I’m an unreliable narrator. Ask in the depths of winter why we bought this house and I’ll tell you that it was for the tall sash windows and the number of rooms. The fact that we can all peel off to do our own things, indoors, but also congregate before the fire. We can spend the whole of the cold season here and not get cabin fever.
Ask me at any other time, though, and I’ll tell you that it was for the garden. The long, wide, village garden which dwarfed that of our little modern semi, squeezed onto the outskirts of York. The garden which we stepped into on a fine April day, the very first time we visited, and saw nothing but a large lawn, and flowers, and a little veg patch halfway down. A garden big enough for hens and all my other plans. Entranced, I failed to notice that the bottom half of the garden had been left to brambles – but that’s another story.
In truth, I’m not a particularly good gardener. I will never have the sort of garden that people exclaim over, and clasp their hands with joy at. I’m not very good with flowers, much as I love them. Creating a bed with different heights and textures and colour all year round is something which eludes me. Which isn’t great, when the fashionable thing, just now, is to have a garden in three parts: a patio, just outside the house, then a lawn surrounded by flower beds, and a little kitchen garden at the end. This is the goal, in 1930s gardening, as people move away from functional back yards to dream homes in the suburbs.
Our garden isn’t like that. If it has zones, they are these: a chicken shed, a veg patch, a fruit patch, another veg patch, a lawn, a fire pit and a wild bit at the end, for the children to get lost in. You won’t find me staking the peonies, because there aren’t any. Instead there are daffs, pushed into spare bits of soil and the herb pots. There’s a row of giant daisies along one fence. There are sweet peas and marigolds, raised each year from seed, in among the vegetables. There is damson blossom in the spring, followed by the apples and the pears. Nasturtiums self seed and grow willy nilly through the hawthorns. The new hellebores are flowering under the apple tree, where nothing else would grow.
This week I’ve been rushing out there each time it’s stopped raining, to sow a little of this or that. I’ve been weeding, and know it’s been a good day when I close my eyes to sleep and dandelions swim behind my lids. I plug away, putting inordinate amounts of time into little crops which may or may not succeed. Just as I know we’ll be drowning in parsnips every year, I know that many things will disappoint. The pigeons will get the cabbages, or the caterpillars the swedes. I might forget to earth something up, or to feed it once it flowers. I have no expectations of this space, but many, many hopes. And for some strange reason there seems no link between the hours I spend with a trowel in my hand and that let down feeling when I find the slugs have eaten my seedlings. These two things, the gardening and the harvest, are held apart by something else. It’s nature who has the final say. Nature who makes the sun shine and the showers fall, or the days so humid that blight hits and all is lost. Nature who gifts us with the pleasure of a day spent grubbing around in the soil while the birds watch where we are planting those tasty little seeds. Nature who takes the blame, and also all the glory.
There are master growers out there who put my little patch to shame. Who know just what to do to coax life and growth out of the direst of conditions. I’m not one of those. I just try to look after the soil, and am as pleased at the moment by the smell of dirt on my hands as I am by the pigeon-hassled broccoli which keeps producing, meal after succulent meal. My children can name every plant in the garden, and I’m prouder of that than of any prize-winning carrots. Which is a crop which always fails for me, by the way. I’ve sown some this year, anyway.
No, my garden isn’t what I’ve grown, but what I do. It pulls me out of the house and into the soft spring sunshine. Within minutes, the children have come after me, to play another game of tig. They run around and shout while my mind marvels at the sheer number of worms wriggling away from my touch. Let the late frosts come. Let the summer sun blaze and spoil the fennel. Today the sun is shining, in between showers, and we’re all out in the garden.