Don't know about you but I'm not sure I can remember a time when things have been quite so tough. The money's tight, the economy's screwed and the country's going to the dogs. But shall I tell you what has been keeping me going through all the misery and grind? The ruddy miracle that is my back garden, that's what.
I know it's a bit of a cliché that when you're up against it, it's life's simple pleasures which pull you through. But these last few difficult months I've understood exactly what the dying Dennis Potter was on about when he waxed lyrical about his "blossomiest blossoms". With a bit of help from the fecundity and beauty and magic of an English garden you can transcend almost any amount of earthbound misery.
And this isn't an expert gardener talking here – nor one with a particularly vast and spectacular plot of land. If an expert came round they'd spot instantly what was wrong: too many bare patches, not enough variety of shape and colour, paths badly laid, lawn too manky, weedy and guinea-pig infested, a superabundance of aphids and powdery mildew, and, dear oh dear, what's that dead endangered songbird doing beside the fizzing half-eaten snail beside that monstrous pile of slug pellets...?
But that's one of the great things about being a gardener. No matter how crap you are, your rank, unweeded plot will always reward you generously for your feeble efforts. Seeds, for example: cover them in soil, water them every day, et voilà, up they come, quite oblivious of how many episodes of Gardeners' World you haven't watched or how many RHS guides you haven't read. It's nature.
After that comes the stage when you realise things are more complicated than you thought. Maybe you've decided your seedlings won't mind if they miss a day or two's watering. Or maybe you've gone: "I know. Instead of propagating seeds in trays I'll save myself all that pricking-out by planting them straight in the ground" – not realising this is a sure-fire way of having them wiped out by slugs. But this is fine too. It makes you feel harder, wiser, more experienced, more determined. You're going to crack this bastard even if it kills you.
Not that gardening does kill you. Not generally. Not unless you're Marlon Brando at the end of The Godfather. More often – look at all the oldsters out there, digging and pruning in all weathers – gardening is a gloriously life-enhancing, life-prolonging thing. It attunes you to the wondrous variety and nuance of our changing seasons; it forces you to spend way more time out of doors than you would if there wasn't all that work to be done.
And all of it so deliciously absorbing. This is great if, like me, you're a writer and a depressive, and are desperate for any excuse to escape from your head. One of my favourite tasks is unpicking all the creeping buttercups from the lawn. They extend these sort of tendril things which put down roots which turn into more buttercups which extend more tendrils until soon they've taken over the world. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stop their evil empire-building. "Tea's ready," my wife will call from the kitchen. "Sure, coming. Just a couple more," I'll say. By the time I'm satiated with buttercup killing, though, my tea will be stone cold. And if you think buttercup destruction's fun, wait till you try plantains.
Aphid squashing. This is another of my daily satisfactions at this time of year. They congregate on your roses, all fat and green, and on sunny days especially when they've produced lots of babies they'll taunt you with a little bobbing dance which says: "Ha ha puny human. You are but one, while we are legion." So you squidge the lot of them between thumb and forefinger: it's the natural organic way. Nice, sort of herbal smell on your fingers, too, though it does turn them green and sticky. Better than that terrifying spray stuff, though. Every time I use it and the wind blows it back into my face I'm half convinced I'm going to end up with Gulf War syndrome.
Here is a wondrous paradox of gardening: the more you destroy, the more you create. Especially with roses. I remember one year appalling my lawyer friend down the road by viciously attacking with my secateurs his beloved straggly old rose. Next year it came back more vigorous and floribund than he'd ever seen it. "You're a genius," he said. "No." I said. "It's just what roses do."
Do you know the best thing about gardening, though? It's those moments where you don't do anything, except gaze and admire and adore. I've been out to my garden just now, as I did first thing this morning, and again while my coffee was brewing and again before and after lunch, and no matter how often I do it never once does the pleasure pall.
When I look at the electric acid yellows on the euphorbia it's like drinking a tall, cool glass of home-made lemonade. And the purpleness of those fat allium globes is so rich and imperial it could have come off Caesar's robes. As for the Gustav Klimt-like exoticism of those striated, yellow, white and purple irises: how can they thrive in a south London garden when surely such marvels ought to be found nowhere but the darkest forests of Borneo?
Sorry to come over so "hello trees, hello sky" but, hell, why do you think gardening is one of the world's most popular hobbies? Do you think people do it because it's backbreakingly tedious and plants are ugly and it all feels a bit like sitting at a computer only with a greater risk of ant-bite, sunburn or shoving a garden fork through your foot? Er, no. We do it because it's great.
Whether the Call-Of-Duty-4 generation is ready to grasp this point is moot, but even if this newspaper's admirable efforts in this direction fall on stony ground – and they are doing no such thing – I don't think we need worry. Like bridge, long country walks, and the joy of a good book, gardening grabs most of us in the end. And once it has you, it never lets go.Reuse content