Victoria Summerley: A summer like this and I ask myself why I garden ...

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The Independent Online

Gardeners, like farmers, are always moaning. The weather mostly sets us off: too wet, too dry, too cloudy, too sunny, too cold, too hot. With the weather, whatever it may offer, comes a host of other problems. A hot summer prompts drought warnings, ants, dying trees, plagues of wasps. A wet summer brings flood warnings, slugs, dying trees, plagues of mosquitoes.

But this summer, a record-beater when it comes to day after day of dark-grey, depressing cloud that lets fall the kind of rain that penetrates every crease of jacket and seam of shoe, has made me want to examine why I actually have a garden.

Standing in a downpour the other day, with aching muscles and chilled hands, I began to wonder what spurs us gardeners on to even greater horticultural feats. After all, I could have been sitting indoors, a mug of tea at my elbow, reading, or surfing, or listening to music, instead of wearily wiping a smear of rain-streaked mud from my face, or shaking the water from my spectacles, before potting up the next batch of cuttings or planting the next back-breaking sack of bulbs.

A study by psychologist Jeannette Haviland-Jones, of Rutgers University in New Jersey, published in April 2005, sought to prove that flowers have an effect on emotional wellbeing and social behaviour. Her team found that the presentation of a bunch of flowers to an individual made them feel happy, more relaxed and less anxious. Like most statement-of-the-bleeding-obvious psychological pronouncements, this isn't hard to believe.

What is difficult to comprehend is why we are prepared to get cold and wet and generally uncomfortable in the pursuit of cultivating those flowers. Let's face it, for whatever reason most of us say we have a garden – as an outdoor room in which to dine or entertain; somewhere to grow tomatoes or a few geraniums; a quiet haven in which to sit and read a book or let the kids play – this summer has been a bit of a wash-out. Yet next year, we'll all be out there once more, buying more geraniums, trying to pretend the lawn isn't really moss rather than grass in yet another triumph of hope over experience.

There must be more to it than just a liking for an outdoor space; there must be some deep-rooted – if you'll excuse the phrase – instinct that makes us want to grow things, to be in control of our environment. Psychologists may have a lot to say on the subject, but I think I prefer poetry as a better source of insight than their self-evidential conclusions, because poets seem to acknowledge the presence of some sort of intangible, unmeasurable ingredient – whether that involves the magic of a sprouting seed (still the most amazing thing in the world to me) or the conjuring up of towering hedges or herbaceous borders.

In his poem "The Garden", R S Thomas describes it as:

the old kingdom of man,

Answering to their names

Out of the soil the buds come,

The silent detonations ...

Perhaps gardening does indeed satisfy a lust for power, albeit a benign species of despotism; it's certainly a tendency that other poets have noted. U A Fanthorpe talks of "the drab solitary men" working their allotments, where:

all must toe the line here; stem and leaf,

as well as root, obey the rule of string.

Perhaps that's why we moan so much about the weather; because it's something over which we have no control. We joke about the British climate as if to make it less threatening, in the same way that a boss or headmaster or authority figure is given a nickname and mercilessly mimicked.

But while the British climate can be portrayed as a meteorological Carry On film, the X-rated weather – hurricanes, monsoons, tornadoes – is the stuff that really scares and fascinates us, because, even in the 21st century, we are not strong enough to withstand its force. Neither are we strong enough to cope with its aftermath: a few weeks of rain on the back garden, or a grim summer, can be metaphorically shaken off, but the destruction left by flooding or hurricanes – ruined house, ruined garden, ruined life – must be traumatic in the extreme.

So those of us unscathed by rising waters or tumultuous tempests stake our delphiniums, deadhead our roses, clip our hedges, mow our lawns (dashing out at dusk at the end of a rain-free day) and pretend we are still the ones in charge.

What does it do for us, this exercise of horticultural power? A psychological study at a college in California reported that students who took part in gardening tasks, especially repetitive chores such as weeding or watering, developed a greater sense of self-esteem and responsibility that carried over into their academic life. Success in growing flowers and vegetables translated into success in the classroom too.

It's an uplifting thought, but again, I prefer a more lyrical analysis to a psychological one. Here's Ruth Pitter, an "Essex girl" in the correct sense of the phrase for whom – like Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence and so many other poets – the outdoor world was an endless source of inspiration:

What do we look for as reward?

Some little sounds, and scents, and scenes:

A small hand darting strawberry-ward,

A woman's apron full of greens ...

Hang on a minute, I think the sun's shining ...

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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