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27 July 2022

I have relinquished control of my garden – and what it has done is beautiful

I would have preferred the poppies to have returned rather than the tree spinach, but the pink hollyhocks are a joy.

By Alice Vincent

I’ve been looking at photos of the garden from this time last year, an act that invites forgiveness and a kind of envy all at once. I’d been resisting it because I suspected it might confirm my suspicions: the garden looked better last summer.

Few will remember 2021 as a golden year for anything, but my pictures suggest otherwise: elegant, otherworldly spires of digitalis parviflora mingling with fat, lilac cushions of scabious; fantastically ruffled poppies arriving, shedding and then leaving their spherical seed heads behind for structure; fountains of borage, not nearly enough of which went in gin and tonics.

Now there are large gaps in the bed and shrimpy little dahlias where last year there were flowers I had the temerity to curse for being the “wrong” shade of pink. I’d be very happy with the wrong pink now. The abundance of May and June – handfuls of sweet peas three times a week and roses appearing faster than I could deadhead them – has ground to an abrupt halt. The lawn, not mown since May, is the colour of an Andrex puppy. The tree has started to shed crispy leaves on the patio.

It’s easy to blame the weather: at the time of writing I can’t remember when it last rained properly, and I’m reluctant to water much beyond the pots because the planet’s on fire. But we should be examining the impact of the recent heatwave – further evidence that we are living through a climate catastrophe – for ways we can better future-proof our gardens.

[See also: Be your own florist – it’s simple and sustainable]

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Three miles away from my home, the gravel-planted Grasslands Garden of the Horniman Museum in south London is showing no signs of wilt. Bright pinks of echinacea stand, unstaked, alongside crocosmia and gladioli. The garden was originally the work of the Olympic Park landscape designer James Hitchmough, and are inspired by the prairies of North America and South Africa. It has not been watered in two years. When London reached 38°C, the Horniman’s head of horticulture, Errol Reuben Fernandes, posted a video on Instagram of the garden looking resplendent: “Imagine if the councils did this,” he told the museum’s social media followers, conjuring a vision of public space filled with pollinator-friendly beauty.

If we take anything from the raging, record-breaking temperatures that have forced this gardener, at least, out of the garden and cowering into the house, it’s that we need to prioritise different things in the green spaces we tend to. We need to understand that in gardening we have an opportunity to counter climate catastrophe, rather than continuing to mindlessly attempt to prettify the planet we are turning to dust.

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[See also: A shadow hangs over this year’s Chelsea Flower Show – our climate crisis]

The current state of my garden is one born of a certain kind of inaction. I probably should have mulched better over winter – it gives the perennials a far better boost for the next year – and I purposefully didn’t sow the annuals or replace the biennials that filled in the beds so beautifully last summer. But this isn’t something I regret. In all honesty, I didn’t have the time nor the inclination for all that faffery in the spring, and it’s not a particularly sustainable way to garden.

Instead of fixating on its flaws, I’m choosing to look at this summer’s garden as being one of strength: the plants are all those that survived the winter, the squirrels and foxes, to return without any intervention from me at all. Perhaps I would have preferred some of the poppies to have come back, rather than the tree spinach, and ideally some of the chunkier perennials would have had the manners to sit at the back of the bed, rather than the front. But it’s still gratifying to see what’s grown while I’ve done pretty much nothing to encourage it.

[See also: Putting the front garden front and centre]

The combinations wouldn’t win any prizes at the Chelsea Flower Show – there’s a lot of fennel, now jauntily in bright yellow bloom, with pale pink hollyhocks and a chorus of bobbly, pale blue erigeron – but it’s more intriguing to see what happens when one steps back. I’ve ushered some of these plants into life, now they’re finding the way that suits them best, in ever more challenging conditions.

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special