Root and Branch

The potting shelf

You can grow without a garden

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

As daylight hours extend towards the summer solstice, so the list of gardening tasks lengthens. If you consult the experts, this month’s is split between two categories: the nurturing and the cruel-to-be-kind.

Precious young plants — cossetted, tender specimens despite hardening off — need planting out; thirsty crops like beans and squash must be mulched; and everything seems to require feeding and watering according to particular dietary requirements.

This month’s is split between two categories: the nurturing and the cruel-to-be-kind

There is hoeing, deadheading and staking to be done, thinning out and tying in, pinching out and pruning. If you’re anything like me, it all perpetuates the nagging feeling that you’re falling irredeemably behind, showing yourself up as a person who really has no business mucking around in the soil in the first place.

Actually, I started out at a disadvantage because I’ve no greenhouse, never mind a heated one. In fact, I don’t even have a garden, merely a collection of large, generously-planted pots huddled on the pavement around our front door.

Because I’m lucky enough to rent an allotment, I do also have over-crowded windowsills, together with a homemade lightbox to mitigate the etiolating effects of raising seedlings this way (it resembles a school science project but is, I can report, well worth the minimal snipping of cardboard and gluing of tinfoil).

To harden them off, I’ve been cradling them in my arms and walking them up the road to my mum’s. She doesn’t have a garden either, but she does have a fire escape.

My point is this: so much gardening writing assumes that the reader is possessed of rolling acres and potting sheds well-stocked with augurs, multiple types of hoe, perhaps a cucumber straightener or two.

Coming from the pens of Victorian lady gardeners (never mind acreage, they had “help”), it can feel charmingly escapist. After all, gardening necessitates an element of fantasy, or at least hopeful imagination — who among us hasn’t got swept up in visions of wisteria-draped arbours and espaliered peaches? In twenty-first-century experts, this same presumption of — yes, that dread word — privilege can be a bit off-putting.

Then there’s the instructional bent, which saps the joy from what for most of us is a hobby. It is also misleading. Like cooking or sex, gardening is an activity that can only ever be scantily grasped in the absence of direct experience.

When it comes to the mysterious business of coaxing sustenance from bare ground, be it a feast for the eyes or the stomach, the natural world’s infinite variables mean that even the most gnarly-handed of growers can be thrown for a loop.

Rare is the gardening expert who’ll admit to a flop though. Last year’s glut of homegrown veg fails, the result of all that cathartic planting during the first lockdown, were a welcome blast of social media candour from newbies who knew no better.

There’s everything in between, from rotovator-wranglers to no-dig devotees, wild-flower-lovers to prize-marrow whisperers

More usually, Instagram and the likes merely index other gardeners’ glories, every picture seemingly shot with a “best in show” filter. In some ways, allotment gardening just stokes the anxiety. Everything is on display, up for comparison. Yet, look closely and you’ll find, too, a reminder of just how personal gardening should be.

Down at our admittedly eccentric allotment the contrast is vivid: there’s the scorched-earth approach to weed elimination, its emptiness alleviated by barrow-like hillocks containing, one hopes, spuds. There’s the plot on which curves rule, its lush circular plantings hinting at green-fingered sorcery.

And there’s everything in between, from rotovator-wranglers to no-dig devotees, wild-flower-lovers to prize-marrow whisperers. To the shared challenge of our heavy clay soil we bring varying levels of expertise and experience, but by high summer, every plot has something to show for it.

That’s not altogether the point, however. Without reducing it to yet another conduit for maddeningly self-absorbed mindfulness, gardening isn’t entirely about the plants. It’s about the human effort of leaving any patch of land better than you found it, whether we’re talking doorsteps or country estates. We may very well fail, but it’s the trying that counts, and while doing so we may contemplate all or nothing — something that even the most lavishly-illustrated horticultural tomes tend to miss.

So, back to June’s gardening tasks. If your green dreams have been stymied by spring’s arid start (raising my own hand here) or by general pandemic inertia, despair not: there is still time to sow lettuce on your kitchen windowsill for a supply of cut-and-come-again baby leaves, to dig enough ground outside to throw in some beetroot, courgette or broad bean seeds, or to fill a pot with nasturtiums. With it comes a shot at conjuring up something beautiful — and tasty — where before there was nothing. Now that is privilege

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