Diogenes, the ancient Greek cynic, built his house and home in a tub. Men live in cities, he is said to have said, for fear of what lies outside. Lockdowns in the UK have done the opposite, fleeing to the country despite the dark, cold and, on walks, cows. Two years later, the new migrants had time to plant their country gardens. How sure are you that the rush out of town was worth it?
I’ve put a lot of my life into it. I remember the first bank loan I was ever offered, £30,000, in June 1971 at 2 per cent above base rate by an easy-going Mr Jackson at a NatWest branch. I thought of buying a house in London, although I was happy with the one we rented in the country. He happily funded it, even from my university salary at the bottom of the ladder, with two-week fees for writing about gardening for the FT, and a promise from the publishers to pay if I ever finished the book on Alexander the Great, which I was still struggling to write . He even suggested I shop somewhere in Notting Hill, preferably with the word Lansdowne in the address.
I left the room rather shy and ashamed: did I really want a white plastered barracks with a garden that could only be reached through the house itself? At the age of 25, I would stand out among my peers in the third floor rental. So I spent an idyllic summer among my landlady’s roses, leaving this white-rendered London estate to triple in value over the next two years.
What I looked at for £30,000 is now for sale for £6 million. All I had to do was fix the gutters, occasionally find others to scaffold the stucco, and sit still. If I had done nothing I would have made a fortune, far more than if I had been brave and written Fifty shades of green. As a gardener, what did I have instead?
It’s not about money, I tell myself, not even on this massive scale, I suppose. I am here asking for assistance to Thomas Traherne, born 1636, son of a village shoemaker near Hereford, and eventually poet and clergyman. “Coming into the country,” he wrote, probably in his thirties, “and sitting among still trees and meadows and hills, with all my time in my own hands,” he decided to devote himself to quenching the “burning thirst.” which nature had kindled in him from his youth.
He would pursue this goal “at any cost”, for £10 a year, in leather clothes, on a diet of bread and water. As he sated it, he would have time for himself instead of many thousands a year and the wasting of his days “swallowed up in care and toil.”
Working from home in the countryside I learned to qualify traherne. There, too, my time was wasted, not just in grooming and deadlines, but in the constant battle with bindweed, badgers, and inclement weather. Now that early spring is so mild in most of Britain, London gardens are starting the year by outperforming country gardens.
Undamaged by frost, their magnolias are even finer and earlier than those I enjoyed in the Cotswolds until the frost browned them last week. Londoners can grow lime-hating camellias, which were also magnificent, but mine in the country are turning yellow and need to be medicated. Her tulips are fully mature weeks before mine and her climbing roses are showing exceptionally early buds.
So I probed opinions on country gardening, starting with one of our finest ex-diplomats. Of course he prefers his country garden, he tells me, because that’s where he feels primal and connected to the real world. Since his garden is on the main street of a postcard village, his ability to feel primeval is very impressive.
“Scents,” said my next interlocutor, a lady with a beautiful garden in Sussex. However, some of the best scents I know of are found in city gardens, from mimosa in February, too delicate for Sussex, to jasmine on high walls in Kensington in July. I adore those two tops, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in the film easter parade, but would they really prefer the country “away from the city smells” when confronted with it? Not when nearby farmers fertilize their fields with pig manure.
So I asked a younger couple and they cited privacy: they love making love on the lawn in the summer, but they felt inhibited and overlooked by their London neighbors at W4. You also have a dog. Such behavior does not bother him, and he is also much happier with rural freedom.
“Borrowed landscapes,” said one well-read garden designer who likes the vistas that open beyond his country garden and give him a sense of space. He has an obvious point, but others also have the option of borrowing the scenery and putting up a hideous grain dryer, new homes, or an office. Country gardens must be preserved in the long term, but the country view does not remain constant.
I won’t quote children because they rarely garden, although initially they prefer open landscapes. I myself appreciate stars in the rural night sky, cut flowers without having to visit a florist, and the opportunity to have a wider variety of homegrown vegetables. I also appreciate sights like the one I enjoyed last weekend, wisps of wild mother-of-pearl flowers in the damp grass beside a series of interconnected ponds. One of the standout sights among wildflowers, Fritillaria meleagris still thrives on riverbanks in the Thames Valley. I would be delighted to hear of any wild fritillaries surviving in London.
Country gardeners have more scope for scaling. While urban gardeners must be adept at one of this or that, I can have tens, not ones, and grapple with this essential challenge, a herbaceous border. It sounds greedy, but I want those tens. I really enjoy placing them and watching them mature. I also enjoy the quiet, although rotary mowing in a village on a Saturday can sound like a busy on-ramp onto a freeway.
what about birds Sparhawks decapitate the wood pigeons while robins and their mutual aggression multiply. Rooster pheasants arrive in February, survivors among the wild birds raised on the surrounding farms for shooting: they peck the crocus flowers to pieces.
Despite everything, I have no regrets and will not give in. I love the rural challenges and the contrasts. Winters are still testing the mental stamina of rural gardeners, but spring is a week away. Rural idyll follows hard life: buttercups like this never exist in Brixton. In winter I keep fighting, looking for beauty in the bare tree trunks and picking winter honeysuckle for a vase in the house.
On summer evenings I sit in the twilight and contemplate unpracticed. There’s no traffic, no sirens, just silence as a dark shroud falls over all I’ve planted, the backdrop to my thoughts. I would be lost without her as others are lost with it. Even at £30,000 this pile of stucco was asking too much.
https://www.ft.com/content/c8edc106-70db-418e-9704-d2979c23b479 Why nothing compares to a country garden