Oh, sod your silly gardens

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The Independent Online
I RECENTLY asked an acquaintance who lives in a house with a large garden in a wet part of Wales whether the winter got him down. He replied that, au contraire, it was the best bit of the year, the one time when the grass stopped growing, foliage stopped sprouting and he was freed from the tyranny of non-stop mowing and gardening to concentrate on the important things in life. There was nothing more beautiful to his eye, he said, than a bare tree or an empty flower bed. It was summer that chained him to the lawnmower.

In the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, it seems to have become almost an article of faith that we are a nation of gardeners, yearning to live in green oases which we lovingly tend. But there are lots of people out here who do not have green fingers, and have no real desire, energy or time to acquire them. All those magazine pictures showing people with their tasteful borders and newly created knot gardens make me suspicious, not envious. I wonder if they really get their hands dirty, or employ others to do the menial work. If being keen on gardening means supervising others to do it, I'm happy to join their ranks. I'm afraid I want the pleasures of a garden, without the real graft of rooting out the bindweed or potting seedlings.

In fact, my present dislike for the business of tending green things is such that, to the disappointment of my family, I also loathe house plants. Only a year ago a well-meaning person gave me an enormous cheeseplant to celebrate the birth of my baby: I suppose he thought I was sick of flowers, but an undemanding plastic cactus would have been more welcome. The cheeseplant came with a pot of leaf-polishing cloths, so I could keep it in tiptop condition. A year on, the baby is thriving (just walking in his first pair of shoes), but the plant is wilting from neglect. If life is too short for working women and mothers to stuff a mushroom, is it not also too short to polish a plant?

In As You Like It, Shakespeare touchingly identified the seven ages of man. I think that, in truth, there are ages when gardening suits and ages when it most certainly doesn't: that is why Chelsea is so full of the middle-aged and leisured, and why attempts to broadcast trendy gardening programmes for young people founder. When I first bought a house with my husband, I was in love with our small garden. We redesigned it together, and I spent most weekends replanting and tending it. I even joined the Royal Horticultural Society. But that was because there were no small children to fill my spare hours, or chew up the postage-stamp lawn. However, I was appalled when we returned, after moving, to see that my peach tree had been virtually abandoned by the ultra- busy owners.

It was a useful lesson on the fickleness of nature and how relentless and unrelaxing gardening really is. For the past decade (until last summer), I have eyed up my large, tree-fringed garden that came with house number two with a mixture of love and guilt. Apart from keeping down the grass, cutting back the bushes and fiddling with a few pots, I have achieved nothing of any substance: the things I plant no longer thrive. The magnolia I planted five years ago has yet to flower and looks sickly, one of the two apple trees has been rooted up, diseased past hope. I have tried to grow runner beans with my children: after several summers with just enough for a mouthful each we simply failed to get organised this spring.

What amazes and dispirits me, as I survey my half-hearted garden, is how energetic and irrepressible the weeds are. I finally faced up to my conditions and paid somebody to dig and double-dig and make a few beds last summer. But as I try to build on that bridgehead this spring, I'm finding it impossible actually to plan gardening time, given the succession of rained-out weekends. The magazine Gardens Illustrated has just surveyed its readers, to find they actually spend more time gardening than

watching television. Given that you can watch television without putting up an umbrella, I find this barely credible, even for gardening fanatics.

THERE is a growing band of people who no longer belong to the Royal Horticultural Society. Friends of mine resigned recently in disgust when they were turned away from the Chelsea Flower Show because they were carrying their six-month-old daughter in a sling. The tickets exclude under-fives, babies in arms and anyone needing a push chair, while making provision for wheelchairs. To be fair, the show this year (which I visited, thanks to an invitation from a member) features, for the first time, a garden designed by children. But I wonder how many of the trendy layouts would actually work for a modern family. I loved the Sunday Times's double-decker garden, but would it actually be safe? And everyone has gone pot-mad: just imagine a pair of cricket- or football-mad children among all that expensive terracotta. But with the European birth-rate dropping well below replacement level, perhaps Chelsea - with its fantasy thatched garden retreats where adults can pretend to be Mrs Tiggy-Winkle - is really in tune with the times.