Why do I garden?

I sometimes come across something which hangs around with me and won't quite leave me alone until I give it some time and really think about it.  I have been wondering over the winter about why I garden with the passion and devotion I do.  Anne Wareham who has produced the most stunning garden at Veddw and who edits a fascinating website at thinkingardens argues most persuasively for gardening as a form of art, as in her hands it surely is.  But that is not how it is for me.  So what is happening for me that makes it take up so much of my time and energy and thought?

We have two acres of land which surround our sixteenth century farmhouse on the Clwydian hills in North Wales. The land is all sloping and the soil is stony and fastdraining, although fertile enough if you help it along a bit with compost and manure. We have been here for four years and I am very slowly planting and cultivating. What I am doing is not in any way gardening as a form of art. I do wholeheartedly believe that gardens can do this, though not in my hands. So I have thinking for weeks now about what I am trying to do and why I garden.


I garden functionally. I love cooking and eating and I grow vast quantites of fruit and vegetables, partly because I like to eat them and partly because they seem the right things to grow in a place like this. I don't want a garden which looks like Great Dixter or Little Sparta, much though I love them, or which is a series of outside rooms, or has herbaceous borders pinched from minor stately homes. I want a garden which looks as if it belongs to this place and this place is very beautiful with views out across a green valley and up to the bronze age hillforts along the ridge of the Clwydian hills.


So it seems to me that what belongs here should reflect the simplicity of the house and its outbuildings and should be here for a purpose, and the easiest ancient purpose is that of feeding people. The field should keep its openness and connection with the landscape and shouldn't be chopped up into garden rooms with endless yew hedges, much though I love yew. So I have planted fruit trees and hundreds of Tenby daffodils in one part of the field. We have planted two long stripes of mixed edible native hedge (feeding people again) and carved out specific places for specific purposes. There is an area for a swing defined by a curve of rosa rugosas, partly because they are tough as old boots and only tough things survive up here, and partly because they are functional again, hips for rose hip syrup. There is a corner growing hazel for coppicing. There are big beds side by side like allotments in the middle of the field for cutting flowers and fruit and vegetables. There is a small area by the side of the house which is the closest I get to a traditional flower garden but everything in it has been grown from seed or propagated from what grows here already because it doesn't feel right to bring in plants with the greedy urge of a plant collector when so much will struggle to survive. What likes us, likes us very much, so we have lots of it.


I think about the garden all the time and read and read in winter to learn more about the practical craft of gardening and about what the possibilities are out there, though most of them I would discard because they don't fit my sense of what should be here. What I read and what I see around me and in magazines and on television  demonstrates that people garden for a variety of reasons: love of colour, love of food, pleasure in the process, form of showing off, expression of creativity which might be otherwise directed at art or sculpture or some other form of visual expression, way of passing the time, outlet for the need to nurture which might be otherwise used on pets or children. I could go on and on.


There are doubtless other reasons and it is certainly the case that many of these partially explain why I garden so relentlessly and obsessively, but I think the main reason I garden is to do with time, and in two apparently contradictory ways. When you garden it puts you in the present in a way which perhaps playing sport or music might do for other people. The combination of the mindless repetition of an action, such as pruning or weeding, with a level of concentration which prevents you from slipping into automatic pilot puts me in the moment in a way that very few things do. Self help articles constantly urge you to "live in the moment". It is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do but when I am gardening is the closest I come to achieving it.



Paradoxically gardening also gives me a stake in the future. I garden to see what happens next, to watch bulbs come up, to see the hedge thicken and the tree grow. I garden to keep me going through the winter because in the spring it will all start again. I garden because watching things grow and change and die and fail and be replaced with new things I have sown or propagated makes me feel more alive. I garden to be surrounded by evidence that life continues although plants and people die. I garden so as not be oppressed by the knowledge of my own death.


This sounds both morbid and pretentious now I have tried to write it down, but I don't think I am either really. I am a cheerful sort who enjoys life and friends and food and company and a good glass of wine. But that is why I garden, not to create pictures, not to challenge or excite others, not to extend my house or find another way of spending money. I garden because carving out my space here and paying it full attention is my way of holding back the dark.

Whoops, that was a bit more serious than I had expected!

If you are a gardener, why do you do it?  If you aren't, why not?



Comments

  1. Lots to think about there - I'll have to revisit when I'm not supposed to be working!

    Why do I garden? I can relate to your feelings about gardening - the sense of time and place.

    Creating a living environment that's personal to one's own place, versus art. Now there's a grey area!

    Gardening is connecting - with the seasons, the earth, the past, the future, my past, my future...

    Celia

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  2. I remember reading something somewhere that posited that gardeners live longer than non-gardeners because they're always planning for the next season and, consequently, want to hang around to see how it turns out and then get on with the following season.

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  3. Reading this so-interesting post, with much to think about, my first, strongest thought was "Oh, gardening grounds her" - and to me, being grounded is the key to being able to live your life fully, no matter what the scale of that life is, and allows everything to connect and be meaningful. Nothing pretentious about that!

    Now I might go away and think about why I garden, because I still do it badly and sporadically!

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  4. As the proud owner of a long flower bed in between us and the road in front and a cloakroom size yard behind , I "garden" to cram as much colour in as I can and to be able to nip out and pick a sunwarmed tomato . So pots of tomatoes , herbs and strawberries behind and lavender , snapdragons , little blue geraniums ,lupins and foxgloves in front .
    But I miss the daily surprise of something forgotten unfurling that a real garden gives .
    I always enjoy visiting Smitonius and admiring her greenery and wildlife and her and her partner's delight in it all .
    Sonata .

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  5. This is something really to get one's teeth into! First thoughts:

    I think I have a foot in both camps - though possibly more inclined to enjoy the creative aspect than the drudgery - and here I will stress the drudgery rather than 'work' which can be physically satisfying. Love juggling shape, colour and texture but hate, hate, hate spending more time dealing with garden waste than gardening.

    I share your wish to create something at one with the landscape, something which doesn't jar - but have allowed ourselves the luxury of something more formal at the front of the house. At the back I hope we manage to blend into the dingle beyond. Native plants - good do-ers, useful ones too.

    Off to think it over...

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  6. Reading this reminded me of one of my favourite books "A hovel in the hills" by Elizabeth West.
    I agree with Celia, gardening brings us firmly in touch with the turning of the seasons.

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  7. How do you say Clwyd? We garden for wildlife. And because it is what we do, now he is retired. Of course, because we enjoy it!

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  8. I loved this post – not pretentious at all! Gardening (and keeping animals) is a very primal thing for my husband and me as we are very concerned about where our food comes from, but also because he is Cuban and this sort of small-scale “farming” is something that his family had/has to do to live decently. We’ve been doing this together for almost 5 years and it has definitely made me consider my own mortality, my rhythms and my place in nature and that’s been extremely beneficial to me. Like Celia said, connecting. It has also helped me overcome my perfectionism!

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  9. I don't have time to read the other comments or even finish yours today but I want to say that for you your garden is like my house is for me. I see all sorts of wonderful color people in their homes, but I have to be true to my house(Its an unexplainable feeling)and you need to be true to your land. I totally agree with your thinking and hope you'll stay true. Linda

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  10. I loved reading this post. Why do I garden? Like you and your family we love having our homegrown vegetables. But flowers equally - each season brings its own and scents too. There is almost a spiritual peace in a garden. I don't garden by the rules and my plants all tend to haphazardly muck in together. Perhaps they're part of the person I am.

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  11. Another enchanting and thought provoking post Elizabeth, I read it earlier and thought I would return to leave a well thought out comment - but I am going to have to ponder more - this is the questions I happily ask myself every day
    K

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  12. Funny that it seems I only ask myself this question when it's all going wrong. But, three reasons come to me. One, plants are fascinating and so beautiful. I remember as a child being spellbound by a Lily of the Valley. It's scent and those little bell flowers hanging off the stem.Then I discovered a Bleeding Heart in a neighbors yard and I was blown away by this design of nature. I was in love!
    Secondly, industriousness. I cannot be idle for long. Gardening is perfect for someone who likes to keep their hands busy. And it's the best "mind" therapy at the same time.
    Lastly, my Italian family always kept a little vegetable garden, even in the city. We grew tomatoes out of cans if necessary. I learned how to garden from watching my father plant his zucchini, peppers and beans. Then my mother cooked them into something delicious. It was practicality.
    Thanks for prompting these great memories.

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  13. Oh, such an interesting post.

    My garden, unlike yours, is a small town one and I have no interest in cooking or eating (I mean, I eat, but would never cook again if I lived on my own and never entertained). I would grow vegetables if I had more room, but I don't.

    I love gardening because I love flowers and leaves. I love the colour and the variety of forms - so many shapes of leaves! It's definitely an art form for me. I enjoy arranging plants in pleasing combinations - and never quite get it right because nature does some rearranging! I love gardening because it gives me hope for the future - as you suggested, there's always something to look forward to. I love it because, as you said much better than I'm going to, it occupies the mind just enough to expel most worries but enough to preclude boredom. I love being out in the fresh air.

    When I step out into my garden, I can feel the tension leaking out of the soles of my feet.

    And now it's ten past 1 am and I should really go to bed...

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  14. A very thought provoking post Elizabeth. Lots of great comments and I "second" alot of them.

    I inherited the gardening gene from my mother. She had a rather higgledy piggledy approach to gardening which I have refined a little. Her hands were calloused by her passion.Her joy in creating and then giving away what she had created went hand in hand with who she was.


    For a small amount of money you can create a masterpiece by simply scattering a packet of seeds on fertile soil and then wait!

    Gardening brings, colour and joy into your life. Cut a bunch of flowers and bring them into you home to further the enjoyment. Give a bunch away to a friend to brighten their day . Share the seeds and therefore the beauty and so the cycle continues.

    The simple pleasures in life are far and away the best.

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  15. Elizabeth, I don't garden, but after reading this I want to. You wrote beautifully and eloquently about your passion, and were not in the least pretentious or morbid as you feared.

    If I were a gardener my perspective would be a lot like yours, I am sure. I agree absolutely with your respectful approach to the landscape and climate and coming from a rather unforgiving, dry, extreme climate myself, I have never understood the need some have to force unsuitable gardens and lawns onto a land which is beautiful in a completely different way.

    I just loved this post, really. I felt like I was in Wales for a few minutes.

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  16. Yes - how to fill in that irritating space between birth and death. Irritating only in the way it has to be filled. You are filling it with gardening - your way of staying alive.
    We all have strategies, I suppose, for staying alive. Oh not physically alive - bread and water will see to that - but mentally, spiritually - the life of the soul. The soul needs to be kept alive and in so many people the soul is dead even though their bodies go on functioning. Some souls leave their mark on a landscape long after a body has died. Or, through some form of art, music, writing, sculpture, they leave their imprint on the world. The creation of a garden, or a house, is therefore art in this sense. It will live on.

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  17. Enjoyed reading your views on gardening - they sound much like mine really. It is hard to say why I garden but I have always done so - it is good exercise and it shows when you have done it - there is nothing like a freshly weeded patch, particularly if there is a light summer rain straight after so that it cleans everywhere up.
    I used to spend hours reading gardening books particularly Sackville West and Christoper Lloyd and I must say that at this time of the year I peer into the garden every day to see what is daring to pop up.

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  18. An exquisite post. "My way of holding back the dark." Elizabeth,I garden for that reason too, though I'm sure there are a multiplicity of reasons buried within that one. I'd add one more for you. It gives you an opportunity to write beautifully about your thoughts on gardening.

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  19. Magic Cochin - thank you. I like your image of gardening as connection. I think that is true for me too.
    Mrs Jones - lovely idea! I think it is spot on too. It does give you a stake in the future.
    Rachel - I do know what you mean about something grounding you and I do think that cooking is more grounding for me then gardening: the daily nourishing of your family. But gardening too perhaps.

    Sonata - I love the idea of your pots full of flavour and colour. I would garden like that even if I did not have much space. I don't think I could manage without space to grow something.
    Mountainear - I would say that both your garden and your house show someone for whom gardening is a creative expression. I suspect we are a bit similar but I might be more wedded to the process and you pretty certainly have a clear artistic eye.
    Kath - I do agree, being in touch with the turning seasons is part of what gardening does for me too.
    Elephant's Eye - Yes, missed that out. I do also garden as a way of being in touch with what lives in my garden. Clwyd is pronounced Cloo - id. It is one of the Welsh words for gate so the part of Wales where we live is a gate between England and Wales.
    Stacia - thank you and welcome. I do agree that gardening gives you a rhythm to your life which I would sorely miss.
    Linda - I think staying true to yourself in all sorts of ways is one of life's challenges, perhaps even working out what that is in the first place is the hardest one of all!

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  20. Just caught up with your latest blogs - you write so beautifully - I have enjoyed reading them. Why do I garden? I guess because my Dad was a brilliant gardener and he taught me all I know. Whenever I am in the garden at work, he is with me and all is well!!

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  21. Hello Elizabeth.

    I often find I'm tempted to write what amount to posts in other people's comment boxes when they raise interesting questions and I'm having restrain myself now! Perhaps if I type quickly! . . .

    I garden because I like the smell of earth, because I have a primal fear that the shops may suddenly run out of food and I will starve if I haven't grown any myself, because . . . because I do and it's never struck me that I should 'not' and because gardens keep gardening when I'm looking the other way. Furniture is so boring! It never does anything for itself. It just sits there stolidly gathering dust. No-one wakes in the morning to find their tables have grown new legs overnight or that the pile of their carpet is deeper.

    Esther

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  22. Hi,I really enjoy reading your blog. The work in my garden day in and day out releases me from my ongoing pain. And without the large and small of it all, life would be grim. But as it is I love being up and out as soon as day comes and the hell with the dishes! Denise

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  23. I used to have a big garden and be an avid gardener. Now I have two flowerbeds and don't garden at all. Why not? I don't want the responsibility of being in charge of the wellbeing of the plants and living through the disappointment of failure. I don't have the energy that's required to be a super gardener, so I'd rather not be a gardener at all, because I know things would die out of neglect and wrong choices made. I do admire other peoples gardens, but I have become very fond of stones and minimalism.

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  24. Molly - I like your descrition of your haphazard garden!
    Karen - I think of you as a gardener as artist, much more than I could manage to be.
    Leonora - what an interesting reply. I like the idea of the need for industry too!
    Isabelle - "when I step out into the garden I can feel the tension leaking out of the soles of my feet" - fabulous expression. I know just what you mean too.

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  25. I garden because, twenty years ago, I was bitten by the bug. And it has never let go of me. I was literally a completely new gardener, inheriting a reasonable space which needed tending.

    In the first garden we grew vegetables, here we hardly do. There is too much shadow and the soil is stony.

    I garden because I love to create a pleasing picture, a space to look on and marvel at my own dedication. Not that I do much looking or relaxing.

    My greatest love is the compost heap; I adore the feel of the crumbling, sweet-smelling, black gold; I am jealous of every bit of vegetable matter that someone might dispose of in the rubbish bin. I am the compost police.

    My saddest moment was when I realized that there are already jobs and tasks in the garden which are beyond me. Gardener is my favourite man, I pamper and pet him, for fear that he might leave me.

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  26. I do garden and I often wonder why, I think its the challenge, knowing that the harder I work the better things will look, the wonder of waiting and seeing if what I have put in comes up or if it is beaten by the weeds, pests and birds.
    A bit like banging your head against the wall, you want to stop but somehow you can't :)

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  27. I garden because I love being outside and soaking in everything around me. I wouldn't be able to sit outside on a summers evening and enjoy if I was surrounded by a mess.
    I love to watch my garden as it changes through the seasons.

