The beauty of it all
'Marechal Niel' rose. PHOTOGRAPH: PETER BEALES ROSES
Crimson flowered broad bean, painted by artist Sonia Caldwell
Coming from a long and mongrel line of gardeners, there's great pleasure in knowing I'm following in the muddy footprints of others
I can’t remember exactly when I first became a gardener but I know that it was some time in my early childhood, soon after I sowed a handful of seeds from which some nasturtium flowers quickly grew – an eruption of leaves and fiery orange flowers that seemed to me both astonishing and miraculous.
Now, decades later, I feel much the same way. Gardening, I reckon, is the closest thing to magic, the grown-up equivalent of uttering a string of powerful incantations, of casting a spell and waving a magic wand.
How remarkable, for example, that something as tiny as an acorn can conjure up the mighty oak, or that a cutting taken from a parent plant has the power and the survival instinct to produce its very own root system.
How truly extraordinary that the miniature seeds of the foxglove, each weighing as little as half a milligramme, succeed in retaining their viability for so many years, or that the function of those tiny green markings on the inner tepals of the snowdrop is to act as the botanical equivalent of an airport’s landing strip, successfully directing pollinating insects towards the sweet reward of its nectaries.
Each spring I watch, with a kind of reverence, as the first flowering bulbs push their snouts above the ground, witchhazels unfurl their ragged blossoms, hellebore flowers as elegant as any ballgown open their petals and leaf buds begin to break from bare branches. Face-to-face with the evidence of nature’s remarkable regenerative power, surrounded by so much new life, it’s hard not to feel a kind of joy.
There’s great pleasure, too, in the knowledge that, coming from a long and mongrel line of gardeners, I’m following in the muddy footprints of others. My maternal grandfather, for example, was a fanatical tomato-grower and cultivator of sweet peas, so intent on keeping his tidy town plot free of the bindweed that engulfed a neighbouring garden that he laboriously buried heavy sheets of corrugated iron six-feet deep in the ground in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the plant’s wayward root system in its tracks.
His great-grandmother (my great-great-great-grandmother) was, I recently discovered, equally devoted. Given a copy of a century-old family diary, I was intrigued and moved to read that “gardening was her greatest hobby. No matter how cold or warm the weather seemed, she always enjoyed being amongst her shrubs and flowers.”