An occasional column about the pleasures and pains of cultivating a (tiny) patch of soil.
Once upon a time, like most sane people, I was utterly uninterested in
gardening. I wasted my time and money on reasonable things: secondhand
books, dramatic spices, jackets that I hoped might transform me into the
well-groomed and self-possessed novelist I still intend, one day, to
become. Like opera, gardening was for the old people, posh, English. And
I, youngish, the proud descendent of Mitteleuropean immigrants who had
lived, like me, in dark London flats, had far better things to do than
grow a cabbage. Isn’t that what shops are for?
Then something peculiar happened: I acquired a tiny garden of my own, in
glorious ignorance, and, accidentally, fell in love.
When I acquired my first garden, technically a windswept, leaky roof
terrace, I was expecting our second child and my second novel and had
other things on my mind. Too young for horticultural friends, depressed
by my dismal new gardening book (sample sentence: “Late Jan. apply
sulphate of potash ¾ oz/ square yard.”), I panic-shopped lavender and
clematis, and watched them die. This patch of stained white asbestos was
nothing like the garden children need: bosky borders, climbable trees,
grass on which to lie while contemplating the void. I imagined that, one
day, for the children’s sakes or, let’s be honest, for mine, I would
Except, as it turned out, I couldn’t. Children, the selfish little
beasts, require space, and in London it’s either bedrooms or a garden,
not both. So, selflessly, heroically, I made the ultimate sacrifice. My
second garden was still lawnless, treeless: a largely paved yard, edged
with crumbling walls, rampant honeysuckle, low-maintenance shrubs. I
sawed them down and resolved to grow vegetables.
I was alone and unguided, and my mistakes were tragic, the expense
terrifying; when have common sense and passion ever mixed? Gardening is
not innate: there is no such thing as a green thumb. Still, without a
childhood spent helping Grandpa with the weeding, how are you meant to
identify plants, let alone nurture them? I killed an apple tree; I
butchered an olive; I planted sweet little saladings, laboriously grown
from seed on my kitchen floor, and, as in the classical epic films my
father adores, I watched while hordes of sex-crazed slugs, refreshed by
their holidays in my crumbling walls, devoured them.
But I am both cussed and tenacious. As a musically moronic child, I
tried to master the French horn; while other teen-agers were acquiring
life skills like drinking and clubbing, I decided to learn ancient
Greek. So while a normal young adult might have accepted that gardening
was for retirement, bought a larger television, and stayed indoors, I
persisted year after year.
Nearly a decade on, and still with extremely variable success, my six
square metres of polluted urban soil and a few pots have become a
bountiful experiment in miniature farming, a city jungle with more than
a hundred different things to eat, though, sadly, nowhere to sit. There
are eight or nine types of tomato; red and gold raspberries; ten kinds
of lettuce and chicory; a dozen Asian mustards, from mild to ridiculous;
too many beans, yellow, purple, speckled; ludicrous Italian zucchini, as
long as your arm and much, much funnier; about fifty herbs. I make
salads with thirty different leaves: the maroon-splashed “speckled
trout” lettuce, sorrel, radicchio, bull’s-blood beetroot, and ginger
mint. I harvest, by the teaspoonful, wild strawberries, blackberries,
wineberries, loganberries, grapes, pink gooseberries, sour cherries, fat
figs, fragrant quinces, and translucent white currants. I admire the
lolling egg-yolk blaze of squashes, tangerine marigolds, magenta-pink
pineapple sage, rose-scented geraniums, and bright-blue borage, which
sends insects into private orgies of buzzing.
If you enjoy topiary or, frankly, sanity, my garden would horrify you;
real English vegetable gardeners, loyal to turnips, would scoff at my
newfangled foreign crops.
“Don’t you like flowers?” visitors ask.
“Of course. Sometimes. Why?”
“It’s just . . . people don’t usually grow vegetables in the middle of
But so what if Italian bitter greens and Thai basil are far more
labor-intensive than simple shrubbery? Even now, my failures are
manifold, my harvests nugatory. That isn’t the point. As anyone knows
who tends a windowsill chili, or thrills when they keep a supermarket
herb-plant clinging perilously to life, plants are raveningly addictive.
Once gardening has you in its silken grip, drawing you into a lifelong
infatuation with sappy greenery, copulating earthworms, and the smell of
rain, there is no rest. We recruit; we evangelize; we forge friendships
based on a strangers’ reference on the bus to rhubarb. There is pleasure
everywhere: trees to admire on the way to work, edible weeds at the
train station, a sniff of rosemary in the car park. Gardening enhances one’s
world: it is urgency and desire, passion and death, and, if you’re