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17 January 2024

Herbs and flowers flourish in my hilltop garden, except where I want them

My lack of success growing mint and thyme is embarrassing, but I take solace in the plant world’s mysteries and surprises.

By John Burnside

For years now, I have been trying, and failing, to grow certain plants in my windy, hilltop garden in East Fife. Admittedly, horticulture is something of a hit-and-miss affair up here, but my lack of success is embarrassing nonetheless, considering that these plants are not normally difficult to cultivate; on the contrary, the gardening guides describe them as somewhere between stubborn and invasive.

I know I should give up and accept my lot, but there are three particular favourites that I continue to pursue, despite them either defying my attempts to grow them altogether, or, perversely, only ever establishing themselves in places where I do not want them.

Take, for example, Viola labradorica, the true American dog violet. An elegant small alpine, with dark green to near-black foliage and profuse, delicate blue-purple flowers, it never lasts in the semi-shaded, slightly damp spots where I think it will do well, yet crops up freely in self-seeded clumps all around the gravel parking area to the side of the yard, where its beauty goes unnoticed. That shouldn’t surprise me of course – its native habitat in eastern Canada and Greenland is characterised by hard, stony ground – but other species from the far north, some of them supposedly difficult to keep, flourish happily in my small rock garden. It mystifies me; and yet, at the same time, I allow myself some small satisfaction in knowing that, as much as the experts think they understand, the plant world always has a surprise up its sleeve.

Another plant that refuses to grow for me, dying off quickly wherever I locate it, is mint. Yes, ordinary, common mint, notoriously so invasive that, when I lived in Surrey, I had to cultivate it in large tubs to prevent it from taking over the entire herb bed. Here, by contrast, it struggles gamely for a season, or almost a season, before it quickly dies off, never to return. I assumed at first that this was down to soil acidity, but even in pots, in a store-bought, more or less neutral growing medium, it does badly. Again, one of Flora’s minor, but for me, perversely intriguing mysteries.

The failure that bothers me most, though, is my inability to cultivate thyme. Time and again, I create its ideal habitat – free-draining soil in a sunny spot – and time and again my efforts yield scant rewards. In practical terms, I don’t need a large crop of this herb, which I use only sparingly in cooking – I could easily get by on one of those pots of “live” plants they sell in almost any greengrocer’s. But I keep trying to grow it for other, non-culinary reasons, partly because I love its aroma (a scent best appreciated, I admit, in the kind of heat we rarely enjoy up here) and partly because it reminds me of a favourite, almost touchstone poem by the late Sarah Maguire entitled “Zaatar” (Arabic for thyme).

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A trained horticulturalist, Maguire always had a keen eye for plant life, whether in or outside of the garden; her beautiful meditation on the famed pomegranate orchards of Afghanistan (“The Pomegranates of Kandahar”) for example, is powerful and moving, as it catalogues the irretrievable damage done by colonialism and incessant warfare on a great horticultural tradition and, so, on a nation. My favourite poem of hers, however, is “Zaatar”, in which she hymns the inextinguishable green life, the stubborn viriditas of the thyme she saw and smelled everywhere on several visits to Palestine during the mid-1990s and beyond.

What “Zaatar” invokes is one of the deeper mysteries of the green world – and of life itself: that, even in the most inhospitable of conditions (“bleached landscape/of limestone/of broken stones/of olive trees stricken and wasted”) mysterious, incomparable life persists, in all its stubborn beauty.

[See also: It’s too bleak to go out, so why not bring your garden indoors?]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge