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16 February 2022

After a season of little contact, my garden and I are in conversation again

In those first hopeful and clear-skied days of February I felt a rush of affection for my scruffy little plot.

By Alice Vincent

“You alright?” asked the other half, as I wandered into the bedroom, shower-wet hair combed back. I told him I’d been in the garden. “I think,” I said, “we’re friends again.”

I’ve always thought of my relationship with the garden as a kind of conversation. It took weeks to make eye contact, months to utter niceties, a year for us to crack into small talk. By the autumn, I thought we were getting somewhere, but with the onset of winter progress stilled and stuttered. We’ve not spoken in a while.

There wasn’t any great rupture, no grand falling out. It was one of those situations where murmurs between new friends (and we are still new friends) – missing a date to have a drink, or forgetting to reply to a message – cause the whole thing to falter a little. This time last year the balance was tilted differently: I was painting the fence, hammering vine eyes into the wall and stringing up wire. I mulched in a frenzy. I whispered sweet nothings to the first bulbs that broke through the vacant earth. Most weeks I’d open the back door with an armful of plug plants in cardboard – the results of late-night online plant ordering – and deliver them to the garden wall like an offering. I was, perhaps, a little keen.

This winter I’ve backed off. I threw in a few hundred bulbs, sure, but left the herbaceous tangles of late summer’s perennials (a good, giddy time in our relationship) because the low sun cast shadows against the back wall and I wanted to offer hibernacles to the insects. There have been no binges on the winter sales; I’ve lifted and divided what grew well last year. I failed to order mulch until it was too late and used the contents of my compost bin instead – satisfying, but somehow lacking the black, weighted blanket loveliness of well-rotted manure. Then I left it be, keeping an idle eye through the kitchen window as if it were a lazy scroll through Instagram.

[see also: Why we should not blindly rush back to the way of life we consider “normal”]

Until, that is, a Saturday morning in late January when I picked up a routine I’d abandoned: wandering around the garden after getting up, just to see what’s going on. Bulbs shooting up, the tight red fist of a returning peony, old pea sticks and hollyhock stems drunkenly passed out on the flower bed. A lawn in need of edging. The remnant tea bags that hadn’t been broken down in the compost bin. A sodden trough, crying out for some attention and drainage. Leaves on the clematis confused about the weather. The first dark purple flowers from hellebore seedlings a family friend gave to my father, which he then gave to me, five years ago. And something else: a rush of affection, of longing, even, for this scruffy little plot.

The next morning I pulled on my overalls and went out with the eager anticipation of a catch-up pub sesh. I went around the garden with a litter-picking ferocity not seen since David Sedaris decamped to Pulborough. I collected old stakes and cut back unruly rose stems. I attended to the growing pile of scraps by the compost bin. I poured in all the care I’d been withholding over the past few months, first because I hadn’t been able to find the energy, and then because I was scared of what had reared up in my absence. Beneath, I saw a garden that I recognised, and a garden that was growing.

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In those first hopeful and clear-skied days of February I returned to a rhythm that has shaped most of my time here: out into the garden as soon as decently possible, usually after a shower, idly combing my hair as I inspect the beds. This is the month in which the first things – the irises and the Galanthus, some of the earlier narcissuses – start to fatten out and catch you by surprise. One day nothing; the next an exquisite jewel of a flower. That first hit of cortisol-giving daylight in the morning – I can’t believe I managed without it.

Most relationships require a little distance, sometimes. A good conversation relies as much upon listening as it does talking. I think we’re entering a new stage, my garden and I. I wonder what it’ll hold.

[see also: Confined to my house, I am giddy with excitement for the world beyond it]

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War