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28 October 2020

A hard winter is coming – but in the garden, autumn’s pleasures are still there for the taking

Feeling a bit unproductive, I put on my boots and head outside to push broad beans into the earth.

By Tracey Thorn

So here it comes then, winter. Shortening days, and worsening weather, and this year, more than ever before, an overwhelming air of uncertainty. All we know is it’s going to be a hard season, everyone says so, and that, at least, does not come as any real surprise.

Maybe it says something about my priorities, but I remember thinking back in March: ooh Christmas is going to be difficult. After all, how can it not be? For a week or so we gather indoors with the windows shut tight, coughing on each other while we pass round hot toddies. It’s traditional that someone is always ill. This year, it won’t be so funny.

I mustn’t be gloomy though, it’s only autumn, and there are still bulbs to plant. Some years I am rubbish about this job, and forget or put it off until it’s almost too late, dashing to the garden centre to buy the last tulips in the shop, ending up grimly planting while an icy wind whips my ears.

But this year I’ve bought loads, knowing that by spring I will be desperate for a sign of life returning, desperate to be back out in my garden. A woodland mix of bluebells, winter aconites, anemones and narcissus have gone into the lawn; snowdrops into the new flowerbed; small early narcissus into a container, and in other pots a mixture of red, pink and deep purple tulips.

[See also: As the rain falls and the gloom increases, I read slowly, not wanting my book to end]

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There might be a slightly manic quality to all this. I don’t really know what else to do except keep putting things into the soil. In many other ways I feel helpless and useless. A bit unproductive, a bit lacking in creativity. And so I put on my boots and coat, head outside and push broad beans into the autumn earth, knowing that soon they will push their way back out, curling up towards the light like a fairy-tale beanstalk. It’s not so much Dig for Victory, as Dig for Sanity.

I’ve realised that the gardening makes me feel both old and young. There is something childlike about it – kneeling in the soil, mucking about with buckets and spades, coming in with muddy trousers. A lot of it is about making a mess, and digging holes, and also experiencing the thrill of being allowed to hack branches off a shrub. We call it working in the garden but it’s more like play.

And gardening is a great bond with other people who like it. I always think of the writer Deborah Orr as I plant tulips. She loved them and spent her last autumn hopefully planning for the next spring, relishing the pleasure of choosing and anticipating flowers which she knew she might not get to see. And she didn’t get to see them, not those last ones. It feels like a duty now to enjoy them even more on her behalf. We used to talk to each other on Twitter about our gardens, and I remember the year we both bought a device to siphon off our bathwater for the flowerbeds. It rained all summer long, and we rolled our eyes every time it poured, and that, in a nutshell, is gardening.

[See also: My empty nest didn’t stay empty for long – but it’s time to prepare for absence again]

So as autumn settles in, I’m trying to remember the things I like about the season: my morning walks in the wood, and the way the acorns drop not gently but forcefully, pelting me on the head; the beech mast crunching underfoot, and the squirrels dashing across my path; the falling leaves swirling in the air like ash from a bonfire. There is pleasure in all these things.

At home we’re still socialising in the garden, so I’ve bought a patio heater, and a new jumper, and some thick socks, and a woollen blanket, and on an overcast Sunday I make a full roast dinner for just me and Ben, and there is pleasure in these things too.

And yes, maybe there are days when I look at the clock at five and wish it were six; or at nine and wish it were ten; or wake at three and wish it were the morning, but it can’t be helped. I put the clocks back and take a deep breath, and perhaps I’ll hold it until the day we put them forwards once more, and see the sun return and the shoots poke through the soil. And then we can begin again, begin again. 

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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning