I have been gardening for ten years now. I started shortly after my mother died. It seemed the natural thing to do. After living with decline for years I wanted to nurture life. Initially, gardening and I had a stop-start relationship due to several postings abroad but I have been gardening solidly for five years now. In that time I have put food on the table and turned an urban patio wasteland into a hive of activity for plants, wildlife and me. However, it’s not just the garden that has undergone a transformation. At some point in those years I went from gardening to being a gardener.
The shift is not some linguistic pedantry. It is a subtle but profound change.
When I started gardening, I just wanted to grow some of my own food. It was a simple objective with very obvious rewards. It really didn’t take much to make me happy: a handful of tomatoes, some fresh lettuce, a few sprigs of herb, a couple of pounds of new potatoes, and a glut of courgettes. The first year I was just thrilled to be able to pick any food from the garden.
At the end of that first season I prepared for the next. I remembered the importance of soil and crop rotation from my childhood history lessons so I diligently applied the principles to my tiny garden. It was backbreaking but I realised that if I wanted vegetables, it was essential.
The second season produced larger harvests than the first but having turned a barren garden into a marginally productive one, I had also invited in pests. Slugs and snails mostly but also pesky aphids. Determined to garden organically I read up on natural pest and disease control methods. I hastily sowed some calendula and planted them amongst my broad beans to attract hoverfly, the larvae of which feast on aphids.
By the end of the second season I had learnt that pest control needs to be actively but kindly managed; that a couple of kale plants will keep you going for months and months; and that runner beans require plenty of pollinators. Mine had failed due to a lack of pollen hunters.
Roll on year three. Armed with more knowledge I was looking forward to a more productive time in the garden and a bountiful harvest. The weather had other ideas. We had almost perpetual rain from April till March the next year, and when it didn’t rain the skies where so thick with cloud that light barely penetrated into my back garden. I managed to rescue a few edibles but it was slim pickings. Still, I learnt that drainage is a must, and discovered the merits of sharp sand and perlite. I also learnt that flowers, even non-edible ones, fulfil an essential role. They brought pollinators to the garden so despite the cold wet weather I actually picked a few beans. They also lift the mood, especially in a poor English summer. Mostly they reminded me that even practical food growers are happier when they like the look of their garden.
In subsequent seasons new insights and experiences were piled onto my rudimentary knowledge. I started to recognise patterns and cycles in the garden and to spot what plants did and didn’t respond to. (Beetroots definitely prefer open soil whilst chard and kale are complete tarts, happy pretty much anywhere.) I increasingly found myself thinking ahead. I became better at successional sowing, including juggling limited windowsill and pot space. I learnt to spot weeds from seedlings, identify crawling and flying creatures and recognise the happy buzz of beneficial pollinators. I turned my hand to propagating from cuttings and nurtured them from tiny plants to ones that could fend for themselves (most of my lavender). I started to visit gardens for inspiration and am always reaching for gardening books to check out what conditions a particular plant needs or how to propagate it. I read seed and plant catalogues in detail, checking plants’ special features and their site and spacing requirements, and then double check the information against scribbles in my gardening notebook of past successes and failures…
Being a gardener (as opposed to gardening) definitely involves more substantive knowledge and experience, but that’s not the whole story. Becoming a gardener requires patience – a rare virtue in an age of instant gratification – but also acceptance that no matter how much we’ve learnt there will always be more to grasp. Most of all, becoming a gardener involves falling in love with the process, with all its highs and lows, rather than with the finished product, which doesn’t exist in any event. It involves being endlessly fascinated by the many layers of life in the garden.
I realised I was a gardener when I noticed the strength of the garden’s pull. How it lured me out, even on grim days or on days when there was nothing to do except sit amongst the abundance of life in that tiny space. And as is often the case with love, it crept up on me unannounced and enriched my life.