Normally, being introverted, I cringe when someone asks, “What did you do this weekend?”
It’s difficult to come up with something cool, social, or interesting to the extroverted masses. You can only say “reading, resting, nothing” so many times before people start to frown at the tedium of your wasted life.
However, today, I would like everyone in the world to ask me what I did this weekend. On second thought, that will take a while, so I’ll presume one of you asked, so I can write about it here.
This weekend, I messed around in rotting garbage, climbed in and out of windows, and got obscenely dirty.
I’m talking, of course, of my favorite hobby: GARDENING! I set up our garden(s) for the season. It was glorious.
It was so rejuvenating and relaxing, I feel refreshed. My spirit has been cleansed—the way some people get when they go to the spa and take a mud bath. I essentially took a mud bath when I was up to my elbows in the compost, so perhaps there’s something to it.
Now it’s Monday AM, and I sit down to write my piece for this week—something about the fog of memory and the tricks it plays—and I’m struggling. I blame the glorious April sun streaming into the dining room and warming my happy, lush geraniums.
These aren’t just any geraniums. They are five plants all cut from one parent and potted in my otherwise idle transferware and ironstone collection. Aren’t they lovely?
Geraniums have personality: they are dormant in winter, they climb eagerly if you stake them, and when over-watered their leaves expand to take sun and increase transpiration. They grow nubs from anywhere on the primary stem, and you can produce endless cuttings from one plant. Utility and beauty in one.
So here I am, cogitating, distracted by geraniums, and it occurs to me I want to write about gardening. Not a “how to” but rather a “why.”
Gardening is my hobby. Hobbies are the things that bring pleasure when you need it.
Hobbies are the things that remain when you strip away relationships, family, profession, finances. (Which is why I never understood expensive hobbies.) They love us unconditionally, and we love them back.
Gardening is my hobby. It’s not just a simple, dawdling pastime. Of all the positive aphorisms associated with gardening—thoughtful, nurturing, cultivating the aesthetic, even creating art— these are present, but not collectively everything.
Gardening is an obsession with tinkering. With fussing. To pick, to form, to cut, to perfect. A love of working hard and getting dirty. It befits the moral values that I picked up from my highly Protestant ancestors, who spread their seeds and dropped their roots in the Midwest where I was raised.
Thus, when we moved here, I agreed to live in London proper to ease my husband’s commute, but said, “Let’s try to find a place with outdoor space.” Although my word choice might have been more like “Only if we can find a place with outdoor space, or I’m not coming.” Words mean pittance in our marriage.
Regardless, we were extremely fortunate in that endeavor. Well, somewhat fortunate. Sort of.
The space we rent is divided into five “areas”—balconies off our windows, all extremely small and pokey, and only one in which you can find room to touch your toes. I call it “Gardening across multiple fronts.” But no bother. Gardening is tinkering, problem-solving, and creating—logistical headache just adds to the challenge.
We moved in, ordered furniture, and set up, and at this point gardening started to change my life. It loved me when it felt like nothing else did.
When we arrived, I had just finished hiking the AT and was still dealing with the post-Trail depression. I was unemployed, and my husband began his 70+-hour work week. We had no friends, no family here. I felt lost, isolated, and very depressed.
I took to gardening. I’ve always loved it but never felt it needed me to this extent. Our limited space was a catastrophe. Rusty window boxes, cracked wood planters, and buckets of poorly suited heather that looked like potpourri. The soil was dry and poor. There was no watering system, no compost, no terracotta pots, no tools—not even a watering can. The whole scene cried out in ugliness and abuse.
It set me on a path that diverted me from my job search, fulfilled me with love and accomplishment, and ultimately led me to writing full time.
I didn’t plan it, I just knew the garden needed me. And I responded. First things first: soil. And lots of it. Feathering the nest, as it were, or filling the pots.
My compost is a thing of beauty, I should enter contests. I bought a large rubbish bin with aerating holes and a pitchfork at a local hardware store and hauled it up to the flat. Needing a place where it was contained and accessible, I set it outside our bathroom window, so I can add to it without going outside. When it needs stirring, I crawl out the window and give it my best.
In the meantime, kitchen scraps, plant cuttings, tea bags, cat hair—all in the bin. Christmas time brings a good haul. If the people at Fortnum’s knew their lovely wood shredding was destined for fine Kensington compost, they’d nod approvingly. I turn it regularly to send all those lovely, eager microbes on their way through the shredded Financial Times papers and Amazon boxes.
