WWhen novelists feel passion, we write: we can’t help it. Five years ago, I was so in love with my first garden that I wrote a book about it. Rhapsody in green it’s a love letter to growing something, anything: from a messy geranium on a balcony to a small city garden filled, like mine, with a frankly ridiculous amount of edible plants. Despite the moments of lyricism, that book is primarily a confession of obsessive passion and the dangers of ineptitude; a hymn to the beauty of green and the pleasures of greed; and a testament to the relentless joy my urban jungle laughter gave me, even though I don’t have any horticultural pedigree nor do I have many clues.
I described how I force-fed my six square meters of nutrient-contaminated soil while craving compost; boycotted famous garden writers because of their gardens; I stole broken trellis from containers for my climbing beans; I tended my compost bins, plural, like newborn babies; he fantasized about ponds and blackberries; bought, after enormous deliberation and research, a terrible and cold frame. I became the New Yorker Gardening Correspondent; I even made it to number 139 on the adjudication waiting list.
It was folie-à-deux, possibly codependency, but my garden and I were happy. As with any all-consuming love, I couldn’t imagine a life without it.
Then everything changed. Life events, divorce, family illnesses make the past unrecognizable. Every loss brings shame. In my gardening column I talked about planting and harvesting but, painfully, I moved to a furnished apartment at the end of the street with room for my teens and my books; but a kitchen without light, without a garden and two narrow and shady balconies. Hercules, our beloved black cat, pulled the pigeons from the back of the velvet sofa. The movers had put nine pots in the cab of their truck. Feed my reclaimed black currant and increasingly bonsai quince, tea leaves and mud from my shoes, like a besieged Leningrad housewife. That winter lasted two years.
Thawing is painful. I began to ache from the amount of strange edible plants that still grew in my garden lost for a decade; generations of guinea pig poop forking on the ground; black gold going sour in compost bins; the greenhouse that my son had built with stones and a plastic bag. I looked for a little brick house with a modest garden; a miniature of my old home. But this was London and I could only afford an apartment, with a bare rooftop and metal stairs to a dark rectangle of ivy and brambles at the end of the ground-floor tenant’s garden, within view of his Bible study group. I kept hunting.
And then many north-facing AstroTurfed abominations later, I had a revelation. The rooftop terrace could be my herb garden outside of the kitchen and the downstairs maelstrom my home lot.
This time, the friendly movers couldn’t stop smiling. Before buying a table or a sofa, I was pulling ivy with the wrong footwear; cutting the only vertical plant, a huge yucca, with a Woolworths junior saw. By January 2020, the ground was clear. Beneath that juicy ivy was a thirty-by-twenty-foot garden partially paved.
There was only one problem. I would proudly show visitors my 0.0111197 rolling acres. The surviving pots were on the roof terrace, like the promise of a garden, but when my friends peeked out from the balcony, their faces fell. It was Passchendaele out there; a frozen sea of mud, without the nourishing corpses.
It had a garden and it had no plants. I had given away my packets of seeds; it was too expensive to replace the white currants and ginger and rosemary that I had bought as romantic gifts for my first garden. February dawned; I found the lady below to be adorable, open-minded, and had planted three fruit trees against her knee-length picket fence, including, miraculously, a mulberry tree. The friends brought a Carolina allspice, a mysterious vine, raspberry sticks plucked from a famous guitarist. Hercules, rejuvenated, brought us a live mouse and, hours later, to our trembling thanks, a very pre-dead bird. I hung dirty garden clothes in the kitchen; filled an old zinc bath, our pool of despair; planned parties.
Then Covid hit.
As hard as it may have been, lonely, boring, painful, those with room to grow are the lucky ones. We can still obsess over every brave outbreak; collect leaves for leaf mold; sea buckthorn hedge dream. In the confinement, nature is a relief; the gardener’s gaze makes everything interesting. Whether it’s coveting new neighbors’ bean frames, collecting curiously twisted sticks, scampering around in socks to pick up oregano, or overthinking salad, sensory joys, deep pleasure psychologists call flow, keep us moving. I spent much of the first two confinements replanting wild strawberries; he learned that self-sufficiency is, without more land and time, impossible; I found that epigenetic trauma and national hoarding meant that I had to urgently replace all those seeds. Hercules died; later we got kitty brothers and a garden frog. My conker collection grew; our houseplants begged for some time alone.
And now, Those of us who can garden have new hopes. I’m noticing the first tender cherry blossom and squirrel-eaten bulbs pushing up buds, tiny jade-colored rosettes on my winter lemon thyme, the feeling that life is coming back. Flashes of green keep me going; a sniff of the aromatic catmint in my friend’s front garden, or checking out the crocuses emerging on the playground, are all that keep me from utter indolence. Every day I stand at my bedroom window, guiltily gazing at the bubble wrap and duct tape pots, trying to ignore the plants’ pleas for freedom as I wait for the frosts to pass. It’s a slaughter out there: I haven’t washed my seed trays, nor removed the rust from my tools, as my gardening magazines recommend; It’s all I can do not to run out, right now, in listless nightwear to plant even more kale.
But a year of confinement has made me a little wiser, a little. I learned about friendship, creativity, love and resilience, my great capacity for playfulness and never trusting a vet who says kittens are male. I still can’t prune or propagate, but I found that the churning, which I had thought the soil was coming out of, is closer to the algae laid on the ground – slow and complicated nutrition. Rereading Rhapsody In Green, I realize that, under the confinement, my frustrations, ignorance and prejudices speak to many more of us; We are all trying to grow parsley on our window sills and we are just as terrible at it. My garden may have changed, but my unexpected love for plants and the strength they have given me is stronger than ever. Everything I wrote, a passionate confession of enthusiasm and desire, is true in this, our new life, with my new garden.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism