Originally published on TheGuardian.com, March 26, 2011
by Julie Myerson
I opened my eyes to gardening when I turned 39. More than a decade earlier we had moved into a terraced house with a lush, mature garden. I imagined that, like wallpaper, it would stay that way with little care or effort from me. It didn't – it grew wild and sad. Things died, weeds took over. Even then, with my frantic urban life and my tired urban heart, I barely noticed. I remember sitting with my babies on the brown lawn one summer's evening and asking my husband (who loathes gardening, but at least recognised a duty of care) if he really had to make so much noise with that watering can.
The change, when it came, was sudden and immense. Was it simply middle age? All I know is that one day I wasn't seeing, and the next day, it was all there. The magnolia with its huge creamy blossoms like birds in flight. The Michaelmas daisies, choked by convolvulus. The poor roses, leggy and parched and crying out for help. I got down on my hands and knees and scratched around in the soil, wondering what was weed and what was seedling – and realised that I knew nothing.
So I got myself a book. It happened to be Urban Jungle by Monty Don. Don is as gifted a writer as he is a gardener, and he took me straight back to the person I'd forgotten I once was: a kid who used to dig around at the bottom of the garden in her anorak. A girl who noticed the seasons, the calling of birds, the smell of sap on the air. Finding that person again has been one of the most intense and comforting experiences of the last few years.
The garden I tend now – once you're a proper gardener, it never feels like "ownership", more a joyful custodianship – is a unique and colourful space. We live next to an early Victorian church along from London's Elephant and Castle, and the patch of earth we call ours was once the graveyard. They assured us the bodies were all exhumed at the end of the 19th century, when the philanthropic rector created a "zoo" garden, complete with zebras and monkeys, to entertain the local children. The animals are long gone, but I'm not sure my garden's entirely empty of dead people. Our border collie was known to unearth an occasional femur-shaped bone. And 5in coffin nails regularly work their way to the surface of the (suspiciously fertile) soil.
People sometimes ask me if it feels creepy, gardening among the dead like that, but to me it's a benign and peaceful space. The church spire looms on one side as the estate's windows glitter on the other, and with the many trees – and yes, maybe all those souls under the earth – there's a stillness that can make you forget you're in the heart of the city.
I'm still not a very good gardener. I make it up, learning as I go along. I killed a camellia. I've had to apologise to plants that I've planted in the wrong place. And I've completely failed to grow garlic, radishes and onions. But I can do tomatoes, French beans, rocket, sorrel and (now) potatoes. Also, lupins, delphiniums, poppies and sweet peas.
But, given our position in the heart of the community, I've had to come to terms with some stranger crops, too. The ubiquitous bright blue plastic bags which are perpetually blown in on the wind. Crisp packets, fried chicken boxes, single discarded shoes. I used to mind, but I don't any more – I just pluck them along with the weeds. The other day, I found a stolen handbag under the ceanothus and was able to return it to its elderly owner. One hot Sunday morning last summer, I went to hang out the washing and found a loaded handgun nestling among the daisies.
Gardening has shaken me up and slowed me down. It's the only activity I can still do when I'm worried or angry or sad. Tending a garden is a meditative, humbling experience: you can't force anything, you just have to wait. And yet every time you put something in the ground, it feels like a pronouncement of faith in the future – or at least in the next few months.
Apart from bleakest December, when the garden's breath seems stopped, I garden in all weathers. I garden till my whole body hurts, until I know I should stop but I can't. Nothing makes me happier than kneeling down in the dirt with the soft spring sunshine on my back and weeding a bed by hand, watched over by my tabby cat and a friendly robin (she has promised not to eat him) and knowing that all around me, things are growing.
Favourite flower: Probably Verbena bonariensis – I love flowers that seem to float. But nothing beats picking your own sweet peas on a hot summer's morning.
Most successful crop: Potatoes. So easy, yet so solid, sustaining and somehow impressive.
Worst disaster: My first crop of runner beans yielded precisely nothing.