Gardening’s great, unless you’re my plants
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What is the opposite of green fingers? Surveying the wreckage of another weekend spent pottering about in the garden, I feel this affliction needs a name. Here’s my definition as a sufferer: the inability to contemplate a happy array of plants without feeling an urge to dig them up, move them and generally mess about with them so that they end up distressed, damaged or dead.
Middle age has found me joining the ranks of other Brits obsessed with gardening. Last month, the mental health charity Mind revealed that seven million of us have taken it up since the pandemic, and feel better for it too. Fine. I’m delighted for us. But won’t somebody please think of the plants?
Dull as my younger self would have found it to spend hours ogling plant catalogues, Post-it notes at the ready, she would have assumed it was harmless. Not so. For I am a killer, and those marked pages bear the heedlessly smiling pictures of my victims. Imagine how many living things are doomed by an extra seven million well-meaning executioners?
Skipping through the house with a new clematis to climb up the trellis or a tray of petunias to tumble exuberantly out of a window box, I can’t help but notice the shaking heads. As far as my family are concerned, I might as well throw these blameless specimens straight in the bin and “spare them the torment”.
At this point, several bags already filled with casualties, I must face facts: there is more to the fantasy of becoming a “plantswoman” than enthusiastic meddling. An L-shaped backyard in London is not Sissinghurst and I will never be Vita Sackville-West, however whimsical my summer wardrobe becomes. It turns out you need a PhD to keep stuff in pots alive, unless it’s a salvia or a geranium, and I’ve even buried a few of those.
To what does the nation owe this mounting horticultural frenzy? American friends seem mystified at the idea of “yardwork” as a pleasure. But it seems to be an enduring trait. In the French comic book Asterix in Britain, the Gallic hero finds the locals can only be roused to fight the Roman occupation when chariot wheels carve up the front lawn and behead the dahlias.
Inevitably, would-be culture warriors want to harness this passion. Oliver Dowden, the now-departed Tory party chairman, argued in a recent speech that the classic commuter-belt gardens in the towns and villages that encircle London represent “stability, security and, yes, Conservatism”. In his eyes, “The privet hedges of suburbia are the privet hedges of a free people.” Stirring, if bonkers, stuff.
We and our shrubbery deserve better. Luckily we already have a saviour in Monty Don, the benign and tousle-maned deity of the BBC’s Gardeners’ World. A sort of Aslan in wellies and elegantly battered corduroy, he appeared onscreen offering redemption and guidance through the darkest days of the past two years to about 2.5 million viewers most Friday nights. I binge-watched four episodes one particularly bleak day during lockdown. It worked like magic, proving that you don’t need to do actual gardening to get the mental health benefits, you can just watch Monty methodically raking over the wildflower patch in his orchard or potting on his loofahs.
If you are an incompetent gardener, all the deadheading, watering and tidying up can start to feel like outdoor housework. In contrast, lying on the sofa watching someone else expertly tend to living beauty really does provide “a green thought in a green shade” — that deep repose the poet Andrew Marvell found in a garden. The episode descriptions alone attest to just how pacifying the show is: “Monty prepares for spring colour and sows broad beans.” “Monty turns his attention to planting up his new bog garden.”
The BBC is making a big fuss about Gardeners’ World joining Instagram this month, though Monty’s fandom already extends worldwide. I’m not an Instagram fan but I suppose it will offer the opposite of doomscrolling: soothescrolling perhaps? Even my non-green thumb can manage that.
Miranda Green is the FT’s deputy opinion editor
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