2020 was the year many people unearthed their love of gardening
The pandemic’s black cloud came with a silver lining: the joy of digging and planting
Who could have guessed that the simple act of plunging your hands into a bag of cool, damp seed compost could give you such a heady rush of endorphins? Photograph: iStock
Which words best sum up 2020? Strange? Exhausting? Heartbreaking? Surreal? Chaotic? All ring depressingly true. Yet if you’re one of the many who last year discovered a love of gardening, then the global pandemic is the giant black cloud that came with the most unexpected of silver linings.
Who could have guessed, for example, that the simple act of plunging your hands into a bag of cool, damp seed compost could give you such a heady rush of endorphins? That newly dug soil has the sweetest, most poignant, most life-affirming of smells? That watching a line of baby potato plants finally push their green shoots through the bare earth is infinitely more exciting than any episode of One Born Every Minute?
You, the person who once struggled to know which way up to plant a tree, has surprised yourself by becoming someone who now trawls the websites of specialist nurseries just for the sheer love of it. The realisation that Brexit might have an adverse effect on the availability of certain items (you’ve heard rumours of a possible shortage of seed potatoes) was enough to send you scurrying to place a slew of online orders months before you’d even contemplated starting your Christmas shopping.
You have recently developed the endearing habit (or at least you hope it’s endearing) of talking to your plants when no one else is in earshot
Not only has the last, tumultuous year taught you how to tell a spade from a shovel, you are now the proud owner of a Hori Hori knife (great for transplanting young plants or winkling out stubborn weeds); a proper secateurs (from a cult brand such as Felco, Niwaki or Okatsune); and one if not two ash-handled oscillating hoes (the 5-inch blade for general use, the 3.5-inch blade for those awkward, hard-to-reach spots). Your three-bay compost heap is a sweet-smelling thing of rugged beauty but, to speed the process up (one can never have enough compost), you’re now considering investing in a Hotbin (your neighbours have already promised you their food waste, kitchen scraps and old newspapers).
You can deadhead with aplomb, have (almost) mastered the art of propagation (thank God for electric propagators), spout Latin plant names with ease and have recently developed the endearing habit (or at least you hope it’s endearing) of talking to your plants when no one else is in earshot.
When you scroll through photos on your mobile phone, you can’t help noticing how many of them are now of your garden. The butterflies, bees and birds that visited it. Your favourite rose in flower. That first homegrown crop of carrots. The clematis you planted last spring, whose star-shaped violet blooms were one of the glories of late summer.
If you won the lottery tomorrow, the very first thing you’d buy would not be (a) a top marque sports car or (b) an exotic holiday to some faraway, Covid-free exotic island but (c) a state-of-the-art bespoke glasshouse from Alitex (the Rolls-Royce of glasshouses) with its very own rain-harvesting, heating and lighting systems and the kind of workbenches that are the stuff of gardeners’ Pinterest boards.
Plus perhaps (d) a cottage somewhere in southwest Cork (not for its landscape but for its wonderful growing climate) along with half a dozen supremely fertile, moisture-retentive but free-draining acres (the holy grail of soils from what you’ve read).
In the meantime you’re compiling a mental wishlist of some of the world’s greatest gardens – Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Longwood, Villa d’Este, Kirstenbosch, Chanticleer – that you plan to visit some day in the hopefully not-too-distant, Covid-free future.
You’ve also started sizing up the best spot in your garden/allotment for a polytunnel (you might have to relocate the patio) while coming to the intoxicating realisation that plant lust is a genuine “thing”. Who knew?
As for the lockdowns, the fact that the country’s garden centres aren’t considered “essential businesses” by the powers-that-be while its off-licences remain open both bewilders and enrages you, something that your non-gardening friends find utterly hilarious.
None of your non-gardening friends will ever remember the names of these plants, no matter how many times you tell them
Those same friends regard your freshly minted interest in gardening with a mixture of astonishment and affectionate bemusement; it is as if you have suddenly donned a top hat and begun pulling white rabbits out of it. Whenever they get the chance, they like to gently tease you about this. But you don’t mind. Instead you’ve started giving them gifts of young plants that you’ve propagated yourself. A hardy perennial geranium that originally came from your grandmother’s garden. A rhubarb plant whose plump, fleshy rhizomes you divided in late autumn during lockdown number two. A pot of baby basil plants to cosset indoors. A hydrangea bush grown from a slip, a foxglove that you found self-seeded in a path.
Some of these will die, the unfortunate victims of benign neglect. But others will flourish, the lucky survivors of benign neglect. None of your non-gardening friends will ever remember the names of these plants, no matter how many times you tell them. You already know this. But you don’t mind because they will always remember that they came from you, which is something that secretly fills your heart with joy and pride.
Many years from now, when younger generations ask you what it was like to live through this pandemic, you’ll tell them that it was strange. Exhausting. Heartbreaking. Surreal. Chaotic. But you’ll also tell them, smiling, that it was the year you discovered that you were a gardener.
This Week in the Garden...
January is one of the toughest of months for garden birds as supplies of food in the wild dwindle and temperatures start to regularly fall to below freezing. Help them to stay healthy and well-fed by regularly cleaning and restocking bird feeders/bird tables; suitably nutritious foods include bird seed, fresh peanuts (don’t use old supplies as these potentially pose a risk of disease), chopped apples, suet, fat blocks, finely chopped rasher rinds, grated cheese, oatmeal and raisins. A wide, shallow bowl of fresh water (stick a few stones in it for them to use as perches) will ensure a ready supply of drinking water while visiting birds will also happily use it as a birdbath.
Avoid potential disruptions to the supply chain caused by Brexit and the pandemic by ordering seeds online in the coming weeks. Recommended Irish suppliers include all good Irish garden centres along with specialist suppliers such as brownenvelopeseeds.com; greenvegetableseeds.com; irishseedsavers.ie; quickcrop.ie; mrmiddleton.com; seedaholic.com and shop.giy.ie