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31 January 2024

Forget secateurs. A vivid imagination is a gardener’s most important tool

To garden is to live in anticipation of the seasons yet to come, to build endless versions of the first sunny spring day.

By Alice Vincent

It’s funny what can change with an idle scroll. For context, I’m something of a serial renovator. I was raised by the kind of people who, on family days out, pull the car over to inspect skips, then extract a door from one of them. A place isn’t home until I’ve given it a lick of paint or put up a shelf, or, ideally, smashed through a wall. Other people may get excited by perfectly finished bathrooms or kitchens, but I feel a faint sense of disappointment. Combine this with the fact that I’ve received daily Rightmove alerts for the past eight years and it’s inevitable that sometimes I’ll end up viewing a property I have very little practical chance of buying.

So it went a couple of weeks ago. The place seemed a kind of bricks-and-mortar unicorn: well-proportioned, original coving, on a nice street close to the park. It was totally liveable while also containing at least one wall that could be taken down, and therefore the perfect level of doer-upper to my taste. Of course, the reality was a mess of ceilings stippled with Artex and a heating system that would have needed a full replacement – and don’t even get me started on the windows.

The garden, though, is one part I’m still thinking about. It was square, rather than the usual long and narrow plot familiar to urban homes. It had Victorian brick walls covered in moss and established ferns. It also had a tree that was being held up with rope and a garage worthy of a horror film. Instead of a lawn, there was a mass of concrete. I saw it and immediately brought up the compass app on my phone: north-east facing. I started picturing an enticing green idyll filled with tree ferns and woodland flowers; white narcissus in the spring, foxgloves in the summer, hydrangeas and shade-tolerant grasses catching the dappled light in the autumn.

Time-travelling, or having a feverish imagination, is a necessary tool for a gardener. Forget nicely sharpened secateurs or mattocks (although I do love a mattock), toss away your dibbers and your edging shears: I’d make do without them if I could only keep the power to look and hallucinate wildly about what might grow in a certain place when. Mine is not a winter garden: the beds that grow five feet tall are bare and flat, the lawn is patchy and the roses are stubby, spiky twists.

But I can stand outside the back door and picture the arbour covered in fragrant pink blooms, the lawn dotted with narcissus and that bed playing with late-summer sunsets.

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A few years ago I went on a mission to find out why women gardened. I travelled across the country and the continent to meet with strangers in allotment plots and community gardens, farmland and tiny balconies. We spoke about space, control, creativity, resistance, joy, grief and growing.

The result of all these conversations was a book – Why Women Grow, which emerged last year – that has since put the question back on me when I’ve spoken about it at literary events. Why do I grow? The answer is shape-shifting: creativity, reflection, a depository for my angst. Increasingly, though, I think it’s about anticipation.

To garden is to live in the seasons yet to come, to build castles in endless versions of the first sunny spring day or inhale that fertile, damp smell in the autumn air. I find it very difficult to do any garden task – pruning roses, planting bulbs, throwing kitchen scraps in the compost – without thinking of what may happen in the months ahead. It’s a happy, gentle act of hope even when history would attest that it never quite works out that way.

The reason why I’m still thinking about that garden – the concrete one I could never have made my own – is because it made me realise I want several more seasons of anticipation in the garden I’ve been making so far. Even if I could buy that house, it would be a huge wrench to leave a garden that I’ve only just landscaped. I’m here for every morning inspection, every first rosebud. Picturing it in my head is good, but seeing it unfurl is better.

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

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State