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?