Gardens and gardening have always been at the heart of philosophical discussion. Cultivating our environment raises all sorts of questions from the ‘big’ ones - what it means to be ‘alive’ perhaps, or how far is a garden an expression of faith harking back to the Garden of Eden – to the more prosaic such as self-sufficiency and the value of growing-your-own in a recession. Plato and Epicurus taught students of philosophy in gardens and we still talk of ‘groves of academe’ and gardens as works of art, associating them with the spiritual and a higher level of thought.
As those thoughts turn, for some, to the Olympics and the Jubilee, the sales of red, white and blue annual plants will shoot up as gaudy front gardens are laid out as expressions of national pride. The summer will see Horticultural Shows offering opportunities for those interested to exhibit the longest this or the fattest that.
Growing things has often spawned national crazes and obsessions. I recently bought the magical ‘Fern Fever’ by Dr Sarah Whittingham for my sister and the lengths to which Victorian men and women would go to acquire a rare specimen – fatalities occurred as people scaled rock faces and waded through fast flowing rivers - raises all sorts of ethical questions about man’s relationship with nature. What might have started as an innocent pastime became a mania associated with theft and over-collection that damaged the environment that so fascinated our 19th century forbears. (I do not do the book justice here – it is a thoroughly researched, eminently readable and beautifully illustrated work that quite rightly has received great reviews.)
But at the same time it is just as valid to see a garden as simply an ‘outside room’ and a great place to have a barbecue with your mates.
So why do I dig?
Things I plant die, raising immediate ethical questions about a) my respect for living things and b) my respect for the family budget.
On the plus side, I loathe using pesticides and slug pellets (although I would happily go round late at night with a torch, picking slugs and snails from the plants and soil, tying them into a carrier bag and dropping them into the dustbin for the crushers to dispose of. One of my favourite gardening quotes was by Alan Titchmarsh, who suggested we only hate slugs and snails because they aren’t cute and furry and no-one has made a coat out of them.)
However, I am seduced by all the pretty things in the garden centre, take no real notice of the after care instructions and display a chronic impatience and a tendency to distraction; so unless a plant is the horticultural equivalent of Bear Grylls it doesn’t stand a chance. Ask my sister – I am the only person she knows who has grown and dried herbs in pots, in the space of a fortnight. Quite accidentally.
For me, gardening is still very therapeutic. I know from the time I spend on the allotment – under close supervision I might add – that growing your own fruit and veg is immensely satisfying. And I have had my successes. When I see the buds forming on ‘my’ rose – it is officially called ‘John Keats’ and I bought it in a garden centre just outside Brighton when we lived there about 15 years ago – I am filled with pride at having moved this poor shrub three times yet still it thrives. Similarly, the sight of the Christmas Rose (or Hellebore, which is still flowering now) with its wonderful dark purple blooms growing stronger and bigger every year just makes me want to get the camera out to capture the wonder of it.But I cannot ignore the fact that for every patch of soil filled with something lovely there are at least three reminders of my abject failure. The therapeutic benefits of the fresh air, the digging and the nurturing are surely outweighed by the knowledge that my half-hearted efforts are expensive and largely unnecessary?
After all, I have a sister who knows what she is doing and a husband happy to ‘slash and burn’ when the season requires it. All those seasonal specials my sister sells in Monkton Elm Garden Centre where she works should surely find a home with someone who will take better care of them.
I must admit though, that as I sat out in the ten minutes of sunshine that graced the garden yesterday afternoon I realised that however little I know about the workings of the world of cultivation I will keep on buying the primroses, planting the potentillas (though all three I’ve put in so far are looking very mangy) and buying the bulbs. Gardening is a kind of dream world. Some people realise that dream and others have to accept that it is the taking part that is important. It is something that feeds the imagination and offers escape; it can express your deepest emotions (in my case largely disappointment); feed your family or offer a small space for them to paddle their toes or drink a cold beer.
It is the nature of flowers to bloom and die in a relatively short space of time. That alone has to teach us something about the transient nature of beauty and the need to appreciate the ‘moment’. To support this I get an excuse to include another poem (I appreciate this is becoming a habit). This time it is by Emily Dickinson, a very private poet for whom the seclusion of the garden and the cultivation of plants was, literally, an act of the imagination; she felt she ‘could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory…’ where she cultivated exotic plants in hanging baskets.
Nobody knows this little Rose by Emily Dickinson
Nobody knows this little Rose –
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it –
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey –
On its breast to lie –
Only a Bird will wonder –
Only a Breeze will sigh –
Ah Little Rose — how easy
For such as thee to die!
So that is why I dig. Do you?
(I feel I have to point out that although I link to a couple of commercial sites in this post I was writing it anyway and the most I have been offered is a free tub of Miracle Gro, which given my propensity to kill things is somewhat ironic but could be viewed as medicinal.)