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On learning to grow

How my brown fingers began to turn green

I grew this!

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To say I'm late to the whole gardening thing is something of an understatement. I’m using the word loosely here, since the garden in question is a basement courtyard (backyard, to be more brutal/accurate) which is about the size of the average bathroom. The kind of dull grey space that would make a “real” gardener snort with derision.

Until we moved into this flat, during lockdown, I would go so far as to say I’d eschewed gardening altogether. I’d dabbled with houseplants over the years, starving spider plants and drowning so many cacti that I'm surprised the garden centre didn't bar me. I just didn’t have that magic it. Equally I wasn't interested in acquiring it. Oh, like a bloke (if you’ll forgive the generalisation), I enjoyed looking at a beautifully tended garden, crucially one tended by someone else. But actually participate in the creation of it? Get my hands dirty, tend and nurture, fertilise and water? Nah.

Instead, when I did have a garden, I paved as much of it as was decent and relied on my mum – who is a demon gardener, with a Chelsea-worthy display to prove it come summer – to provide compost, plants and invariably pots, too. Not to mention the biannual elbow grease and motivation to get off my backside and do something about the weeds and the dead wood.

Thinking about this now, I put my refusal to learn to garden down to a couple of things. Firstly, from a very young age, I saw it as a girl thing, like cooking and housework; a thing girls, not boys, were taught to do, and so I dug my heels in and refused. By the time I was a student I took a perverse pride in my ability to burn spaghetti and my housemates would have staged an intervention if I’d so much as suggested buying a houseplant. That's something I regret now – the cooking, not the housework. Now I live with a man who is a fantastic cook and takes great pleasure from the hours-long production of a glorious meal, or an afternoon spent producing an enormous batch that will keep us in chilli for weeks, all while simultaneously watching the rugby. Cooking and gardening, I now see, are not necessarily means of oppression, (although, like housework, they can be). They are just as likely to provide emotional sustenance, to be a means of giving.

The second thing happened later, when I developed an allergy to flowers – not in the literal sense, but certainly they brought me out in emotional hives. For years I could hardly stand to be in the same room as a bouquet. For that I blame the boyfriend in my teens who cheated on me with one of my closest friends, looked me in the eye and denied it (despite the fact that she had told me herself, written it in a letter, in fact, this was the 80s after all, it was there for all to see in blue and white). He then sent me two huge – and hugely unimaginative – floral displays on Valentine’s Day. Two. Courtesy of Interflora. One step up, just, from the garage forecourt. You can picture them, I’m sure. If you can name a more glaring admission of guilt I’d be delighted to hear it.

I decided there and then that I hated flowers. Blame the messenger, why don’t you? 

When we first met, I told my husband, in no uncertain terms, to never buy me flowers. As far as I was concerned they were nothing more than deception, an attempt at misdirection. (A huge error I now realise and one I’m still paying for more than thirty years later.) Roses earnt my particular ire, having been massively overrepresented in the aforementioned “displays”. For decades I avoided flowers altogether, until my job on Red made avoidance impossible, bouquets being the fashion and beauty industry’s preferred mode of communication with certain magazine editors. I know, I know, but bear with. My office often looked like a florist but it was rare for me to let one of those bouquets make it through our front door.

Gradually, over the last few years, my position on flowers has softened. It started with low-key blooms like tulips and daffodils, hyacinth and crocus, then broadened out to include peonies, dahlia, chrysanthemums and alstroemeria. In vases, not mud, you understand. (I've just discovered their carbon footprint equates to a flight to Paris, but let's not think about that for the moment...)

It was only after our first long, dark, Scottish winter that I felt the need to garden, to plant and grow, kick in. I longed to see some life in those otherwise dead months. For the first time, I began to amass some pots under my own steam. And when that next autumn came, I made my first foray into bulbs. Don’t get too excited, they didn’t actually grow.

At this point let me just say, I know that this is so much nothing. That people tend huge year-round flowerbeds, grow fruit and vegetables and herbs. Compost, weed and care without expecting a medal or even anyone to notice. I bought a few measly bulbs, and they didn’t even grow and I’ve still managed to write a thousand words about it.

The thing is, it’s not really about the bulbs, is it? It’s about bothering about the bulbs. When that spring came, I would get up each morning hoping to see the first green shoots peeping out into the chill of almost-spring, like Mei in My Neighbour Totoro. But nothing. Eventually hardly a handful of the forty or so bulbs I'd planted poked through. I still don’t know what I did wrong (Plant them too late, maybe? Plant them upside down? Thanks dad!) but I was determined that next time would be different. 

As the summer progressed I bought evergreens and hardy perennials that would withstand the fierce east coast winds that sometimes howled up our street. J bought a beautiful pink hydrangea in a vibrant yellow pot and I shocked myself by taking to the internet to learn how to prune it back with an unnerving brutality. After an anxious winter when I was convinced I'd slaughtered it, I'm now the proud owner of a stout and healthy verdant bush. Then I bought five or six different types of spring bulbs (I forget exactly what) and planted them much earlier than the previous year. A victory of hope over experience. And then I waited. The crocus appeared first, then one type of tulip, then more tulips, followed by narcissus and daffodils. My pots are full, if only, so far, the crocus are flowering. 

I am astonished to report that I grew a thing. Lots of things. Easy things, admittedly. Things that required little care and even less knowledge. But for me, the cacti serial killer, that is still a first.

I’ve been mulching this sudden-ish urge to grow a lot recently. (Sorry, couldn't resist the gardening pun.) In part because I’ve been watching my bulbs grow daily stronger outside the living room window, but also because I’ve been reading Alice Vincent’s wonderful memoir/testimony/ode to gardening, Why Women Grow (Opens in a new window). In it she charts her own emotional gardening journey (she came relatively young to gardening, in her 20s) but also that of dozens of other women of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you’re a gardener or not, it will make you think about why and how we grow.

It certainly made me think about the way I finally came around to gardening (or pot management if you want to be pedantic), after a period of intense professional upheaval which left me struggling to identify myself. It made me think about my friend E who, suffering from severe burnout, resigned from a relentless job in retail that left her barely able to function, let alone take time out to visit her sick mother who lived at the other end of the country. In the months she spent tending to her dying mother – and gradually herself – she also developed a passionate interest in plants, and went from being a person who would happily spend several hundred pounds on an item of clothing to doing the same on plants. It made me think about the DJ Jo Whiley who, when she isn’t hanging out with some of the biggest rock stars on the planet, can be found elbow deep in mud in her Northamptonshire garden. It’s her happy place. Her solitude. The place she goes to restore herself, she told me, when I spoke to her for The Shift podcast (Opens in a new window). She's interviewed the biggest names in music, but the name that really got her pulse racing was Monty Don.

For a long time, avowedly not a nurturer, I simply did not get this. But now I do. I guess I’m growing.

(But I still hate roses.)

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