‘Gardening’ by Joan Angus

Some of my ancestors were yeoman farmers in the 17th century. They spent their lives working on the land in harmony with the seasons, using mainly hand tools: ploughing and sowing, marling and mowing, gathering the harvest and keeping their animals. This was a symbiotic relationship, including their neighbours, with whom they shared the work and the produce, bartering help with the haymaking for a day’s hedging and ditching, or a fat pig. Their food was all home-produced; there were mills to grind their corn for bread baked in their ovens, heated with fuel from their hedges. The ale they drank was of their own brewing, and the meat from their own animals, fed on their own produce. The manure went back onto the fields. Nothing was wasted. Their house was built with local materials from the land; timber for the frame, wattle and daub walls, straw for the thatch. The house is still standing, and is inhabited by people with a completely different lifestyle.

As I write these words, I feel a connection with these ancestors and their simple but laborious lives. I have always felt a part of the natural world and its seasonal processes. From early childhood I have memories of gardens. When we visited my grandparents I would accompany my father and grandfather round the garden as they discussed the progress of the herbaceous border, and the latest crop of a new variety of cabbages. I learnt the Latin names of plants, which I thought were more romantic than the common names: Monarda didymaSenecio clivorumSedum spectabile and Echinacea purpurea.

  Echinacea Purpurea

My father’s garden was my haven when I needed to escape from the domestic activities indoors. I would wander around closely examining the flowers, seeds, buds and their structure, and watching the bumble bees gathering nectar and covering themselves with powdery pollen. I monitored the seedlings growing into edible crops, and sampled the sweetness of the first peas before they were ready to pick. My little hands explored the different textures of leaves and stems, and felt the strong muscles of the worm as he struggled to be free. When I really didn’t want to be found for a while, I would hide in the shrubbery, crouching amongst the smell of rich soil and rotting leaves, the scent of the flowers and the rustling of the blackbird foraging for his next meal.

Monarda Didyma

When my Great Aunt died she left me her garden tools, and I was ready to start a garden of my own. They were old tools with wooden handles worn smooth by previous gardeners’ hands. The blades were made shiny and sharp by many years of piercing the earth and turning it over ready for new planting. The handles were springy and my garden soil yielded to the blade’s experience, connecting my hands and arms with the living earth, with the gardeners who had handled them before me, and with my ancestors. The tools were stored carefully in a brand new shed, which quickly became home for spiders and woodlice and the occasional butterfly. The soil I brought in on my feet became dust on the floor, and the bench was filled with seedlings waiting to be planted out.

Cultivating neglected ground is hard physical work, and sometimes emotionally challenging as the weeds come back in a newly dug patch of ground. ‘One year’s seeds is seven years’ weeds’ my Granny used to tell me. It’s true! And the bindweed comes back too, that pretty little white trumpet I used to pop out of its socket as a child has a different significance now. But digging is good exercise and a way of clearing the mind of busy, stressful thoughts, burying them deep in the ground with the compost. And at the end of the day there’s nothing more satisfying than straightening the back, and standing with a cool drink to survey the newly dug plot, planning the year’s crops and where to plant them. And later on, the rewards of tasting the new potatoes, freshly dug; the green beans of summer, picked when they are tender and juicy; the tomatoes still warm with the sun, and a completely different taste to shop bought tomatoes; this is the ultimate luxury, knowing that what you are eating is free from anything unnatural, and straight from the earth you know, brimming with energy from the sun and the rain.

Sedum Spectabile

Gardening completely distracts me from unwanted thoughts and feelings. The energy flows from the earth, soothing and healing the mind and spirit, as well as the body. The sun and the rain nurture us as well as the plants. This is where I feel most at home. I identify with the seasonal processes: Spring is an awakening of the senses after the dark days of winter, a time for birthing new projects in my life, as well as in the garden. The soil is a joy to dig over after the frosts have broken it down into friable compost, ready for the first sowings. Summer is the time for pottering round the flowerbeds, pinching out and dead heading, maintaining the vegetable garden, communicating with my friends and checking on their health and welfare, and sitting to relax, delighting in the beauty and peace. Autumn is for harvesting, celebrating the fruits of one’s labours, tidying up, and looking back on the year’s finished projects, composting the unwanted material: fallen leaves, prunings and kitchen leftovers. Compost symbolises for me all the stuff in my old life, which I no longer need, things from my past, which drag me down, interfering with new dreams and schemes. They are old fears and belief systems, old relationships and possessions, old habits and baggage. I release all that into the compost heap as I fill it, regretting nothing. It is valuable experience and without it I would not be here as I am now. But this stuff needs to be processed, broken down and transformed into earthy nourishment for the germination of new seeds: dreams and schemes that are waiting to be born. Winter is the period when the earth processes the rotting debris and gathers itself together for a new season of growth, as we come indoors and keep ourselves warm, reflecting on the year’s achievements and planning new projects. The Great Wheel of the seasons turns.