So you've never felt middle-aged enough to try actual gardening. But recently, you've started thinking it might be nice to plant something between the bins and the car parking space .
Well, do your research, ask a qualified person. Find out what you're supposed to do first, otherwise you'll get it all wrong. And you must get it right, anything could happen if you don't get it right. It's complicated, really complicated.
Making plants grow is a rarified activity and the tricks of it are only known to a few. Find them out from someone who does it all right. It's difficult; plants are like weird pets. Dependent on you, but psychotically unreliable. Prone to illness and death however hard you try to tempt them to live.
Don't expect gardening to be easy, it's going to be a herculean struggle. It'll take hours and hours of really hard work every day, and far more knowledge and ability than you have. Don't expect any of it to make sense either. It's all different to anything you already know, it's got a special language and everything.
OK. I bet you feel more confident now. Especially as you weren't sure where to begin.
Wrenching my tongue from my cheek, I'll admit that helping other people with their gardening is not easy. I have been as guilty as anyone else of over-complicating the matter, trying to answer the question I'm given as honestly as I can, rather than hearing the need or the intention behind it. I can see that suspicious, thwarted look even now. Refusal and abandonment are not far behind.
Speaks the poor innocent~
"I got this fabulous clematis. I can plant it now can't I?"
"Of course, you can plant it any time so long as you water it a lot if it's hot. Oh, it's a sieboldiana, oh you don't often see them lasting well in gardens. I've lost a few I think they're tenderer than people say, or maybe it's about drainage, most things are, anyway the pruning on that one is also rather unclear, some say group 2 some say 3. I don't think it survives long without pruning hard but you shouldn't just hack it back like the viticellas. No, really it's not a good one to start with, better to try something else, there are lots of easier ones."
Poor innocent ~
The enquirer, a mere simple seeker after truth had not expected such confusion. Hesitating at the threshold, this must seem like the moment to turn back and shut the door on this only slightly tempting new hobby.
And yet the gardening world, including myself, is full of concern about persuading people to join in. New customers are needed for the industry, new ideas and new enthusiasts to pass it all on. We're anxious about our fractured relationship with nature. Gardening seems to offer a little reparative balm. Who doesn't want havens for wildlife and kindly, caring people making everything better and more beautiful.
I'm not as jaundiced as I could be, but my eyes have a yellowish glow. Some people like gardening, some don't, some come to like gardening. I'm not sure it can be forced or whipped up for long, though there are times when it seems more popular than others.
However there is no doubt that aligning it with a social activity works wonderfully well. All those community gardens with team work and a sense of purpose - they can be highly successful and productive. Ultimately though, for enthusiasts to continue, the flame needs to be lit and tended from within. I expect that's true of all real learning, it's the idea of drawing something out rather than ramming a foreign body home.
It's perfectly clear that most people are drawn to gardening in the later years, when they have the wit to choose the really nice things in life. Harassing children or young people to do it is absurd, though they should always be politely helped if they insist. It's the same as anything else, if young people see proper adults enjoying it they may eventually choose it too when they're ready.
The song of the day is "If You Gotta Go, Go Now". It's not perhaps much appreciated now, seeming a bit pat, perhaps rather arrogant or even unkind. But it is the first Dylan song that made an impact on me, and it may not even have been his version that I first heard - I loved it but I didn't know it was his. I'm convinced it was a cover by The Incredible String Band but I may be wrong about that, cannot track it down anyway. So perhaps it was Fairport Convention, who sang it in a sprightly and winning way but in French. I don't think that would have got through to me. A swirling fog descends. I can't believe it was the Manfred Mann version, which is rather smooth. Let's opt for the Bootleg Series volumes 1 - 3 version for the moment.
Here's what I heard in the song. And still hear, though much more dimly. I was young, utterly puzzled by the world and what it wanted from me, or me from it, ready to believe anything, however unlikely. My own good judgement seemed the most useless of tools, my femaleness seemed to distort and confuse every interaction. Waiting to see what happened was often my first and only recourse.
So this song was a revelation. One person tells a second person that although he or she would like to have sex with that person, he or she is not willing to spend a lot of time working their way round to it but would like a decision immediately. If the second person decides against it the first person would prefer them to leave straight away.
I didn't hear the put-down in the jokiness, though others told me it was there, coercive manipulation in another guise. Even the singer wonders if he might be misinterpreted as disrespectful. There is an undeniable element of cuteness, though it's aimed at the admiring listener rather than the "you" of the song.
For myself, I heard a sensible person, putting things in perspective and telling me that it was ok to think rationally, even in this fraught world of desire. The self-interested agenda, the sleeping timetable, the turning out of lights and the shutting of doors - all that made it quite clear, the protagonist wants what he wants, he doesn't want to be messed about, he's not willing to make too much effort. The cards are on the table, over to you. What do you want?
It's a wonderful thing when you can recognise and exercise freedom. Sometimes it's there in front of you and you can't see it, conjuring constraints out of nowhere. I was in that position, and this song opened up possibilities of choice and transaction in sexual relations that had been hidden from me, under some mysterious web of otherness. Good heavens, we were human, both male and female. My choices could be my own like his were his. I could relax and think about my own legitimate needs and wishes.
I'm not saying I suddenly became sensible, it took me years and I'm not sensible yet. I'm just pointing out that this was an inclusive view of the world and the value of autonomy and freedom. It was essentially helpful, warm and light. And not to be found in any other song that I had ever heard, most being smeared over with a thick romantic grease.
So now, brandishing this little jewel of personal agency and entitlement to choice, let's return to gardening and consider how it can work there.
My unpleasant homily at the top of this piece summarises much of the baggage that lies behind the passing on of knowledge about gardening. The learner looks like an incapable dim-wit faced with a world of impossibly complex knowledge and experience. Choosing anything from this position would not be possible. He or she is waiting to be told what's best. Confidence to take the steps forward, to step inside a new world, that's what's needed. Confidence in the self that is, not in the impressive knowledge of the teacher.
For the teacher feels equally outfaced, appalled by the distance there is to cover and the responsibility for covering it. There's so much to pass on and everything's built on a rickety pile of other stuff. Everywhere you look rules are being broken, or proven. So you try and simplify by selecting, hardening and passing on the ones that seem to you to work. You're imposing your own choices, you didn't mean to, but you've parasitized the will of the learner, and that's the only thing they ever had to guide them through, into the heart of the garden.
As for that clematis sieboldiana (sometimes florida sieboldii) of the earlier conversation with the poor innocent, here's a rather blurry picture of one that lasted two years when I planted it in someone's front garden.
It is beautiful but dwindled beneath the trachelospermum - the evergreen climber with little white flowers, and I don't know if the owner ever pruned it. Anyway, I think I should have answered the question posed about when to plant it and then held my tongue. If people want to know more, they ask. Until they ask they often cannot hear or make sense of the response. And, let's face it, I didn't really know the answers to the questions I made up for them to think about.
Here are some good rules for the interested new gardener:
There are lots of different ways of doing things in a garden. Be open-minded.
Most plants are easy to grow and want to live but some will die. Don't reproach yourself.
There's a lot of unnecessary activity which people do because they like it. Be sceptical.
Take charge. Your own will, hands and brain are your essential tools and they're at your service.
I could have said be ruthless and persistent too. Those help. And you should indulge your innate love of pattern and order. Do not underestimate the value of tidying up. It's exactly like the inside of your house from that point of view. Your garden will look better if you pick up every bit of plastic and remove all the actual rubbish. Start just with the tidying, ideas and thoughts will come. You'll know how to find things out if you want to. You're perfectly capable of going to a garden centre, picking out some plants and planting them. Observe plants closely, the more you look, the more you'll see. If they die, take an interest. It's more information, not a cause to rend your garments.
Christopher Lloyd had a harsh little rule of his own. He would not satisfy the curiosity of garden visitors who requested plant names unless they had pen and paper and physically wrote them down in front of him. This was his way of conveying that they were responsible for their own learning and that they had to take ownership. I thought it a bit ungenerous at the time but, thinking about it now, I see his reasoning. A gardener who does not take responsibility for his or her own development will not develop. No-one else can do it for you.
I'm sorry when I hear people decrying their own efforts and getting disheartened about what they see as failures, sadly and hopelessly searching for solutions . For this we can blame an entire gardening industry which is invested in telling us that there's a proper way to do things and that if you do it right, it will work. If it doesn't work, it's your fault. Nonsense, there are all sorts of options, within certain basic requirements, and no-one can control everything. Unless, that is, you grow your plants under scientifically managed conditions - and that would not be a garden at all.
When an activity is a recipe for self-reproach, enthusiasm dies. It would be helpful if there was greater honesty about how many plants die for us all and less finicking about with prescriptive details. People need more frankness and neutrality about the range of choices and methods available. No gardener can do everything. Reducing effort and enjoying what you choose to do is as important as all those counsels of perfection. We garden for ourselves, not because we're forced to, so we have to choose the way we like best.
Working out what's worth your time, how much you're going to shell out in effort and money, what you want in terms of rewards all sounds so unromantic and mercenary, but it's the stuff of life. You need to find out what you need to know, amass your resources, direct your own learning and take charge of what you choose to do. That's our link with the song, which said the same thing about a very different subject.
Gardening should be seen as essentially a morally neutral activity, a choice taken in freedom. It should be embraced as a chance to impose your own will on whatever little bit of the world you're able to get your hands on. That's the point of it. Step inside, enter the arena and be the gardener.
Still and all, if you're going to do it, wear those nitrile gloves. Damaged hands will hurt and make you miserable. Like the activity in the song it's supposed to be fun you know.