A myriad twining life

In her lovely book ‘Life in the Garden’, Penelope Lively describes gardening as “the conquest of nature, the harnessing of nature to a purpose”, and “the creation of an ordered state where nature would insist on disorder”.

I find this a curious view, especially from somebody who has spent a lifetime with her fingers in the soil, and observing gardens. Admittedly many gardening fashions over the years have sought to shape nature to a pastiche of the sublime, the picturesque, or the de-natured geometric. The dominant ethos of suburban gardening until quite recently was to spray nature into submission, leaving only manicured flowers to poison unsuspecting insects. This was the “ordered state” to which gardeners aspired.

But whether at the level of a petal, a plant or a whole garden, I find in nature’s design the most complex and fascinating ordered state. One that emerges of its own accord, and that I can sympathetically curate while allowing nature to harness me to its own purpose.

I share Walt Whitmans’ sense that “every atom of my blood [is] form’d from this soil, this air”, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”. The garden is not another room in our house, to be dressed and ordered. It is a little bit of an ecosystem from which I sprang, and to which I still belong.

This sense has crept into my approach to gardening, years after I first set out as a student to grow some cheap vegetables.

I want to bring about a wildlife friendly garden with some food production, yes, but also one in which I may loafe and observe and feel a larger sense of myself, without the need to escape to a Surrey wood or the semi-wilds of Snowdonia. A garden, too, that marks some small resistance to the ecocide we are unleashing, another small token of hope as I grapple with how to face this reality.

Last year I made my first stab at a planting choices with insects in mind. My two mainstays wereVerbena Bonariensis and some varieties of Rudbeckia. I love the colour combination almost as much as the bees. Intermingled were Helenium, Salvia, Lavender, Comfrey, Sedum, Scabious, Kniphofia, some Eurphorbia, and for future years some small Honeysuckle plants that rambled halfway up the fence by the summer. A cacophony! But one where a little care ensured colours didn’t clash and nature could happily unfold in its own fashion.

Planted out in early spring, by autumn we had enjoyed spotting honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, various kinds of parasitic and other small wasps, butterflies and – by autumn – some great-looking spiders. I’m no naturalist so couldn’t identify most of what I spotted.

These all surrounded, and threatened to overwhelm, a few sweetcorn and a small plantation of spinach.

I also added a small pond, late on, staffed by aquatic plants and guarded by an array of grasses to which I gradually added specimens. My nephew and niece expected frogs instantaneously.

This year we dug it all up – except the pond – and started again. We wanted to level out part of the sloping garden, tidy up the mess at the bottom, replace a fence and take out all the perennial weeds that had infested the lawn – about which I still have mixed feelings, knowing how good those dandelions are for other species, if only they didn’t spread quite so vigorously from any fragment of root or puffy seed ball.

Weeks of slashing, digging and shovelling, mostly done by the hired help of a former neighbour, Drew, and we had our basic structure!

Since the trial run last year I have learned much more about wildlife-friendly gardening. My two favourite guides have been Bob Flowerdew’s Organic Gardening Bible, and Val Bourne’s The Living Jigsaw.

Here are some of the changes I’ve made, with their guidance:

  • I’ve added trees! An Amelanchier × grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’, and a Koelreuteria paniculata. They add some visual interest, and will provide useful perches for birds and insects. I’ve also got 6 dwarf fruit trees, mostly in pots, with their lovely spring blossom.
  • More early flowering bulbs and flowers (I’ve become partial to Cowslips) to extend the pollen season, so I don’t just rely on the rosemary and comfrey.
  • I’ve created a small frog habitat next to the pond by using some broken bits of old paving and logs.
  • We have a small bird bath, to complement the pond as a water source.
  • I’ve got a better idea, now, of the spread of last year’s plants, so have replanted them to get the balance right between complete groundcover for insects, and giving enough space for each plant to flourish. I hope, now, to more or less leave the beds to their own devices.
  • Our path will have lawn chamomile and creeping tyme interplanted around the stepping stones, creating a fragrant and insect-friendly carpet.

I have also moved to integrating food for myself with food for other species – while mindful of Flowerdew’s point that the competition will reduce the crop yield. So fruit trees, soft fruits, beans running up over ground cover, herbs and perhaps some spinach or chard interspersed in the flower beds will keep me as happy as the bees.

I now keep a strange vigil, waiting for nature to do what it will with my plans. Lively writes about gardening being an act both of remembering the last year, enjoying the moment, and anticipating what may come. It is a long view of life, and at the same time each act suffuses me with anticipation. As life around me – a frenetic job, the Brexit mayhem – moves apace, the garden sits silent, the changes barely perceptible as the days lengthen and the soil warms up.

I feel myself enlivening, too. My blood, form’d of this soil, is warming too.

In our small front garden the Hellebores are drooping, the bulbs are thinning, and the Sweet Woodruff – a thuggish beauty – is promising to flower in a week or two. I am eagerly anticipating my trees coming into full leaf, the bees returning to my Rudbeckia, and maybe some aquatic life appearing in the pond.

Title image: a section of a painting by my future sister-in-law, Rachel Mercer.