Wednesday, September 10, 2008

So, why do we garden?

When Anna Pavord came to interview me about my garden (you can read her piece here), she asked me what it was I got out of gardening. Clever Anna. It seems such a simple thing to ask, yet I found it a surprisingly difficult question to answer coherently. I'm still trying to unravel all the reasons, and motives, and needs, that going outside and fiddling about with a few plants involves.
I love the idea of sharing the garden, of course. Chris4trees left a very nice comment on the previous post about the jolly atmosphere at our Open Garden day, and I said in my reply that I liked opening the garden because I enjoyed seeing people having a good time, stuffing themselves with cake and chatting about plants and gardens, both mine and theirs.
Most of the time, however, there is no one in my garden apart from me, and I love the feeling of solitude and peace just as much, along with the smell of damp earth, and mown grass, and sun-warmed lavender and box. Where does all this come from?
Memory one. When I was little, we lived in deeply unfashionable Croydon, which at that time was shaking off its sleepy, suburban past and constructing a new image of glass and concrete. As hemlines soared in the Sixties, the skyscrapers rocketed up in Croydon, with the old Edwardian and Victorian houses giving way to office blocks and employment bureaus.
Our old house is still there, but the houses up the road were compulsorily purchased by the local council to make way for new law courts. At one point, as is the nature of these things, they stood empty, the lovingly tended gardens with their rockeries and hybrid teas left to go wild. You could get into these gardens from a footpath that led along the railway line and to me they seemed a magical world, carpeted with snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) and aubrieta, and buzzing with bees.
Despite being so close to the centre of Croydon, we also had access to parks and open spaces. There was a park at the top of our road, and a footpath led from that park to Lloyds Park, where there were bluebell woods. Another favourite was Coombe Wood, also a public park, with fabulous gardens.
Memory two. My mother used to teach at Worth, a Benedictine boarding school in the Sussex countryside. Each year, when I was small, we used to go to what must have been speech day, or prize day or something. Worth is a monastery, a stone-built mullion-windowed place that looks out over rolling fields and woods. I remember the smell of the immaculate lawns, the huge cedars that overhung them, and the marquees with what seemed like endless plates of cream cakes.
Memory three. We moved to Scotland when I was still quite small and by the time I moved back to London I was in my twenties. My mother had bought a flat near Camden Lock, just down the road from the Camden Garden Centre, which at that time was run with great enthusiasm and flair by Adam Caplin. We spent a lot of time - and money - in the Camden Garden Centre, which became one of my favourite places.
Not only was it a fantastic garden centre, it was a great place for celeb-spotting. (Camden is achingly right-on: our next-door neighbour was the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.) One of my favourite memories is discussing bearded irises with Denholm Elliott (Trading Places, Indiana Jones, A Room with a View etc, etc etc).
I'd always loved gardens but this was my first introduction to the idea of making a garden myself. There's a pattern emerging here. First, I suppose I associate gardens, particularly those that are fairly secluded, with being happy and at peace.
Second, I love the idea of gardens that are a little wild around the edges, and stuffed full of plants. Bare earth makes me feel a bit nervous.
Third, as someone who has spent all their working life in newspaper offices, coping with deadlines, late changes of mind and stories breaking at the last minute, I love the idea of being part of something that has its own timetable, an agenda that refuses steadfastly to take into account the wishes of man or woman.
Finally, I find I have an increasing need to be outside, breathing fresh air, looking at trees and grass instead of concrete and glass. Perhaps this is the result of being office-bound, or city-bound: I don't know. That's enough introspection for one day.