Saturday, 30 May 2015

The mysterious allure of gardening


I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with my greenhouse - although others might. But I have to admit that in the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, a review of its TV coverage did ring a bell:

Like many newly keen gardeners, I thought gardening was stupid until I got a garden of my own. This happened to coincide with me growing old and boring, or older and more boring, as my wife will tell you. It may be that piddling about in the garden has replaced participatory sport, parties and indeed speaking to other human beings because it's the only leisure activity that allows you to hide. 

That was Benji Wilson writing in the Telegraph. 

I've actually enjoyed gardening for a long time - beginning at my prep school. Several times a day, we were thrown out into the school grounds, whatever the weather. If, like me, you weren't sporty, there wasn't much to do except wander round and wait for time to pass. But you were allowed to join the Gardening Club. This centred on some small allotments in an old walled kitchen garden. The chief attraction was not the gardening, but access to an old shed where the gardening implements were kept. It was a vital few degrees warmer than the fresh air in winter.

In fact, I found the gardening itself quite absorbing. When I joined, I remember being shown my little plot by Eddie Hayward, the head of the Club. "But what is there to do all the time?" I asked him. "Oh, there's always something that needs tidying up, or the soil needs digging, even in winter," he assured me.

And he was right. From the outside gardening looks like a series of tasks to be completed - seeds to germinate, flowers or vegetables to grow - but it's actually a process. It's the doing that counts, not the results.

Supposing you had all the time in the world and all the help you needed to make the best garden you could. How long would it take? And how would you know you had finished? You wouldn't, because perfection leads to decline. Even on a single plant there are leaves, fruits and flowers at different stages of development: there's no perfect moment when it's finished.

So, to me, it's not just "piddling about" as Benji Wilson puts it. It's a kind of physical metaphor for our lives. Just as drama resonates because it evokes feelings and relationships we recognise, so gardening makes sense to us because it contains patterns we know, perhaps unconsciously, are worth tuning in to.

The older I get, the more those elusive patterns mean to me. Like the mysterious attraction of a particular shape to the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters, so older people are drawn to gardening without having to understand why.

Every evening when I get back from work, I feel compelled go out and have a look at my greenhouse, to make a few adjustments and see how things are getting on. Some plants are flourishing; others are in decline. I can guide and encourage, but in the end, as in life, the forces of nature are more powerful than anything I can do. I'm really just there to witness what's happening - for my own sake, not really for the plants.


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