‘Here is a process, a mode of connection in which we understand that growth of any kind means that you must both work and wait. Water and wait. What happens or does not happen next will not be entirely up to you.’ Victoria Adukwei Bulley
This is the second collection of essays published by Daunt that I’ve read in recent months (At the Pond, essays based around the experience of swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, was one of my Top Ten Reads of 2020) and it is another utter pleasure to read. Once again, the authors come from all walks of life and bring very different perspectives to the overarching theme. What does connect them all, however, is the recognition of what growing things does for us.
2020 was, amongst other things happening, the year many of us engaged with our gardens, however small, and (re)found a pleasure in watching things grow. Most of what I planted in that first lockdown has survived and this spring has been both heartening (‘look – it’s still alive!’), and poignant. When I planted the first seeds and cuttings last Spring, I had no idea how the year was going to go; my memories of the first lockdown are intense – the lack of traffic noise, the need to keep my family safe from the outside world, the birdsong, the feeling of individual gratitude for small things in days of mounting national loss. Seeing things sprout new leaves again this year brings those feelings back and I feel more emotional about tiny apple tree saplings that I ever thought possible.
Many of the essays touch on childhood memories, of following a grownup as they garden, and of the sense that, even if there are years of non-gardening in between, the child will ultimately return to it, as if it is something in the blood. Penelope Lively even suggests that ‘the urge – the compulsion- to garden is genetic, so far as I am concerned, and runs down the female line.‘ It’s true that many of the figures in the childhood memories featured are women – Jamaica Kincaid’s Grandmother and her roses – but there are also plenty of writers here who have come to gardening of their own volition, often out of a sense of curiosity or, in the case of Jon Day’s local area, a need for community. What does link all the essays is that feeling of luck when a plot of land is got hold of, that sense of endless possibility that gardening and growing provides. Errors are made, vegetable plots are plundered by wildlife, but there’s always another chance to try again.
What is also heartening about this collection is that, on the whole, it isn’t written by gardening experts. I’m rubbish at remembering the names of even the plants I love. These are stories, on the whole, of people muddling through to often mixed success, fuelled by a need to be in the garden. Claire Lowdon believes that ‘Most of us have plant blindness to some degree and each generation is more myopic than the last‘ – this is both a relief (that it’s not just me) and a sadness. It makes you realise what is slowly being lost. Further on, in Adukwei Bulley’s essay, the dandelion (and, yes, I do know what they look like) is used as an example of what we lose through ignorance or a desire to be neat.
‘When a plant such as a dandelion is perceived as just a common weed, the use of its root as a liver-cleansing digestive bitter is likewise dismissed. When, as a kid, I would help my father remove them from the garden lawn, this was the knowledge of dandelions I didn’t yet have.’
‘No-Mow May’ is upon us and the dandelions are in full bloom on our small lawn right now. This book, apart from being a proper delight to read, is an excellent companion for all gardeners, however much soil they have access to – highly, highly recommended.