These have been very peculiar months in all sorts of ways – the strangest times of my life. I do not like lockdown – for me it has, in essence been like a long holiday in a relaxed prison camp, but I can’t complain, having virtually no responsibilities and benefitting from Netflix, a large library and Mr F’s excellent cooking.
I think, though, that I have been particularly lucky to have a garden, and to live beside the beach. Yes, of course Portobello Promenade has been crammed with joggers and cyclists and lots of silly behaviours but it is a great thing to smell the sea every day and we shouldn’t grudge those for whom that is a rarer treat. And the benefits of a garden have been so great in recent weeks that I almost feel guilty for having one. And all this extra time – time which, before, I would have spent doing God knows what, though I miss the measuring of my life in coffee spoons – has meant more time to garden and more time to stand, dazed, looking at the garden.
Like many people I enjoy gardening but I am not a gardener. A gardener knows what they are doing. When I was a boy we had a large garden and a gardener came twice a week. This was not as grand as it sounds – the Malt Products factory in Kirkliston where my father advanced through the ranks from lab assistant to become manager had, amongst many oddities [its own tennis club, for instance] some formal flower beds and a little market garden. And employment being as munificent as it was in the 60’s, this necessitated a full time gardener. We lived in a tied house – the Manager’s House – and the gardener, having too little to do at the factory, had our garden as part of his employ – as did the joiner, the plumber, the painter and the electrician. He arrived, taciturn and rather soily, twice a week bearing soft fruit and rhubarb and eggs, for they also kept chickens at the factory. Our garden was lovely, but his presence meant that none of us did any gardening ever. All I remember is trapping bees inside snapdragons then watching them angrily fly off, and putting blown roses into an old teapot and trying to make perfume (this is not how you make perfume.)
So when I came to live in a house with a garden in Joppa, 33 years ago, I didn’t have a clue and I don’t have much of one now. I come from a school of thinking which believes that, if you visit Dobbies often enough, and buy enough plants, some of them will survive. I love a garden centre and always buy something. And so my garden lives and dies, mainly dies. Delicate little alpines die gracefully in front of my eyes, dried out or in too much shade. Every year a big buxom plant throbbing with green health (£12.99) will flower gloriously then just slowly disappear behind the big poppy or the vast wallflower which, inevitably I have planted it too close too; I will discover its corpse in the autumn. Roses grow skeletal and succumb to wind and sand and salt. This summer my berberis – bought 20 years ago when Next ran a short-lived gardening mail order concern – just never woke up, but actually, I never liked it much anyway, spiky, brown thing.
Gardening is a unique pleasure, combining as it does science and aesthetics and general knowledge, as well as the pride inherent in cutting one’s own flowers and sticking them in a vase. Almost nothing during lockdown has given me greater pleasure than flower-arranging, as I complete my journey towards being a truly cliched old poof.
Real gardeners should look away now.
Having said all this I am now going to advance ‘Cameron’s Helpful Tips for the Easy Garden’ for you to adopt, disregard or positively laugh at.
Firstly, water water water, feed feed feed, compost compost compost. In our household this latter falls to Mr F, who takes the tending of the compost bin very seriously indeed and who, by dint of this effort, is able, every late March, to dig me out a vast quantity of beautifully smelling wholesome compost which helps to compensate for the soil in my garden, which is curiously both claggy and very very dry, and salty, and sandy. His composting skills are abetted by some very fine worms, a gift from God, well, from the Right Reverend Richard Fraser, the minister of Greyfriars Kirk. Richard takes his worms seriously. There is a sermon in them somewhere, no doubt.
Secondly, if you can find the time to do the necessary watering, keep a lot of things in pots and move them around the garden to brighten up darker spaces. When they begin to droop they can be revived by restoring them to a position they like better. If you put something in the ground and it doesn’t work dig it back up and put in it a big pot where you can nurture it. It may die but hey.
Thirdly, I have never ever regretted cutting something back or, if I don’t like it removing it completely. This means that things on the ground get more light.
And now the rain has abated, I am going to deadhead the flowers in the front garden. This is a tiny space crammed with stuff and people comment on it and sometimes indeed steal from it, which is, I suppose a sort of compliment. That said if anyone local spots a Cordyline Jersey Girl in a nice big blue pot in the garden of a big strong man or woman, please tell me.
Last week, an elderly couple, possibly German, were looking at the flowers when I went out the door. They commented on the garden, and I responded by saying it was only little.
‘A little garden, but a big heart,’ the old man said.
How I glowed – something to hold against the heart through these last long days of lockdown. Someday, maybe I will be a gardener.