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  28. I garden because of all the reasons you mentioned, but mostly because it keeps me attuned to the heartbeat of the earth, our mother.

    P.S. How do you pronounce "Clwydian"?

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  29. I like flowers. They thrill me. Today I saw a pack of dahlia bulbs which will have speckled petals. I bought them because my imagination spurred me on. I wanted to see them standing tall in my garden and then pick a few and put them in a vase. That thought excited me, as did discovering some aconites I thought had died, hiding under the old rhubarb leaves of last year. Each seed, fruit, veg of flower is a miniature plant and coaxing that into life is well, quite magical.

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  30. I think having your hands in soil is being close to GOD


    yvonne.

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  31. Such a thoughtful post Elizabeth. I am a gardener to the very tips of my being and have been since I was a little girl following my father & grandfather around. Like you, I think about it constantly, plan, hope, yet never get despondant if things go wrong. There's always next time. Despite this love our garden rarely looks as though we do much with it as so many other things get juggled into the days, but it is sat in, played in, walked around, dreamt in and loved. x

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  32. Claire - I love the idea of growing things and giving them away. I had not thought about that but I do it and love to be able to give someone a bag of apples or a bunch of sweetpeas.
    Deborah - what a great comment. Thank you. Maybe one day you can come to Wales more than virtually!
    Fennie - ah you get it totally don't you. I knew you would.
    Weaver - I know just what you mean about the constant looking to see what is coming up. I was out this afternoon doing just that.
    James - and I thought you would get it too. I don't mean for a moment that my reason for gardening is the only one. In fact it is truly fascinating to read others' perspectives. But I am glad to know I am not the only one.
    Twiglet - I love the idea of your father being with you in the garden. My grandmother was passionate too and I suppose I have something of what you describe.

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  33. A most thoughtful and delightful post Elizabeth which I have returned to read again. The main reasons for me are think are the nurturing aspect especially growing from seeds and taking cuttings , the pure joy of being outside, observing the seasons closely and more recently since I have had an allotment, the thrill of growing and eating my own food :)

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  34. Esther - I should have mentioned the way gardens keep on doing interesting things while your back is turned.
    Denise - I truly believe that gardening is a healing thing to do.
    Green Stone Woman - I sort of see the love of stones and minimalism.
    Friko - yes, compost police here too. The very idea that you could throw away something which could become compost makes me feel slightly ill.

    Blossom - I always think that the harder I work the better it will look, but sadly many of the best effects are achieved here without much input from me! Things self seed and blow in and beat anything I am planning for.

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  35. How very interesting and it made me think about what and why we do what we do here. Here the only gardening we do is vegetables and there is not enough time for it either. The house we live in is tied, goes with the job, and has been unloved both inside and out for many years. We have made the house a home, but are worn out after fixing and making do. There is no real garden, no nborders, shrubs etc, apart from the veggies and we have neither time nor inclination anymore to do otherise, however we do long for the day when we have our own plot and home and can garden productivley and creatively to make it all ours, if that makes sense?

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  36. A wonderful post: it made me question if I garden at all! I feel I haven't had the chance so far and that I am being pushed out of my garden as much as out of my kitchen. I exist alongside it. Perhaps it is time to push back and create a space of my own. My own personal Eden.

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  37. I don't find you morbid or pretentious. Your reasons seem perfectly reasonable and quite similar to mine. I do not garden on the scale you do; I plant things for beauty mostly and only a few food crops. I also love to plant for the birds and butterflies. Here in the heat of Oklahoma, I also plant native things in order to cut down on the amount of water and care needed on a daily basis. That makes for some lovely, lovely views, what with the color, the butterflies alighting, and the birds perching. It's funny, I often say I am an inside kind of girl, but I love watching nature.

    I really love this post and all the lovely comments.

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