It’s February and my husband and I move into our new house in Norwich, where we moved eighteen months ago from London seeking slower, wider skies. Before the paint’s dry or the boxes unpacked we’re out in the garden. We’ve longed for a patch of green to call our own for years.
Neighbours tell us the lady who used to live here was garden proud, always pottering about with a watering can. She died last summer but as soon as we move in we see what she left behind. Crocuses, undaunted in their regal, purple push through the late snow to shoo winter off. The heather blooms, then the camellia starts to burst with the promise of scarlet flowers and little shoots begin on two tenacious roses. The lawn is a glorious mass of moss and dandelions. I imagine lying on it in the summer, listening for the happy buzz of bees on the tomatoes we’ll plant in bags against a sunny wall.
We buy birdseed by the kilo and set up feeders. Soon we’re rewarded with a pair of collared doves nesting in the birch trees; the sight of gleaming, speckled starlings pottering on the lawn and a pair of blue tits nestled in a lichen covered rose bush. We get a bird identification book and our fourteen month old daughter makes a cheeping motion with her chubby hand whenever she hears bird song.
The long, fickle month of March sees me cover the mess of boxes in the conservatory with propagation trays. I tear open the seed packets; lupins, hollyhocks, feverfew and forget me nots, and I press tiny specks into the compost. I keep them damp and out of the way of my daughter’s fascinated grasp and watch for signs of germination; that common, ordinary magic I can’t get enough of.
On a fine day we set up the crucible for a different, even more mysterious kind of magic; our compost bin. The best place for it is in the deep shade at the front of the house but most gardens have them hidden away at the back in a dark, dank corner. I worry about having it in view of people walking past on the street. Will people think it’s odd? Will they be disgusted? But then I think: Why should anyone be disgusted at seeing evidence of one of Earth’s most magical transformations, from death to life? Why should potato peelings and banana skins and worms be any less beautiful to look at than a daffodil?
Still, we plant a cherry tree and a magnolia in front of the bin, on the corner where everyone can admire them. The flowers are so generous with the promise of their buds and the decadent shower of their blossom, it seems only right to share. I realise that although it’s my name on the deed, nothing in this garden is truly mine.
By April I’ve learnt more about the invisible conductor bringing the whole orchestra of leaves and flowers and fruits to a crescendo and the way a garden makes time warp. There’s the hours it takes for a sunflower to revolve its head; the days spent waiting for seedlings to wriggle into the light; the months of the summer it takes to grow beans and the years you commit to when you plant a tree. When you work in your garden you hold all these times in your muddy hands at once with a placid patience. You start off thinking you are the conductor of your garden symphony and then you realise you are, at best, the stage sweeper.
So I hopefully water the marigold and chive seeds. I check every day on the two inch honeysuckle plugs I’ve planted, as if they might have grown into a woozily fragrant bush buzzing with drunken bees overnight. As the light changes I celebrate each new leaf and I come to accept that my garden is not growing on any timetable of mine.
The sun awakens the soil and all sorts of wild seedlings pop up. Some call them weeds and recommend a hoe or a spray to keep them away, but they cover the earth with such glee I can’t bear to pull them out. The word itself makes me feel uncomfortable; with its analogues in the human world of people who are out of place, misplaced, displaced. Who am I to say what is a plant’s place? A garden is a self-willed, wild thing that slyly lets you believe you’re in charge. So I promise these little shoots that I’ll step outside the tidy-messy binary and welcome whoever turns up.
And the thing is, they are such insignificant things to contribute; these birdfeeders and composting and the cheery weeds. Our garden is just a speck of land on a small, denuded island. But then I read that gardens of the UK are estimated to cover an area one fifth the size of Wales, which adds up to a greater area than that protected in nature reserves. Imagine the scale of what we could achieve for wildness if we all cultivated a garden for nature, for the future, for the kind of place everyone can call home.
So we make plans for next summer, and the one after. A better composting bin, fruit trees, a pond. In the meantime, we dig and we plant and we watch for rain. And when we don’t know what to do, we do nothing. We leave the earth to be seeded by blackbirds and foxes and the neighbourhood cats; we leave the insects to go about their business and we start to rebel in the nearest, dearest, hardest place of all, our own back door.
Rym Kechacha is a writer and teacher living in Norwich. Her debut novel, Dark River, was published earlier this year by Unsung Stories. Set between mesolithic Doggerland and a near-future UK, Dark River is about motherhood, sacrifice and awe of the natural world.
- Plant a tree. The best time is twenty years ago, the next best time is now.
- Leave a mess. Let go. See what lives and grows. You’re not in charge.
- Grow as many different kinds of plants as possible – polycultures are more resilient, build better soil and look gorgeous.
- Don’t buy peat based compost. Peat is a nonrenewable resource that is best kept in the ground where it can sequester carbon; other compost mixtures are just as good.