. Winter has cleaned the slate. We have a fresh start.
Wandering round your garden in spring is like being at a party where people that you haven't seen for ages suddenly loom into view. You can put a name to these old friends, but you've forgotten exactly what they look like and how they talk. Meeting them again gives you a pleasurable sense of rediscovery. You remember why you liked their company.
Take Tulipa tschimganica which has just this week come into flower. Prowling around this morning, the way gardeners do – sniffing the scent of daphne in the air, pulling the odd weed from the path – I suddenly noticed it, already flat open in the sun, with petals of a most brilliant yellow, washed on the back with a soft tomato-red. It's gorgeous, a piece of the Chimgan valley, east of Tashkent, here in my own garden.
Stitched into that flower are shadows of the wolves and bears and wild horses that live with it in that wild place. It brings, in its sunshine-yellow petals, joy, delight and all the good things that we need to get us through life's rougher patches. In every sense, gardening is a grounding thing to do. When your children are being more than usually obdurate, when the bills flood in more thickly than usual, you have a place to go, a retreat where you can sow nasturtiums or cucumbers, water coriander seedlings, run the new shoots of a rosemary bush through your fingers. Who needs aromatherapy when there is rosemary in the garden?
Though we can't do without the green stuff, gardening implies more than just a love of plants. A gardener makes a setting and often, knitted into it, is a sense of escape.
Making a garden is as valid an artistic endeavour as anything that Rodin may have felt, bashing away at his sculpture. We cannot all sculpt. We cannot all paint, or make music. But given a patch of ground, a windowbox, a dump-bag of soil, we can all garden. We can give ourselves the pleasure of feeling that by our labour alone, we have transformed two square metres of concrete into something that delights the senses. A good garden can delight more senses than any other creation. We can smell it, touch it, listen to it, look at it, eat it.
Eating it has become an increasingly important reason for people to take up gardening, particularly in urban areas. "Growing food chimes with our ancient DNA," says Deborah Moggach's city-dwelling son, Tom (aged 36), whose flat rooftop is packed with salads and rocket, claytonia and blueberries. "We are here now because our ancestors tilled the land. And what price can you put on simple pleasures? One perfectly ripe strawberry, eaten warm from the sun, offers more happiness than a dozen stashed for days in the fridge."
Necessity once provided the driving force for growing food. But there is dignity, self-esteem too, in being able to provide meals for your family. A Dorset neighbour of ours took great pride in the fact that in 50 years of marriage, his wife had never had to buy a vegetable. She of course may have been longing to splash out on a sinful aubergine, but if so, it didn't show.
All gardens balance somewhere between timelessness and change. Change provides excitement and freshness in a garden. Sometimes it is a style thing, a craze for a certain colour, like the brilliant blue that was such a mistake a decade or so ago. In Morocco (where it was first used in Yves Saint-Laurent's garden) it may have looked great. Here, it was crass. There are styles in plants, too. Hostas used to be stylish, but aren't any more. Hellebores are certainly stylish. So are certain sorts of primroses. Daffodils have never yet made the leap.
We've certainly got more savvy about garden design since 1997, the year that the landscape architect, Christopher Bradley-Hole transformed forever the face of the Chelsea Flower Show with his brilliant, modern evocation of the poet Virgil's life, a journey from cosmopolitan city life to the softer delights of his country retreat. That was the year serious design arrived at Chelsea and it has never since disappeared. Superb gardens have been made in Britain over the past decade by Bradley-Hole, Tom Stuart-Smith and Cleve West. We are in a golden age as far as garden design is concerned. And gradually, the ideas trickle down to us lesser mortals: using grasses, Corten steel, prairie planting, water features that have nothing to do with lions' heads or small boys peeing.
The strength of gardening lies in its multiplicity. We take from (and give to) our gardens according to our needs. And the needs change. Sandpits give way to raised vegetable beds. The trampoline can finally be banished in favour of some spiky architectural eye-catcher, or a herb plot. But underpinning the changes is a foundation of enormous strength and stability. The resilience and timelessness of gardens, their capacity to give solace as well as delight, their ever-changing complexities – no one can garden and remain unaware of these things.
I don't feel I have to burrow around in my subconscious for reasons to garden. Fortunately, nobody else does either. My own theory is that the act of gardening itself is what keeps you out of the hands of the shrinks in the first place. Now, back to the weeding.
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