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
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.