With soil on the ready, and having ordered fine tools (from Amazon), the next item was structure.
I use “structure” to mean 3D design of gardening space (which includes height, depth, and breadth) and the relationship of plant to container and to the surrounding space. It goes hand in hand with plant types, of course, but primary importance is functionality, juxtaposition, and variety.
I emptied and tossed the rusted boxes. Gathered rocks, sorted the soil, and bought new, clean terracotta pots. I dragged planters I couldn’t dispose of to improve the space and circulation. I built willow stakes, removed nails, replaced hinges, and painted garden furniture.
The stage set, morally nurturing and back-breaking work complete, my soil, pots, and I were ready for our plants.
It is intoxicatingly easy to buy turnkey plants. These plants abound in London—rows and rows of pansies, primroses, and primulas for lazy individuals who want routine gardens. I love the utility of plants, I just don’t like plants that are so utilitarian.
I have no time for efficiency. Why buy something easy? Where is the tinkering in that?
I decided to try a mix of seeds, buying some small-growth climbers, and investing in a few plants that would be beautiful in two to three years, like jasmine, clematis, and a lovely skimmia bush I bought at Kew Gardens, which they cultivate in their Sussex gardens, Wakehurst.
Color is critical. My mother pulled me into gardening, but Gertrude Jekyll taught me aesthetics. I owe it to her vision to be obsessively preoccupied with color. Obviously, I choose purple as my main, white as background, and orange as a nice little exclamation point, as well as ornamental grass and shrubs for texture.
My husband and I made several trips to Rassells, a fairyland nursery of seasonal plantings, pots, soil, and, in December, Christmas trees. We carried bag after bag home through Holland Park. My husband and his biceps attacked the Sherpa role with vigor and aplomb. Someone should write a book on those special souls who marry gardeners, they really should.
Before long, lined up in our hallway, was our dining room table’s weight in green mass. Bags and bags of sweet little blooms ready to be suitably homed.
The actual planting took weeks; unfortunately, my garden revamp outpaced the soil production. A few plants died immediately or needed to be moved; other things like seeds and bulbs had to be stored. But most things got put in their place, and my husband and I managed a few end–Indian Summer days on our roofdeck before the light and temperature dropped and I had to trim, mulch, cover, and prepare for winter.
By the first spring, the garden was somewhat routinized, but that hardly meant work was finished. I planted annuals by seed in January, warming them in our laundry closet and putting them under the LED I use to read. They sprang up nicely. Compost was degrading, bulbs were livening, and slugs were kept at bay by homemade beer traps.
The second summer was much more successful: The jasmine and climbing roses had taken root and were filling in so nicely. Ivy, meanwhile, was reaching down to the ground. I experimented with nasturtium, poppies, and some lovely alliums I purchased at the Chelsea Flower Show. And, of course, we had Teddy Roosevelt, clematis, at this point. He brings much needed leadership.
Things change, plants die, bugs arrive, rain and wind—or lack thereof—interfere. I cut, fertilize, season, trim, plant, replant, weed, and stake, all while climbing in and out of windows and carrying pitchers of water and buckets of fresh mud up and down our stairs.
I just removed and stored our early daffy bulbs and potted and covered six large containers to grow my favorite herbs. Can one ever have enough cilantro? We shall see.
And I continue to cut and divide my geranium—I realize I’ll need more transferware soon. As it grows, I feel warm pressure against my ribs. Pride.
I always knew I would become a writer and until now, I’d attributed relocating to London as what forced the decision.
The truth is, writing sprang out of me when I started to feel more positive about myself and my surroundings. It just happened naturally. Anyone who creates art for a living knows it isn’t about the medium or the products. It is about self. How do I accept myself as a writer, what is the nature of myself as a creator, and most of all, how do I rely on myself—and myself alone—for success?
Gardening, like any true hobby, kept me focused, useful, and active and brought me to a place where I could listen to myself and my needs. And it only asks me to, occasionally, climb in and out of windows, to play with garbage and get dirty. It is a form of unconditional love, certainly.
Hobbies shouldn’t just be the discussion of Monday morning water-cooler conversations—hypocritical given this entire post, I know. They should provide nurturing, love, and fulfillment, especially when times are tough. Do your hobbies love you? Do you love them back?
Mine didn’t. Then did. And now, still does. (I won’t lie, I did call in some help, though. I can’t do it full time.)
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