The garden at home wasn’t one really. It was just a sort of space at the back of the house with a privet hedge, a primitive garage where my father taught himself woodturning, raspberry canes (imagine a large English bull terrier sucking ripe fruit off the core),
the remains of an air raid shelter and a mint patch. The front was a bit more respectable with a hatefully persistent elderberry, equally determined roses, a big nasturtium bed and my father’s gladioli. And this was the beginning of me as a caretaker gardener (motto: plant, weed, water and feed).
So I was thrilled when a friend walked out into my paved pocket handkerchief this weekend and exclaimed with pleasure “How pretty!” At this juncture in the world’s history, nationally and globally, my garden is a source of sanity in a mad world. I can’t not watch the news but I freely admit it unsettles me to frequent sleepless anxiety. Going out to prink in the garden helps a lot.
And there is only one thing in this garden that remains from when I arrived – a viburnum. Everything else is the result of trial and error. I lost three plants this summer in the heatwave, probably because I didn’t water them enough. (Pam the Painter, herself a passionate gardener, advises that you can overwater a pot but not anything in the earth, which wisdom I have stored away for next season.) But otherwise everything has bloomed and I am so grateful.
When I arrived half the garden was subsumed to a ravenous mallow. I should have called her Melusine! She had to go. Later I grew a ceanothus with a similar appetite and in letting that go, I did a bit of horticultural maturation. The soil was full of discarded cement and brick bits, muddled by houseplants dumped there on the off chance. I kept on discovering yet another pile of submerged detritus, swearing as I dragged it out, to scatter plant food of every variety far and wide.
I was such a gardening greenhorn that it took ages to understand that the sunlight in my garden is limited to the semi circular bed on the left outside the back door – currently pushing forth roses, daisies, several varieties of geranium, new leaves on the bergamot and – hooray – a bumper crop of Japanese anemones, Honorine Jobert, in papery splendour. I kept buying things, putting them in where there was no sunlight and of course they didn’t make it.
I do realise I sound like a clot because the world is full of people who just garden, often because they grew up on a farm or around someone who did. Or else they watch endless programmes and read learned books. But I need a voice, a friend who says “It may not have liked being moved” when I am beating myself up because something died. Or who says “ Dig it in deep enough” and I gratefully do. I know a superb gardener but she cannot communicate about gardening and really she doesn’t care about your garden because it isn’t hers. I admire what she does but I have ceased to seek her considerable advice. She doesn’t know how to share it.
The joy of the garden this summer is a rowan I found in Norfolk for literally a quarter of the price I had been asked for in London. I wondered how to get it home. Generous Gina put it in the car boot and brought it back for me. I discovered it was a variety named for a plant explorer called Joseph Rock so of course it’s called Joe. Joe’s purpose is manifold. The rowan is benign in the sun signs of the Celtic religion and the birds like the berries. You don’t get a lot of birds in London nowadays, what with pollution and pussy cats, but I’d like to do my best. I spent 15 happy minutes watching three young sparrows playing tag in and out of everything the shrubs and creepers last week and when they had gone I went out and patted the rowan good morning.
May I recommend Rhapsody in Green by Charlotte Mendelson – a novelist with a tiny garden………