There are a few gardening tasks for which I have to summon emotional energy before beginning. Seed-sowing, oddly, is one: all of the paraphernalia of tamping and labelling and trying not to get the little packets creased and grubby-fingered (I fail, every time). Mowing the lawn is another; ours is far from perfect and cutting it only exposes the bald patches. But our shared front yard – it’s too austere, too lifeless to be called a garden – demands a proper internal pep talk.
By London standards, the yard is large. I have seen many smaller gardens marketed by estate agents as “good-sized”. It is south-facing, and I have dreamed of installing a couple of raised beds and growing flowers in the long, stretching hours of unsheltered daylight. But it is also next to a busy road – any crops grown there would likely be polluted – the soil bakes into cracking clay in the summer, and it is a good schlep from a water source.
Weeds poke up through the gravel and in the main we keep on top of them. Some days, bulging rubbish bags are left on the path; most days, I find chocolate-bar wrappers, fried-chicken boxes and half-drunk bottles around its boundaries. We live near a nightclub, and these are the vestiges of the early hours, the things I don’t see when I’m listening to the dawn chorus, half-awake in bed.
In the first few weeks we lived here I painted the bike shed and the fence black. I tell myself it is my own, micro Prospect Cottage, but Derek Jarman loved that space far more than I do this.
On the first warm afternoon in April, some friends threw a wedding party in their back garden. I knocked back a couple of glasses of fizz and, on the way home, hit Columbia Road Flower Market in its dying hours. There I found half-price Nectaroscordum siculum in leaf and bud – a prize – and a tray full of lavender mounds, haggled for with the confidence of afternoon drinking. The energy had arrived: we were going to tackle the front yard.
It is rare that my husband helps in the garden but his sense of horticultural orderliness is greater than mine. The back garden is my domain, and there I welcome the sprawl and the wildness. The small landscapes I grow feel like mine when they look a little undone. I see growth, he sees mess. I unsheathe the Japanese shears from their special bag and he gets to work on the hedge. I uproot the neighbour’s cigarette butts. I pull out young nettles with my hands and their barbs leave puffy welts across my palms. The long evenings are my favourite time to garden, when the air fills with the smell of different dinners cooking and you know there will be a good bath for weary bones afterwards.
One of the reasons the yard is so abandoned is that I rarely look at it. Every day I spend hours observing the back garden from my desk, from the kitchen window. The front is a backdrop only to my comings and goings. Perhaps, I tell myself, if it smelled of lavender, if it hummed with bees, I would admire it more.
But I do look at other people’s front gardens. They are more familiar to me than the local shopfronts and they help me to trace the seasons. I have a handful of favourites in at least a mile radius around where I’ve lived in this city. And I am not alone: last month, the horticulturalist Ben Dark published The Grove, a book about 19-and-a-half front gardens on Grove Park, a street in Camberwell, south London. It is a testament to the secret communal power of a front garden – that they are not really for the custodian at all, but for those who walk past. I am greedy with others’ front gardens, but ungenerous with mine.
The sun has dimmed, it’s growing colder. It is time to pick up the tools and get the bath running. But not before I scatter seeds – nasturtiums, saved from last year’s abundant crop. I lay them across the clay and cover with gravel; they will thrive in this poor soil. I hope they will self-seed in next door’s garden, maybe even beyond. A small act of giving back.
[See also: Spring reflection: What tadpoles taught me]
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future