“If you are a gardener, you have an extra eye”

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Today I live in a garden square and savor it for its trees – a few rare surviving elms, a chestnut tree, a laburnum, lilacs, cherry blossoms. London is rich in squares; some are these snobs open only to locals, but mine is the property of the council, open to all. This means, of course, that it is also open to abuse – sometimes we have episodes of drug dealing or illicit barbecues – but overall the space is respected, and more frequented by mothers with young people. children, the elderly enjoying a sit in the sun on a bench.

During the coronavirus containment, I exercised there every day, walking tours of the garden’s outdoor alley, and always noting the avifauna: blackbirds of course, great and blue tits, impetuous, a wagtail one day, a jay on another, raptor pigeons, crows, magpies. Gardens and public parks are essential lungs, a breathing space for everyone. Not everyone can have a garden, some people don’t want a garden, but everyone needs a park at one time or another.

London is rich in parks big and small – it’s always a pleasure to look at the map and see it dotted with greenery here, there and everywhere. And trees… So many streets lined with trees. We must in particular admire the London plane tree, Platanus x acerifolia, so robust that it seems capable of withstanding any urban pollution, and also beautiful with its thin trunk and its sheaves of black pods in winter. There are downtown plazas with planes 100+ years old, resisting two world wars and decades of seismic social change, presiding over everything, resilient and waterproof.

If you are a gardener, you have an extra eye – the gardening eye. You always notice what grows when you go out. These days, in my old days in London, I notice some planters – someone who got bored with an effective summer combination of white petunias, trailing bacopa, blue lobelia, the winter display of pink cyclamen from ‘someone else. My gardener eye also always notes the basements – spaces under the sidewalk that someone has filled with a collection of cacti, a resplendent blossoming jasmine, a bamboo, a fatsia, a stack of potted geraniums.

Back in the days of my country, the gardening eye was focused differently and looked beyond gardens, into the landscape, to what grows anyway, without a garden, without maintenance. Wild shoots: cow-parsley, red campion, primroses, meadowsweet, shrub vetch, toadflax, scab, chickweed, yarrow, robert grass, anything that grows everywhere without solicitation and without supervision. Weeds, when they decide to invade the garden. But many of them, if they were scarce and requiring cultivation, would be sought after items in garden centers – we would load our carts with cow parsley and flaxseed.

I’ve always needed to know the name of everything I’m looking at there, my old copy of Keble Martin (The Concise British Flora in Color) is annotated page after page, what was found where and when. The gardening eye, the eye that notices what grows – you have it or you don’t. If you don’t, you might have an eye out for other things that we gardeners are missing. But as a gardener, you not only want to try yourself, but now also have a permanent curiosity – you want to see more, learn more. You will become a visitor to the garden, thanks to the Yellow Book, the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society; you will learn from or argue with TV experts; and, most importantly, you will always need to know what this unknown plant is called. Where is he from? Do I want to grow it?

Extract of Life in the Garden: Essays on Nature and Culture (Daunt Books, £ 9.99), which is released on Thursday


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