Reflections on the gardening year 2020

As we approach the end of 2020, it seems quite hard to imagine what life was like before the Coronavirus pandemic.

I realise that readers in different parts of the world will have had different experiences, but here in the UK, the full lockdown and the closing down of normal life for several months, generated a strange sense of uneasy peace.

The frenetic, ‘always on’ life that many of us lived had been toned down, at least a bit. But there was always an underlying, and quite exhausting anxiety that continues to this day.

However, on the positive side, suddenly I had more time.

I was working just as hard and in a way (i.e.continual video and conference calls) that was more tiring. But by working at home I had three extra hours a day that would otherwise have been spent commuting.

So, that meant that I was able to spend more time with my kids, more time in the garden, and more time with my kids in the garden.

And whilst this did not mean that I was necessarily planting, re-planting, pruning and tending any more than I would normally have done. It did mean that I was able to observe the progress of the garden much more closely than usual from early spring to now.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, I was effectively starting a new garden this year and had created new borders which I had planted up for the first time. So, there was a real sense of curiosity and wonder as we waited to see what would emerge.

Obviously, I knew in a simple sense what would emerge. I had done the planting. But it is not until you see the grouping and combinations of plants, and you experience the effects of plants flowering at different times, that you get the true sense of the totality of what you have created.

And whilst I have always enjoyed that sense of anticipation that is at at the very heart of gardening, it feels as if this year it was richer or deeper or more pronounced somehow. So the garden’s impact on me was in some sense more significant this year.

In fact, it seems that this has probably been the case for many people.

Some, and a significant number as far as I can tell, have started gardening for the first time in 2020. These people have had the wonderful experience of their eyes being opened to the positive, nurturing effect that gardening can have, and when I think back to when I first started gardening, I can well imagine what it has been like for them.

I was actually pretty late to the garden party. I was in my early 40s and I’d barely stepped out into the patch of ground that happened to sit behind my house in London. Yet, when I suddenly got the urge to do something with the garden, a whole new world opened up to me.

I began looking closely at plants, flowers, trees shrubs, soil , leaves and I almost could not believe what I was seeing.

I recall distinctly seeing a passionflower for the first time, straggling over a railing near where I worked in the Isle of Dogs in London, and I was astonished to to see the complexity, the beauty and the symmetry of this simple passiflora caerulea (above) – and incredulous that such a wonder was growing in London.

I was quickly bitten by the exotic, tropical plant bug and filled my small south London garden with bamboos, tree ferns, palms, cannas, gingers and bananas (below). It was an incredible thrill to grow these stunning and, in those days, quite unusual, plants for the first time. So, I can well imagine how the new gardeners of 2020 have felt.

Many, of course will have been gardening with children and, although I am older hand at gardening now, I’m also an older dad with fairly young children (7 and 12), and connecting them more deeply to the garden this year has been a fantastic part of the experience.

They learned about soil, Iearned how to plant, and they found out about pruning and deadheading. But, above all, they began to see the beauty and the magic of plants and gardening, and that has been the really satisfying thing from my point of view.

For more seasoned gardeners, if my experience is anything to go by, this year has been a time to consolidate, to reflect and to refine our thinking in relation to our gardens. So, whilst I could write here about the parts of the garden that have worked well and those that haven’t and I could dwell on the plant successes and failures, in a sense, I think that this year none of that really matters.

What has counted is the solace and comfort that our gardens have given us. They have become our sacred spaces, where we can reflect upon our priorities and think carefully about what really does matter in our lives. In fact, I’ll finish with an example of exactly what I mean by that.

My seven year old daughter is very sporty, loves ball games and can smash a cricket ball around the garden like Ben Stokes. But, I now realise that once my new precious plants started growing this year, I started curtailing her activities a little bit – asking her not to hit the ball over in that direction and suggesting we play more gentle games instead.

But, something important came to me as I stared out of the window at the bare borders and sodden lawn this week, thinking about next year’s planting plans. I realised that however much I love the garden and the plants, it’s much more important in these precious young years of my daughter’s life, for her to enjoy the garden as fully as she can.

So next year I’m going to change the planting a bit, include some tougher plants and change my attitude as well, so that the garden works for the whole family, the whole of the time.

Passionflower Image: original uploader was Frankd at English Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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