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27 January 2021

Gardening brings a momentum that is otherwise absent from my life right now

One of the great consolations is gardening’s predictability. Plants want to grow, and so long as you give them soil, water and light, they will do their thing. It’s reassuring.

By Tracey Thorn

Ben took a photo of me in the garden the other day, and when he sent it to me I laughed all afternoon. He’d snapped it without my knowledge, through the kitchen window, and it captured me not digging, or planting, or doing any actual gardening at all, but standing with my knees bent, crouching down to stare at the soil. A speech bubble above my head would have read: “Come ON!”

Because I’ve never waited for spring like this, with this much expectation, impatience and hope. Every day I scan the flowerbeds looking for signs of new life, and then I come back indoors and make notes in my garden journal of all the seeds I want to sow, all the plants I want to buy, where I will put them, and how fabulous the garden will look.

So much of gardening happens inside your head. That is where your own idealised, imaginary garden exists, more perfect than anything you could ever create. I read my Gardens Illustrated magazines, which are pure horticultural porn, filled with pictures of vast flowerbeds displaying the fashionable prairie-style planting, all flowing grasses and massed perennials and seedheads left on through the autumn. And I try to work out how I can come up with something comparable in my not-vast London patch.

What I loved about last summer’s Gardeners’ World programmes were the home videos sent in by viewers of their own very real, and mostly imperfect, gardens. They reminded me that most of us have to make do with what we’ve got, and that perhaps half the fun is trying to work around our limitations.

[see also: What do magpies want?]

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So there was a man whose garden was too small but who grew vegetables on the roof of his shed; and another who lived in a flat without so much as a balcony, but who filled every inch with hundreds of houseplants; and a woman with an upper limb difference who was able to get a cucumber plant out of a pot using her toes, then dig a hole and plant it, and whose whole garden was adapted to her needs.

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I like this DIY aspect of gardening. I like its slightly solitary, independent spirit, the way no one can stop you doing what you want, the way that you don’t have to be an expert. I like the make-do-and-mend mentality, which has us planting seeds in Flora tubs, growing herbs in old tomato cans, making mini ponds in washing up bowls – making something out of nothing.

One of its great consolations is that it provides an element of predictability. Plants want to grow, and as long as you give them soil, water and light, they will do their thing. It’s reassuring. This is what will happen next. If I plant this seed, the rest will follow.

Nothing else in my life now contains anywhere near this level of forward momentum, of things progressing along an expected track. I imagine that, once again, I’m going to be spending a lot of this year at home and in my garden, but I don’t know for sure. I don’t imagine I’ll travel abroad or go on a book tour, or even start socialising properly any time soon. But then again – I don’t know for sure.

Meanwhile, we wait for Ben to be called in for his vaccine. From the start of the pandemic, he has been classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, which means we have been more or less shielding since last March, and so he’s quite high up on the vaccine list. But even this brings no real guarantees. After his first jab, we will then wait for the second dose, and then we will wait to see what immunity is provided, out in the real world. Sometimes, in bleak moments, I allow myself to worry about what will happen if the vaccines don’t perform as well as we hope, but the pointlessness of this train of thought forces me to turn away from it.

And so I sow my first seeds, black-eyed Susan, and put them on a bright bedroom windowsill, and walk around the garden once more, where the first snowdrops are through and other bulbs are poking their noses out. I think about growing a clematis in a pot, some dahlias in that corner, something to replace those fading daylilies. Maybe a jasmine, or a new rose. The possibilities are endless, and dizzying, and this year the garden will be amazing. It will have to be.

[see also: Many gardening tips and tricks are repeated every single year – but some are ill-advised]

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost