Like most things in life, gardens don’t have to be perfect
When we left the Cotswolds we lived for a short time in a flat without a garden. Aside from my student days, it was, I realised, the first time I had lived without an outside space, and I missed it terribly.
I was never a gardener, but the ability to sit outside, or to wander in and out, or simply to lean in an open doorway with a mug of morning tea, were things I didn’t appreciate until I no longer had them. I was fortunate to grow up in a house with a garden – with play equipment, and trees to climb, and borders full of flowers we weren’t supposed to trample.
When my husband (then boyfriend) and I moved in together it was to a tiny cottage with a grassy patch out back, where we sat out late and watched the stars, and later to a town house in Chipping Norton, with a courtyard filled with pots I forgot to water. Back then a garden was a place to entertain. A place for candles in lanterns, neighbours and friends, and music played through speakers balanced on kitchen window-sills. Barbecues, wine, too many late nights.
I had gardens, but I was not a gardener, and I had none of my mother’s or my sisters’ patience with plants. I was an instant sort of gardener, a bank-holiday-monday-at-b&q sort of gardener, where forty quid and a couple of hours’ work would transform a patio with garish, short-lived flowers. When the children were small we left our impractical town house. We needed a garden, we realised. Somewhere for the children to play, for the dog to run around. We inherited a garden full of mature shrubs – shrubs that (to my shame) I pulled out to create a bigger lawn. A giant trampoline dominated one side, and we squeezed in a deck for entertaining. Besides the giant leylandii we tolerated only for the privacy they gave us, and the grass, patchy from football, there were no plants. I didn’t care – I neither needed nor wanted them. We grew some desultory salad for the resident slugs, and I occasionally sprayed the rose by the front door, but otherwise gardening was a twice yearly activity of leaf-clearing, hedgetrimming, and half-hearted attempts at hanging baskets.
And then we moved. In the flat, I realised how I longed to be outside. How I ached to feel dew beneath my bare feet, and to rub mint leaves between my fingers to bring the scent to my nose. I realised how I missed the smell of cut grass. Our new house – although after 18 months it can hardly be called new – has large gardens front and back. Great swathes of lawn, surrounded by borders I left untouched for months because I was too daunted to even begin.
Gradually I am taking control. I am cutting back clematis and hoping it returns (so far, so good), learning to prune roses and dividing plants grown too big for their spots. My vegetables, grown in four large raised beds, are an
enduring obsession: on a recent trip away I messaged my husband to ask how the spinach was. Fine, came the response. Do you want to chat to the kids? Yes, yes, I said, but have you checked beneath
the leaves for eggs? I deadhead compulsively, frequently getting into the car still clutching a handful of petals retrieved on my way down the drive. I take my morning tea into the garden and pinch out a couple of weeds. Two hours later I’m still in my pyjamas, a pile of dandelions at my side. I have discovered the joy of pottering: a word not in my lexicon before I hit 40, yet now elevated above exercising or staying out late and far, far above doing shots. I can – and do – potter all day, gardening having suddenly become, not a chore, but a treat. If you get this
chapter written by lunchtime, I’ll promise myself, you can start on
the hydrangeas. I have stopped thinking there’s so much to do in
this garden! and begun thinking there’s so much I CAN do in this garden!
My enthusiasm is tempered only by my lack of knowledge, but gradually I am making fewer mistakes (I carefully cultivated the pretty white flowers embellishing my borders for some time, before discovering I was growing bindweed) and learning to be brave. If it doesn’t grow, said my sister, herself the owner of a beautiful garden, move it. Try it in different places. If it still doesn’t grow, give up and grow something else.
This casual, suck-it-and-see approach is appealing to someone like me, who has for years felt overwhelmed by gardening books and Chelsea Flower Shows. But if we avoided every endeavour because professionals did it better, we would never cook, never sing, never make fools of ourself on the dance floor. Like most things in life, gardens don’t have to be perfect to bring us joy. Now, where did I put my secateurs?
ABOVE: I carefully cultivated the pretty white flowers embellishing my borders for some time, before discovering I was growing bindweed
Clare’s third novel Let Me Lie, published by Sphere, is out. Book Four is on its way!