This late spring weather, laughingly described as changeable, a typical weatherman’s understatement, is doing great things for the garden. Sun and rain switching places with gay abandon, (far too fast for me to keep up with the summer/winter clothes conundrum- should it be strappy top or thermal vest this morning?). But sun and rain is good for plants. If we can just hold off the frost all should be well bedded in for the summer. Ah the English summer, that one day of glorious sunshine when can you can drag out the deckchair (well you probably can, mine tragically rotted in the last waterlogged August), fire up the Barbie, pour the Pimms and relax back surveying the bounty of nature.
And this year I am particularly fired up on the gardening front as I was lucky enough to get to the Chelsea Flower Show. It was everything I had hoped, and then some. If you get a chance you must go. And I so fitted in, it was awash with women d’un certain age, like myself. This was a tremendous help as it was busy and the one thing you can say about the older person is we understand queuing. Standing in front of the little artisan gardens – I thought we would never get in close. ‘Just relax and weave’ advised my friend Jane, a veteran of Chelsea. But it was never a problem, manners triumphed. This was not a mosh pit. People looked, snapped their photos and fell back with grace and murmured apologies.
The gardens were of course magnificent. Blue, white and purple with accents of orange, in case you were wondering what the in-colours would be for this year. A cottage-y feel, a studied insouciance, a tumble of blooms – I love all that. One does leave Chelsea in a conflicted state of mind of course. Inspired and with a notebook full of Latin names and a panting desire to head straight to the garden centre, naturally, but nevertheless overwhelmed by a brooding sense of inadequacy. I love my garden but if it were a child it would have been taken into care years ago. I am indeed the Mommie Dearest of the plant kingdom. I lavish care and affection on it one weekend and then ignore it for weeks. If I get a better offer I am off, leaving the lawn unwatered and slugs at play in the borders. I spend time at the pub when I should be pruning and weeding. I buy books instead of mulch. But I will be better, I promise, I have seen the gardener’s grail. I know what a garden should look like. Give me £250,000 (reputedly the average price of a garden at Chelsea – some are in the millions) and a horny-handed son of the soil (ideally one with floppy hair and his own gardening show on prime time) and I too could grow artichokes.
Gardening is such an English past-time. I think we love an unequal struggle doomed to failure (why else do we persist in commemorating all those battles we lost). It has been thus for time immemorial, take a little glance inside The Edwardian Gardener’s Guide a little gem comprised of pamphlets printed for the keen horticulturalist of 1913, so many of the tips still pertinent today. Or look to Your Garden in Wartime a facsimile of CH Middleton’s sage advice to the allotment holders of the Second World War. His calm words and heartfelt advice resonates. The bombs may be falling but look to your turnips (so useful for that Woolton Pie). Keep Calm and Dig on for Victory.
There are serious historical studies on gardening too. Rifle through The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes. This is real history : tears, tragedy and triumph, with greenfly. Learn about the vicious rivalries between vegetable growers and the dastardly tricks employed to win that coveted rosette. Find facts about the introduction of our favourite garden statuary in Garden Gnomes : A History. Discover you are not alone in your passion for leylandii with a read of Hedge Britannia which lays bare the story behind the British obsession with hedges.
So for all you fellow enthusiasts who tear pages out of the gardening catalogue (you can affix them to your fridge with some handy gardening quote magnets) and spend hours planning your dream garden, plan on. And if you must go down the sculptural route, foreswear the expensive modern art, be British and buy a gnome.