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6 September 2023

The bitter-sweet beauty of late summer gardening

As the gloom and magic of autumn looms, another season of the year sneaks out the door.

By Alice Vincent

I filled the last weekend in August with small rituals that sang of late summer. I walked, hair-whipped, through the barren shingle of Winchelsea picking blackberries, fat and salty with sea air. I cut back the greying lavender in our front garden and breathed in its deep purple hue. I stuffed the fridge full of produce grown by more patient friends – fat yellow courgettes, pimply cucumbers, feathery agretti and parsley – and baked plums into cakes.

Summer’s waning can be a bitter-sweet time: the gloom and magic of autumn looms, another season of the year sneaks out the door. But this year feels particularly piquant; we’ve had such a strange and somehow absent summer. While wildfires have raged on the continent, the UK has been left under clouds by the same damaged climate. Last summer, as the country sweltered during weeks of heat, I longed for rain. This year I’ve barely sat in the garden.

The era of predictable summers has been well behind us for years now. Gardeners are among those better attuned to the realities of the climate catastrophe and biodiversity crisis because we witness it at a granular level. We observe the impact of imbalance in our little plots, and, frequently, we fret. This summer leafy perennials have romped along – my ferns have had a field day, as has the volunteer white dead-nettle I’ve left to fill out a bed. Those dedicated to sun-loving annuals will have been frustrated: there’s barely been enough sunshine to ripen a tomato. The summer has followed a dry late spring, a freezing early spring and a brutal winter. Gardeners, those of us closest to the ground, are constantly being challenged.

It’s about more than whether our roses have had a good year or not. It’s about the ease with which we can conjure life from the ground. Gardening in a climate catastrophe increasingly feels naïve, courageous, futile and essential – all at once. And yet, we persist. If we don’t grow in these changing conditions, who will?

[See also: A garden should be primarily for enjoyment]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain