Rosemary Goring: Help! My neighbors would put Capability Brown to shame


INSTEAD of heading to Barbados or Quebec over Easter, we opted for B&Q. If nothing else, the queues prepare passport control for when we finally take flight. The paint and decorating aisles were full, as expected, but nothing compared to the spaces for shovels, fertilizer, hoses and wheelbarrows.

As we tried to clear our way, we felt like all the gardeners in the country were on the march, like an army on maneuvers. Around pressure washers and cordless mowers, it borders on single combat. From the look on some shoppers’ faces, they wouldn’t take any prisoners if thwarted.

Can you blame them? At this time of year, sleepy flowerbeds and quiet lawns wake up, along with all the weeds known to Monty Don. Where for months there have been dormant frontiers and hibernating climbers, there are now triffid wannabes, eyeing the gutters as a base camp.

At home, I unpacked a brushcutter – our first! – and spent the next 40 minutes screwing on the guard and figuring out how to adjust the handle and trimmer head. Quite how something based on a fishing reel can flatten a wasteland of thistles is beyond me. I was expecting blades on the lines of Edward Scissorhands, but even though we’ve now cleared various wild corners, I still haven’t a clue how it works.

As we used it, we were for once the noisiest house in the village. Unlike those whose high-powered mowers roar, our DIY lawn mower looks more like pre-war gym equipment. Although it keeps my husband in shape, its main advantage is the silence with which it does the job. Not much louder than an egg whip, its raspy rumble transports us to the summers of yore, when people rubbed their limbs in vegetable oil and lay on the grass, like firecrackers under the grill.

Finally, acquiring our own mechanized gadget felt like a rite of passage, beyond which there is no return. Where we were once children, we are now adults, holding our own with the rest of the equipped brigade.

As the proliferation of garden centers shows, this is a booming industry. Growing environmental awareness partly explains its ever-increasing popularity, as well as the desire to grow our own produce. Sometimes, however, as the ever-growing rows of machinery and tools suggest, its appeal is as much about the accessories as the culture.

Whatever the motivation, maintaining a garden is expensive, in money and time. When we first saw our home, and its lawn of steep grasses, weeds and trees, we were thrilled. If we had been told what it would entail to master it, we might have taken a break, but I’m glad we didn’t. Finding out how much work it takes was an eye opener, as was the fun.

Not that we’ve been fooled by TV shows where the horticultural equivalent of SAS transforms an abandoned space into a flowery haven overnight. Even as beginners, we could tell that was unlikely. As we took the first steps to pull out colonies of weeds, dig up tree stumps and a quarry of rocks, cobblestones and old crockery, the magnitude of the effort dawned on us.

Ours isn’t a big plot compared to some, but it’s not small either. However, whatever the size of the plot, a garden can be very consuming. Your time is no longer yours. Weekends? Spent doubled on land, or digging halfway to Australia. Where once there was time to relax, there is now a long list of jobs to do before the work week resumes.

So much for the accepted wisdom that gardening is just a hobby. Once started, it won’t let you go. There is no opt-out or opt-out clause. If you try to ignore it, it will push on the doorstep or turn off the light. As far as I know, this requires total immersion: voluntary enrollment in a continuing education course embracing botany, horticulture, soil chemistry, landscape, ecology and rewilding. Unlike most degrees, however, this one takes forever. Instead of four years, you might consider 40 years.

Thanks to charity shops, I have a stack of credentials that tell me what to do and when. I could spend all day reading them; practicing them, however, is the only way to learn. Of all the fields of human activity, few are more a matter of practical experience, of experimentation and failure, of chance, than growing a garden.

A pal from Edinburgh recently raced against the clock to get his pitch in shape for an annual Open Garden Day. What was once a private enterprise has become a public exhibition. It sounds scary. Luckily, we’re decades away from something like that, although some of our neighbors have planting plans to rival Capability Brown.

Last week, a friend showed me around his and his wife’s garden, which they planted almost from scratch. With raised beds teeming with leeks, kale, gooseberries, raspberries, rhubarb, green beans and potatoes, they might resist a siege. Every inch is neat and has a purpose. Bees and birds are almost baffled by the choice offered, while exotic and tender species are as pampered as grandchildren.

And that’s the point. Cultivating a garden is like raising a family. Every plant and every tree counts. Just like the wildlife they attract. Little by little, what began as a maintenance job, or a matter of tinkering around the edges, becomes a daily source of fascination and concern.

Spring may signal the start of the growing season, but gardening is a year-round occupation. Even when snow covers the ground, the most serious growers will go through catalogs, deciding which seeds to order; or they can be found in the greenhouse, nurturing toothpick sprouts for the day they can be planted.

I’m not in their league, and never will be. For me, and for many of us, being outside is the biggest part of the fun. That’s not to say there isn’t also an element of showing who is in charge: lending nature a helping hand in some areas, and firmly undoing it in others. This no doubt explains the fray around brushcutters and mowers as we struggle – not always successfully – to stay on top.


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