This column first appeared in The Western Mail on Saturday 22nd June 2019.
As a kid, I’d watch my parents spend hours making up hanging baskets together. They’d sit on the patio, tag teaming as they painstakingly planted their floral masterpieces.
I remember pansies, primroses and lobelias, vibrant reds and vivid greens, bursting violently from their metal-and-coir cages in all their technicolour splendour. They sat proudly on wrought iron brackets outside our Victorian end-of-terrace, haemorrhaging colour against our dreary stone wall.
I remember how each evening, the hose’s hiss would indicate it must be nearly sundown, as my dad pottered around, whistling, making sure those babies stayed hydrated.
But the main thing I remember is what an absolute FAFF the whole thing seemed. Making up those baskets took so long you could play two games of Monopoly, watch Gone With The Wind, listen to the Top 40, and they’d still be hard at it, all mucky palmed. But, then, they didn’t have Netflix or the internet, so they had to take their kicks where they could find them, I suppose.
I mean, I love a beautiful garden (what kind of nature-abhorring monster doesn’t?), but I’ve always had ZERO interest in the designing-planting-nurturing-and-waiting-for-it-to-grow bit.
This, I realise now, is a metaphor for 37 years characterised by chronic impatience and a tendency to get quickly bored. Gardening, I decided early on, just wasn’t my thing. I didn’t have the temperament for it, and I didn’t really see the point.
I would appreciate beautiful gardens on trips to National Trust properties, at friend’s houses and on the telly. But a cursory potted palm tree shoved on a balcony or patio would be my approach at home. Once I hired a gardener who just HAPPENED to be very easy on the eye, but I don’t want to objectify a man who turned out to be a very talented horticulturist so I’ll leave that sentence here because, you know, #MeToo.
A few months ago I was washing dishes and looking out of the window at my back “garden” (read: weatherworn decking and a load of dead plants) when it struck me how much prettier it would look as an ACTUAL garden. I wash up a lot, so it would be nice to gaze out onto something lovely, I thought. I have no idea why that thought didn’t occur to me in the preceding decade of staring out that very same window every day. The human brain is a strange old cove.
Soon afterwards, it was a sunny bank holiday, and I roped in a much more practical friend. With the help of many YouTube tutorials, we set about transforming my sad little urban wasteland into a south-facing verdant paradise.
And, reader, I loved it. From picking out plants at the garden centre to a blissful few days spent blasting good music, chatting away, planting endless pots, painting fences and – gasp – even making up eight hanging baskets, it was a surprisingly fun and oddly relaxing endeavour. Imagine my delight the next time I did the washing up, my view now transformed from city centre hellhole to urban oasis. As dusk falls, and the colour-changing solar lights kick in, it’s like Alan Titchmarsh wandered onto the set of a Daft Punk video out there. I kid you not.
Another friend, who recently started a garden design course, hit the nail on the head when I gushed to her about my new-found obsession.
“The thing about gardening is that you can’t do it quickly. It forces you to slow down,” she said.
And, she’s right, isn’t she? The magic of those few days was in switching off the tech, tuning into nature and in the very act of creating. The quiet satisfaction I found in sowing, patting, pouring, admiring and adjusting took me by surprise. It turns out that the aesthetic pleasure of the end result is merely part of the fun after all. A revelation, if ever I’ve had one.
I’m not alone in realising that green fingers are less medical condition, more desirable life skill. Millennials’ obsession with all things horticultural is powering a massive growth (pun intended) in the houseplant industry, with sales increasing by 50% last year. Waiting lists for allotments run into many decades in some parts of the UK. This suggests that even as our living spaces decrease, we’re finding creative ways to get our fix of Mother Nature.
Business is also booming for new plant subscription services, who will send you hand-picked plants along with potting instructions and compost in a fancy box every month.
The irony is, though, we’re paying through the nose to inject more nature into our lives, at a time when our planet faces potentially catastrophic peril.
And perhaps there’s a link between the two? What is successfully cultivating a garden if not a triumph of resistance against the relentless rat race of modern life? A life where we are increasingly more likely to interact with an app or a chatbot than other human beings. We live in smaller spaces, high rises and house shares, as property ownership becomes more of a pipe dream for young people. Global geopolitics is akin to rubbernecking the aftermath of a particularly messy car crash on a constant loop, and our precious planet is facing climate catastrophe. It’s little wonder we crave simplicity and stability, and that a whole new generation is rushing to reconnect with the wonder of nature.
Perhaps, in the immortal words of the goddess philosopher that is Joni Mitchell, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”.
All I know is that now when it rains, I am grateful for it. I cheerfully say things like “That will give the plants a good drink!”. My son boggles at me. “What are you turning INTO, mum?”. My own mother is the answer. But I think she was onto something all along.