Matt Collins, Head Gardener at The Garden Museum and regular writer for TOAST Magazine, reflects on what we might learn from a garden during lockdown.
Two weeks after Britain entered its lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic I rang up fellow head gardener Joseph Atkin at Abserglasney Gardens in South Wales. I'd interviewed Joesph for an article last year, and wanted to hear how things now stood for him, the garden closed, some of its staff furloughed and long anticipated projects put on hold.
He was admirably resolute; the sun was shining and it's a brilliant spring', he told me. The circumstances had pulled him away from usual office admin and back into the borders, so there was that. But you know', he added, all of this has made me realise that a garden is a very different place without people.'
Finding myself in a similar position to Joseph, isolated in a garden ordinarily enlivened by visitors, volunteers and staff, I've thought often about our conversation, and that particular sentiment. As for anyone who has continued visiting the workplace during this period, the day-to-day experience has changed so dramatically that it sometimes feels like an entirely new appointment: reduced hours, alternative commute, so few social interactions. But the act of gardening itself is one of the great anchors in times of uncertainty, built on principles of familiarity and gentle distraction. People turn to gardening for reassurance like therapy, for the good it does to stick hands in the soil and, in harmony with the soil itself, facilitate new life (a concept explored in depth by author and psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith in her acclaimed new book The Well Gardened Mind).
And so while disruption has entered my occupational experience, the garden charges on: plants still need watering, weeds need weeding; pots need emptying and refilling. To some degree, therefore, I have continued as normal, only more quietly, perhaps more slowly, and very much alone. A garden without people without visitors I have concluded, is indeed a different place. A certain energy is missing. But a garden abandoned altogether would be the greater tragedy, not so much the arduous planning and planting of prior autumn and winter months going to waste, but for the life of a garden the spontaneous eruptions, unimagined colours, wildlife drop-ins and transient vistas passing unaccounted for. For me, the absence of people and the disruption to the norm has resulted in a time of focus on the garden's vitality; observing plants more closely, enjoying their quirks, making new notes.
A thousand buds and leaves and flowers and blades of grass, things to note day by day increasing so rapidly', wrote nature writer Richard Jefferies in the late 19th century. You never know what will come to the net of the eye next'. Jefferies was not a gardener, instead he considered all countryside his garden, and wrote about it ceaselessly. His walks through rural Southern England produced essays drawing profound attention to its floral and faunal inhabitants; an anthology of philosophical and often euphoric reflections on Nature and its reassuring annual rhythms, drawn always from direct experience and fervent note-taking. These last few months I've found myself returning to Jefferies, and in particular to the essay Hours of Spring', written not long before his death in 1887. Here he recounts a spring much like the one we've just had: full of sunshine, exuberance and copious blossom, but also unpredictability and surprise. Reading Hours of Spring reinforced my own resolution to observe and document the Museum's gardens on behalf of those no longer able to visit. But also to anchor current anxieties to the bedrock of the changing season.
Alone in this garden, therefore, during what I consider the most magnificent spring I can remember, I've been astonished anew by the succession of returning flowers, less for their contribution to a wider planting scheme than for their stand-alone beauty. For example, I've stopped more often beside the violet campanulas that clamber over the Museum's sun-baked stone; stood looking up into the hanging jasmine and the pendulous maroon flowers of Akebia vine. I've waited impatiently, too, for the unveiling of thousands of tiny blooms that make up our giant, exotic echium. Individuality of colour, form, scent tenacity, even are all qualities that this year, because of the slower pace, have caught and held my attention. And that goes for the flowers spilling out from neighbours' front gardens also, or those of the weeds creeping back into our quieter city streets I've never seen so much fumewort, nor alkanet so vigorous.
So much floral exhibition took me back to another wonderful essay, by the late plantsman (and former gardens adviser to the National Trust) Graham Stuart Thomas, titled The Beauty of Flowers'. Written a century on from Jefferies, and again composed towards the end of the author's life, it is an appeal made for the unadulterated flower: the wilder forms, as they are found in nature, rather than those over-cultivated by the hands of the hybridist'. Thomas argues that the beauty of flowers is the fundamental stimulus for gardening; the reason we garden. And it all started by somebody singling out a flower from the wild and transferring it to a patch near his dwelling'. This innate attraction is set against a history of overbreeding: a greediness', he suggests, that has since led nurserymen to frill the iris, flatten the snapdragon and de-spur the pretty wild aquilegia in flawed pursuit of ever more extravagant blooms. It is an astonishing essay, and a powerful advocation for growing as wide a diversity of flowers in our gardens as possible each for its own beauty and, in doing so, conserve vulnerable species by keeping them in cultivation. Put more simply: grow what naturally appeals, for the appeal is natural.
Both essays affirm what I have felt while watering, weeding and simply watching a garden alone this spring: the relationship with flowers is a constant of the human experience, an affiliation woven through our DNA. And in times of uncertainty or distress this connection is felt all the more intensely. In the early weeks of lockdown there was a significant push to Keep Britain Blooming' by classifying garden centres and nurseries as essential' businesses; getting them reopened so that the therapeutic benefits of gardening might continue at a time of high stress. Thankfully, by May 13th they were operational again, and Britain continues to bloom. But I would say it does just as well to sit for a while in any garden, park or accessible green space, to take note of what is in flower, and to return and witness the life of that flower: a curling petal, a subtle scent or the insect life drawn magnetically in. This is a year to postpone clever planting schemes and well-considered borders (after all, there were no Chelsea Flower Show exhibits to inspire or challenge us last month). Instead it is a time out of time' to admire the simple yet exceptional beauty of flowers: to revel in their extravagance, diversity, and above all, reassuring constancy.
Words and images by Matt Collins, head gardener at The Garden Museum. To raise funds to help support the running of the Garden Museum, the director Christopher Woodward is embarking on a lengthy swim, from Newlyn in Cornwall to Tresco. The journey was first made by Cedric Morris (another plantsman whom Matt has written about), though he went by boat.