A labour of love and friendship

With much gath­er­ing and clear­ing to be done, Frank won­ders about the eti­quette of en­gag­ing vis­i­tors to work in the gar­den

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS FRANK RO­NAN IL­LUS­TRA­TION CELIA HART

Giv­ing a house guest a job to do in the gar­den is a test of faith and friendship. Frank Ro­nan con­sid­ers the eti­quette in­volved in set­ting them to work

At this time of year there should be the odd bonfire to light and tend; much bet­ter than let­ting them get cabin fever in­doors

Friends de­scend. Usu­ally the gar­den must wait. A friend comes be­fore a plant, be­cause when a plant fails an­other can be bought. The kind of friend that can be re­placed is one you don’t want. And then there are friends, the paragons of amity, who ar­rive and ask what needs do­ing most in the gar­den.

It is not an easy ques­tion to an­swer. Not be­cause you don’t know ex­actly what needs to be done, but be­cause of a slid­ing scale of in­ner con­flicts. The first is a clash with the laws of hospitality; a friend be­neath your roof should not be used for labour: not stir the fire nor clear the ta­ble, let alone haul your prun­ings. I have friends with whom I stay and am im­me­di­ately, and with pleas­ant as­ton­ish­ment, in­den­tured to hard labour (fine by me – much bet­ter to do some­thing with your hands than think of in­of­fen­sive things to say be­fore the ex­cuse of two whiskies). But in my house I give no such quar­ter: vis­i­tors are ex­pected to en­dure the full time oc­cu­pa­tion of be­ing guests.

The se­cond tur­moil is one of trust. Who would you set loose among your dar­lings with un­in­formed feet and sharp in­stru­ments? (Though I, hyp­o­crit­i­cally, carry se­ca­teurs in the glove com­part­ment out of mis­trust of the sharp­ness when asked to op­er­ate else­where.) The oc­cu­pa­tions of an oc­ca­sional gar­den as­sis­tant must be me­nial. Adding in­sult to im­po­si­tion.

But there are friends, so charm­ing, sym­pa­thetic and gen­uine, that they see through my neu­roses, and knock it back­wards, and then we have a day in the gar­den. No white Bur­gundy and fleshy fish is mar­ried bet­ter than work and con­ver­sa­tion. You don’t have to think long to find a task that any­one can do, like pinch­ing out or dead­head­ing or weed­ing a path. And even if it is not well fin­ished, you will have got some­thing else done in the mean­time, and cor­rect­ing it will prob­a­bly be less trou­ble than ac­com­plish­ing both jobs, and still you will have spent ir­re­place­able time in the kind of talk that hap­pens dur­ing the dis­trac­tion of work.

With that in mind, ma­chin­ery should be avoided, which made the con­tri­bu­tion of my friend Chickchick this year a work of su­pereroga­tion. She came to stay for a week and it was when the meadow had to come down, which is a job that is four times eas­ier with two peo­ple. While I strimmed she raked and, be­ing the daugh­ter of a Welsh farmer, the stacks she made were things of beauty in them­selves. Then she hauled while I mowed, not once look­ing like she was go­ing to lose in­ter­est be­fore the work was com­plete. It is quite an­other thing when the noise of ma­chines forces you to work to­gether in si­lence and the com­pan­ion­ship re­mains good. That was a well-earned bath and Ne­groni.

There was no ques­tion but that I should have been the one wield­ing the ma­chines. To have a guest do some­thing as un­pleas­ant as that would be un­think­able. With fam­ily, on the other hand, no task is too me­nial or anti-so­cial. Younger sib­lings are handed the strim­mer and told to get on with it as a mat­ter of course, and can be crit­i­cised and baited if the job is not done well. Beast­ing the ju­nior re­la­tions aside, there is plenty of gen­tle work for the ea­ger vis­i­tor, if you think about it. Har­vest­ing comes top of the list, if there is fruit to be picked or veg­eta­bles for gath­er­ing. An af­ter­noon un­der the red­cur­rant bushes is an af­ter­noon of plea­sure, tripled if they are stay­ing long enough to be able to take home a jar of jelly. And this time of year there should be the odd bonfire to light and tend, which would run a close se­cond, and much bet­ter than let­ting them get cabin fever hud­dled round the fire in­doors. It is use­ful to have a line of spare wellies of var­i­ous sizes, just in case you suc­cumb, re­luc­tantly, to an of­fer to work.

Frank Ro­nan is a nov­el­ist who lives and gar­dens in Worces­ter­shire.

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