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8 May 2024

The joys of a low-maintenance garden

One of the beautiful things about gardens is that they are continuously being made anew.

By Alice Vincent

At the end of April, I cut my first garden bunch of the year. It was a Friday night and we were having friends over for supper. The baby had just gone to bed and I snuck out in the last of the light, feeling like a bank robber, the good scissors in my back pocket.

Half a dozen tulips (“Purissima”, which are large and creamy and elegant, even when mollusc-nibbled, and “China Town”, which are fun and silly), some narcissi. A few flowering branches from the Choisya that needs pruning, some hellebore foliage. And three arching stems of the Tellima grandiflora, which I adore, but is nevertheless becoming a bit of a rampant brute in the flower beds.

It’s been a long time since I cut flowers from the garden, and this was both a reunion and a celebration all at once. The last time I did it I had a newborn strapped to my chest and I was saving everything I could before the garden I’d spent nearly three years making was uprooted into a four-tonne pile of earth. For a few delirious days, the kitchen table swagged under tulips and plum blossom and daffs and fritillaries. The rest of the spring and summer was a process of waiting for things to grow.

It has been a stubborn spring, but the flowers have turned up regardless. There is a string of neglected back gardens I pass on the way to collect the baby from nursery and I’ve enjoyed watching them blossom. When left to their own devices, dandelion clocks, cow parsley, the odd rogue fading tulip and green alkanet really can look heavenly together. I’d certainly take the lot over a plastic lawn. There’s a pugnacious lilac that has burst through the fence at face-height; it’s impossible not to take a whiff.

These things go together, I think: the cutting of flowers, and the seasonal reveries inspired by a largely abandoned shrub opposite a petrol station. It’s only in the past few days I’ve realised that I have essentially missed this part of spring for two years. In 2022, I spent most of April and May driving around the American south-west. Last year, I went into labour on the vernal equinox, and spent the rest of spring watching, in a sleepless haze, the garden be turned over.

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I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it, the arrival of spring in a garden. For a season that is so feverishly awaited, it still manages to surprise us every time. That giant pile of earth turned into a garden that was a bit more sensible: broader beds, a small gravel garden, a shrunk-down planting palette and fewer tubs. The end result is much less maintenance. I pull a few self-seeded things that I don’t really want in those places, deadhead whichever flowers survived the slugs, and pad down a footstep-worn path as the rest of the lawn pushes up dandelions and buttercups.

One could, I am sure, find things to feed and mulch and prune and tie in, but I’m not in any rush to. In place of a guilt-riddled to-do list is something more intuitive and curious: waiting to see what grows and how, taking a little while to think about what to do with it; lifting an overzealous euphorbia to divide and deliver into pots, for instance.

I’m learning to relish this new space. It shouldn’t be difficult to enjoy a garden – what else is it for? But it’s only now that I’m realising how much I used to put upon it: endless tasks, wildly high expectations, the constant pursuit of improvement. Gradually, I’m coming to recognise my gardening as a practice, something that can never be perfect because it’s slightly different every time I do it, and it’s always being made anew.

Some days, that practice looks like hefting a hand-me-down pampas grass into an old tin bath tub. Some days it looks like smelling Pheasant’s Eye narcissus. And some days – the best days – it looks like gathering a handful of things you’ve grown to bring into the house to marvel at them close up.

[See also: How to fix English cricket]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll