Root and Branch

Please sit down

Take a moment to enjoy your plot

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

This year was going to be different. This year, I was determined, I’d find time to sit and savour the sultry excess of high summer at the allotment. The flowering, the fruiting, the glorious all-round ripening — I’d drink it in while bees droned and grasshoppers chirped. Let the insects toil; having laboured through spring, I’d have my feet up, lifting a hand merely to pop another strawberry into my mouth.

Such a full-blown vision of horticultural indolence was never going to become a reality, but given that gardening is meant to be relaxing I had hoped to at least relax a little. The plot is, though I say so myself, looking glorious right now. I’m particularly pleased with a deep, curved border: bushy globe artichokes stand sentinel along its perimeter, their purple produce nicely complemented by mallow and statice, lavender, borage and Black Ball cornflowers.

The plot is, though I say so myself, looking glorious right now

It’s the view that greets me as I wend my way along a path cut through the orchard meadow. But once my feet are planted on soil that is mine to till, I barely notice it, catching only topsy-turvy glimpses while weeding or watering. And even then, I tend to see not bounty but a list of chores: flowers to deadhead, shrubs to prune, cuttings to take.

Was John le Carré a fellow wielder of fork and trowel? He certainly knew of what he spoke when he titled his 2001 novel The Constant Gardener. There is always, always something to do. Lately, whenever I’ve tried to sit down, I’ll hear the rustle of a seed packet absent-mindedly pocketed or spot another buttercup runner that needs yanking out.

Even if you’re truly on top of everything, you risk becoming a harried victim of your own success. Greedy strawberry plantlets will need pinning down, tomato vines will be keeling over under their own glutted weight, and the courgettes — the courgettes will keep on coming, long after you’ve run out of recipes.

It makes simply pausing, taking a moment to enjoy it all, one of the most onerous gardening tasks of the lot. Allotments seem especially challenging. They’re haunted by the ghosts of generations who toiled — at the end of long working weeks that were in themselves physically gruelling — out of hunger rather than back-to-the-earth whimsy.

These days, technology offers ample solutions for lessening the burden, be it automatic irrigation systems or robotic lawnmowers. There are other ways of making lighter work of it, too. Avoid fussy hybrids, however tempting they look in the catalogue. Consider growing drought-tolerant, or at least water-efficient flowers — a list from experts at the Eden Project includes Cape daisies, Mediterranean spurge and rock roses. If you mulch thirsty veg like beans, you’ll cut down on both watering and weeding.

Being realistic about your plans makes sense, too, though part of the joy of gardening is dreaming big, envisaging Rousseauesque jungles on your tiny roof terrace, channelling Klimt’s riotous tangle of poppies and roses as you fill your borders. Embracing a wilder look is a sound choice, though it isn’t entirely labour-free. A meadow requires careful cultivation — at the allotment, we’ve been sowing yellow rattle in an attempt to suppress the rampant oxeye daisies.

Without succumbing to the “outdoor living room” trend that’s seen so many modest back gardens transformed into floodlit furniture showrooms, you might invest in some tempting seating. Other suggestions include windchimes and water-features; though the former are surely as likely to irk as they are to calm, and the latter can entail chemicals, cleaning, and some severely compromised aesthetics.

Better to plant herbs and inhale their soothing aromas. Lemon balm is irresistible, and was believed by famed botanist Nicholas Culpeper to banish “melancholy vapours” and make the heart “merry”.

But my bet is that real gardeners — those for whom pretty wrought iron benches are essentially ornamental — will still find something with which to busy themselves. And maybe that’s just fine, because our nurturing of plant life is its own form of relaxation. Scientists tell us that Mycobacterium vaccae, a type of bacteria found widely in soil, stimulates serotonin in the brain, Prozac-style. More appealing still is the rest that it provides from the truly endless (and altogether less rewarding) business of tending the self.

That said, I may just invest in a deckchair for the allotment. Unlike elegant bistro perches, they require real effort to haul oneself up from. And who knows, that enforced semi-horizontal vantage point may inspire a whole new gardening vision for next year’s growing season.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover