Someone once said: “Gardening is cheaper than therapy…and you get tomatoes.” I think that pretty much sums up why I do it – all those hours spent digging, weeding, seeding, composting, pruning – so many gardening words that I have grown (pun intended) to love. It’s the feel-good factor that counteracts the exhaustion, and yes – the rewards: sweet, juicy tomatoes…among other things. If the definition of JOY is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness” – then working in my garden gives me that, and more.
I came to gardening rather late in life. My mother, back in New York State, relied on perennials. They came up reliably every year – as perennials are designed to do — which was good enough for her. She never ventured further than garden maintenance. I smile when I think of her – and wonder what she’d make of me tending my half acre of bliss in southern England.
I moved to London in the late 1970s. I’d been lucky enough to get a work permit thanks to my relatively unusual occupation as a picture researcher in publishing, and had ‘indefinite leave’ to remain in the United Kingdom. My first assignment was to source the images for a book called Principles of Gardening by Hugh Johnson. He is a renowned wine expert who’d decided to branch out (sorry – another intentional pun) and write a book about gardens. I enjoyed doing the historical research at the library of the Royal Horticultural Society – such a thrill to hold antique watercolour prints of Redoute roses and other exquisite artwork — but the research for plant and flower images of living specimens was particularly challenging for someone as ignorant of horticulture as I was. In May our book team was offered free tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show but I never bothered as gardening was of little interest to me. A missed opportunity later to be remedied.
At that time I lived in an apartment where I had a couple of house plants that survived only by dint of sheer obstinacy. If they’d been children, I’d have been brought up on charges of wilfull neglect. Fast forward to the late 1980s and I tell a different tale. By then I’d married and moved to the Sussex countryside where I was immediately enchanted by Nature on a grand scale. The gardening bug bit me and I became infected for the rest of my life. Town life with its greys and browns was superseded by colors everywhere, in every season. I had to be a part of it, create my own banquet of colors. The joy I get from being in the great outdoors in my garden is infinite – and that is why I’ve felt compelled to tell you about it. English garden writer and designer, Mirabel Osler, must have been describing me when she said, “There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.” Yes, even in soggy soil, pestered by a light drizzle, surrounded by recalcitrant weeds, with trowel in hand and plastic kneeler beneath me, I am still smiling.
Although I started out knowing very little, I’ve become more and more competent over the years – so much so that nowadays friends actually ask me for advice. It’s been a huge learning curve with numerous disasters but, luckily, far more successes – and a few things I simply could not handle. There was the time we had manure delivered from a local farm. I was keen to help my husband move this rich plant food to the various parts of our garden where they were needed. The manure was surprisingly odor-free but nothing prepared me for the abundance of wriggling red worms that ‘ran riot’. In disgust – and fear — I threw down my pitchfork and ran to the safety of the greenhouse, leaving my poor husband to shift the manure all by himself. Then there was the time when I pulled up a cluster of innocuous-looking green weeds. Almost immediately, I felt as if my hand was on fire. I charged into the house in search of my husband, tearfully showing him my now splodgy red and hugely painful hand. “Looks like you’ve had your first encounter with stinging nettles,” he said as he applied a soothing cream. Outside, I sulkily pointed to the culprits that had ‘attacked’ me. Back home in New York State, I knew to avoid poison ivy but stinging nettles were something totally new to me. You never forget a plant that ‘bites’. Thereafter, I wore thick gloves when having to deal with these ‘nasties’.
A Chinese proverb says that “Life begins the day you start a garden.” I’ve been fortunate to inherit established gardens each time we’ve moved. But one of the joys is putting your own imprint on it, making it reflect you as a person. Sydney Eddison, author of “Gardening for a Lifetime”, contends that “gardens are a form of autobiography.” Being American born, I felt the need to ‘Americanize’ my garden by introducing plants that reminded me of my roots (yes, another pun- no apologies) which was Pleasantville, New York. Lily of the valley was one of those. Little white bells on slender green stalks, plus an intoxicating perfume – how could you resist them? With my birthday being in mid-May, I always felt lily of the valley bloomed just for me. I also planted a feathery red maple or acer, to remind me of the one in our Pleasantville front lawn. My next must-have was a pink dogwood. Local garden centres did not stock them but I happily found an online source. I planted this ‘cornus florida rubra’ in my Anglo-American garden where it has flourished ever since. The joy I feel each spring when those pink blossoms appear is indescribable, as I time-travel back to the rosy haze of my childhood. Another ‘home sweet home’ memento is the American pillar rose I positioned on a south-facing trellis. It goes mad every June, surely its way of shouting out to me, “I love it here!”
Hanna Rion was a garden writer of the 19th century, living in New York State’s Catskill Mountains. She observed that: “The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.” In every season of the year, my garden in southern England is the source of never-ending sensory stimulus. Even in the dead of winter, there are sights – a stubborn rose clinging to its stem, snowdrops poking through barren soil, creamy hellebores lifting their heads in defiance of the cold – and smells – winter honeysuckle with a scent like freshly-sliced lemon.
The other seasons vie with each other for my sensory attention but I’d like to share with you my personal favorites. For the sense of smell, first and foremost are obviously roses…but there are others almost as high-up in the pecking order: sweet peas…chocolate cosmos (yes, they really do smell like chocolate!)…hyacinths…not forgetting, lily of the valley. And herbs. Rub the leaves of any of these and you’ll get a real olfactory kick: sage, peppermint, thyme, rosemary. For sound: the rustling whoosh of tall, ornamental grasses, slender stalks of bamboo, even something as mundane as oak leaves being whipped in a storm. For touch: the furriness of the plant aptly named ‘lamb’s ears’, the slippery feel of glistening camellia leaves, the prickles of stunning blue sea hollies. (Those devilish stinging nettles are also memorable for touch but the less said about them, the better.) For taste: the surprising spiciness of nasturtium leaves, the tangy sweetness of wild strawberries, freshly picked mint for tea, or chives – both the green stems as a garnish and the pink blossoms for salad. Sight is, of course, the easiest of all and I’m spoiled for choice. Please feel free to add your own to my edited list: big-headed, smiling sunflowers, variegated heuchera (sometimes called coral bells), multi-colored ‘parrot’ tulips, delicate passion flowers, large-petalled clematis, the dazzling range of ‘show-off’ dahlias.
My children tease me about what a gardening bore I’ve become but I’ve made it easy for them when it comes to birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day. They simply go to their nearest garden center and buy me National Garden Gift Vouchers which can be used at over 2000 garden centers around the UK. There is great joy in simply wandering around the tempting displays, vouchers in my handbag, knowing I’ve got ‘purchasing power’ – like the child surveying the goodies in a candy shop, his fist securely clutching the week’s pocket money.
The discovery of new plants is also a joy and is one of the many fringe benefits of visiting celebrated gardens. The Royal Horticultural Society’s garden nearest to me is Wisley in Surrey; it is 240 acres of wonder – rose gardens, herbaceous borders, giant glass houses, ponds, rockeries, sculpture. Their plant shop is like a cornucopia of all that is lush and desirable. I try to leave my credit card at home when I visit but it somehow finds its way into my handbag. I’ve indulged myself in a gorgeous rose with burnt orange tones called ‘hot chocolate’, a spiraea that produces both pink and white flowers on the same shrub, an evergreen climber with feathery green leaves and yellow bell-like flowers called Sophora Mycrophylla ‘Sun King’, and a little charmer called the balloon flower (platycodon grandifloras) whose blue blossoms actually look like mini-balloons. It was at the annual Hampton Court Flower Show that I encountered a plant called Achillea (commonly called yarrow). It has stately stalks with a cluster of flowers at the top, and blooms continuously for several months in the summer. The colours range from orange to yellow to pinky-red to mauve. A prize purchase was the white one I found at the plant stall of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle in Berkshire) – where I also bought a white Echinacea or cone flower. It’s a real giggle to show people around my garden and point out my Downton Abbey acquisitions!
I’m always on the look-out for new plants and am happy when friends give me cuttings. One friend, whose oleanders I admired, cut stalks for me. She has a walled garden in London, offering much protection and milder temperatures than mine. Consequently, her oleanders thrive outdoors but I knew mine wouldn’t. Nonetheless, to my great delight several stalks developed roots and I potted them up as indoor plants and they have lived happily ever after in our sun room. Another addition to my garden was particularly quirky. While out walking with my husband, I spotted a climbing plant that caused me to rub my eyes in disbelief. How could one small leaf contain all of these colors: green, white and hot pink? And here was a fence covered with a mass of these leaves, looking as if someone had splattered paint on them. I had to know what this plant was, and I had to have one – but what was it? My husband is used to my eccentricities and stood patiently as I took out the little notepad I carry in my handbag. I jotted down my name and telephone number on it, asking the occupant of the house if he/she could provide me with the name of this beguiling plant. I pushed the note through the mail slot. A few days later I received a phone call. “I’m not into gardening,” she admitted. “My ex-husband was – and he planted that climber. So I phoned him and this is what he said it was.” Imagine – phoning your ex-husband to get the name of a plant for a total stranger! When she told me it was called — Actinidea Kolomikta – I had to have her spell it for me. I’ve since learned it’s also called the kiwi vine which is far easier to remember and say. And yes, it’s in my garden now and doing well, thank you very much.
Another undeniable pleasure I get from my garden is when a plant suddenly appears that I have not cultivated myself. This happens when seeds have been carried and dropped by the wind or birds. Although some of these ‘surprise’ plants could be categorized as weeds, my philosophy is that what one person may call a weed, another calls a wildflower. I welcome most of these self-seeded arrivals and re-position them where I think they’ll do best. Euphorbias (also known as spurge) have come to me that way, as have poppies, bee-friendly purple toadflax, and butterfly-friendly verbena bonariensis (which garden centers cultivate and sell for a fairly hefty price). There is a big push in England to grow plants to encourage bees and butterflies, both of which are in decline. I get such a buzz (I know, another pun) when I see honey bees banqueting on our lavender and ceanothus, or watch butterflies settling on our buddleias (commonly called the butterfly bush!).
Jeff Cox, who has hosted TV gardening shows, rightly says: “The garden is a love song, a duet between a human being and Mother Nature.” My love song has gone on for many years now, and my garden and I are very much in tune with each other. Besides the flower beds and the fruit trees, there’s the greenhouse, affording me the opportunity to grow things that would not flourish outdoors. My cucumbers go on for months. Besides ending up traditionally in salads, I also pickle them. My Luciebell tomatoes are tasty triumphs. I’d never seen them in a garden centre but one spring picked up a young plant in the English equivalent of Walmart. The resulting tomatoes were so delicious that I dried some seeds, saved them over the winter, sowed them and – hey presto! – a new crop of Luciebells. I now do that every year and have given friends seedlings to start their own Luciebell crops. I also grow peppers in the greenhouse – from the previous summer’s dried seeds.
My husband and I love fresh vegetables. A spring ritual is to peruse seed catalogues, making decisions – often requiring compromises — on what to plant. A favorite is a purple French climbing bean (starts out purple, with mauve flowers; the beans turn green when cooked), parsnips, carrots, zucchini (UK: courgettes), onions and leeks. I have also grown pumpkins, corn on the cob and sugar snap peas (similar to snow peas). Author Robert Brault, who seems to be able to come up with an apt quote for everything that happens in life, says that “In every gardener there is a child who believes in the Seed Fairy.” I’m definitely one of those children – because of the joy I feel with a brand-new, unopened packet of seeds in my hand. Again, the greenhouse is a boon because I can get a head start on my planting of such summer goodies as asters, cosmos, marigolds and sweet peas. For me, it is a magical experience to scatter seeds in a tray of compost, water it and wait for little green bits appear, grow larger and larger until their adult shape evolves and I can eventually plant them out to reach their full potential in a flower bed. I also scatter seeds directly into the soil and hope to be pleasantly surprised. I’ve heard it said that “One of the healthiest ways to gamble is with a spade and a package of seeds.” Casinos have no appeal for me; packets of seeds do. ‘Real’ gardeners have what are called ‘nursery beds’ – and, as the name implies, it’s where you nurture your little seedlings until they are big enough to be moved into the main part of the garden, big enough to fend for themselves and fight off the would-be bullies (weeds). My nursery beds are wherever there’s a convenient space to scatter seeds. I mark the area with broken bamboo sticks so that I remember both to water regularly and also not to step on where I hope they will appear. I remember with fondness a song from the long- running musical, The Fantasticks, that goes: “Plant a radish, get a radish. Never any doubt. That’s why I love vegetables. You know what they’re about.” The song finishes with “A man who plants a garden is a very happy man.” Or, in my case, woman.
I can’t say I’m a great believer in astrology but my May birthday qualifies me as an Earth sign. And so it is quite natural for me to both dig my garden, as the Beat generation would say, as well as dig in my garden. In the U.S., you’d say I have green thumbs. Over here in the U.K., you’d say I have green fingers. As far as I’m concerned, I happily use both of my hands to make things grow. Garden produce is never wasted. I make lots of soups in the summer which I freeze for my family to enjoy in the dark winter months: roast vegetable, tomato and basil, and pumpkin. Those unripened tomatoes become green tomato chutney. I make ratatouille. Raspberry sorbet. Blueberry tarts. Plum jam. Apple crumble. Am I making you hungry yet? My husband doesn’t always understand why I fuss about growing flowers but he certainly understands my growing things that end up on his plate. It is a real joy to be able to go out and pick fresh produce to put on the table. Even having to pollinate corn on the cob by hand in the early hours of the morning, which I did last summer, brings satisfaction when those ears start to swell and the corn silk turns from golden to a sepia brown.
My husband is my sous-chef in the kitchen, and my sous-gardener outdoors. Bless him, he does all the heavy digging and makes our lawn a show piece of alluring green contours. He has instructed me, in vain, not to come home with a new plant unless I know in advance where I intend to put it. If I go off for the day with a ‘fellow traveller’ (another gardening addict), he knows from past experience that I’ll come back with something green and leafy, with flower power potential. His solution? Widen the flower beds by relinquishing parts of his precious lawn. Now that’s love, surely? Despite my obsession, I know he is with me 100% when, on a summer’s evening, we stand out on our patio, arms around each other as the sun is setting, and survey the panorama before us – our garden. My joy.
When Americans think of England, they immediately think of rain. Although rain means I can’t go out and ‘play’ in my garden, I console myself with the knowledge of the good it’s doing for all those thirsty plants. My husband is pleased to see rain for a different reason: “God made rainy days so gardeners could get the housework done.”
Sadly, today is one of those days when I have to swap my garden fork for the vacuum cleaner. I am sorry to report that there’s absolutely no joy in that.