"Wake up! Get out of bed! Compulsory gardening day." On many a Sunday, this is the cry my brothers and my sister heard. We hated gardening. It was a chore. We got told off for standing on precious plants, ones that couldn't even be seen with the naked eye, we accidentally pulled up precious seedlings instead of weeds and we cut back shrubs too severely or not severely enough. My father, an artist, preferred form, retrained colour, order and symmetry, my mother wanted a garden filled with a riot of competing colours and every inch had to be an explosion of fecundity – if possible a festival happening in the garden every day, at least in summer. So this led to each parent, giving us different and competing instructions.
When I was 22 I moved into my first house, which I shared with a friend; she insisted that she would tend the small garden and without fail every Saturday morning she would get up, potter about planting a few annuals and mowing the lawn – this took in total about an hour – it really was a very small garden. I was happy to be relieved of even this burden. I never had the urge to grow a garden.
Years later, in the Spring of 2004, I took up my new post as the Curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham, and this job was much more stressful than I thought it would be – small museums lack money, and this leads to friction and worry. I moved into a small house with a garden that was big enough to have flowerbeds, and I inherited a few mature shrubs – I remember the yellow Easter rose and the small copper-red Acer and grew fond of them. My parents descended on me one day with plastic bags filled with roots and mud and dead-looking plants. I was not filled with excitement, but they told me where to put them and duly planted them. After long and worrying days in my new job I found that I was keen to see if my new babies had taken root and with a cup of tea in hand I would go and inspect the garden: Japanese anemones – white and pink – began to take hold first, their hairy little finger-like shoots popping up and then branching out into spiky green leaves catching the light and growing ever faster and faster and soon the open little plate-like flowers swayed around in the wind and seemed to be saying “love me”. Tall purple delphiniums and towering hollyhocks came later and astounded me – they grew so quickly. When it rained the water droplets shone on the leaves, and I could not help but recognise that this had beauty in it. Without being forced or coerced I willingly went to a Garden Centre and bought white and purple clematis – I can't remember the varieties I just liked the brilliant white next to the dark purple and I took them home and stuck them in the ground. They needed to climb up something, so I tried to cement a trellis in place, but it fell down, so I moved them to the only tree in my garden, a scruffy conifer and they took root and soon began to ramble up the trunk and every year came back stronger and even lovelier. I felt proud of them; a strange emotion – I suppose I was really proud of myself for not killing them. I was given some tomato plants and began to grow a few vegetables. I also began to walk – driving out to the Cotswolds – because I wanted to walk in Holst's footsteps to find a way to understand how the mind of this wonderful composer worked, he was a passionate walker all of his life and composed as he walked. But the walking and the gardening began to take hold of me - nature began to take root in my heart in a meaningful way. Its curative power working its magic on me.
When I moved again, this time to Devon, I had a small, shady garden that did not need much work. I missed my anemones, colourful hollyhocks and my beautiful clematis. Without a garden to work in and with a very heavy workload and no time to walk, I forgot about nature, and the seeds in my soul started to wither and die. Eventually, I met my partner, Katie, and she swept me up insisting on turning my shady, dark, dull garden into an oasis of ferns and pots filled with delights from her garden and love for life and nature blossomed in all its manifestations.
Katie and I relocated to Austria in 2015 and, like it or not, we inherited a very large garden. In my innocence, I did not realise just how much work we would need to do. At first, I took on the limited but necessary role of mastering the lawn, mowing it and worrying about it. Then I began to get sucked in – now 5 years later we are growing 30-40 types of vegetables – we especially like growing purple and black vegetables - and we also grow fruit. We have one project after the other on the go and the garden has become our art gallery. We are addicted to it, and we aren't sure how we could have survived the Corona Virus lockdown without it. During the lockdown, I have re-evaluated many things, and I have taken a step back, looking again at what I like about gardening and asking myself why do I like it? Why do I need it? I have come up with 7 reasons why I think it is going to help me, the environment and others in the future.
Gardening is the best stress relief you can't buy – no pills, no doctors just you and a spade.
Gardens (which are increasingly tended organically) are more important to wildlife – birds, bees and insects than industrial farmland – filled as they are with chemicals.
Growing your own fruit and veg is free from chemicals – it can go from field to table in 3 seconds and is always in season. This may well be the future of plant-based food production – reducing air miles and the need for toxic spraying. Saving the planet one garden at a time.
Getting fit and staying healthy – for 35 years I have wanted to lose 5 kilograms, and I never managed it – gardening will most likely do that for you for free. Plus the stuff you grow yourself tastes so good that turning to vegetarian and vegan eating becomes more likely, and this definitely helps to trim the waistline.
Sharing plants and vegetables with friends and family – we have made friends with diffident neighbours, and hard to buy for family members can't resist a home-grown pumpkin or bowl of wild raspberries to enjoy. We have even charmed our way into the heart of our local mechanic who always fixes our old car without complaint because we gave him a rare and unusual Egyptian onion plant. Strange but true!
We always have a freezer full of vegetables and a larder full of jam.
The mysterious power of nature right outside your back door – is calming, restful and magical – it will make you feel better if you are sad, bereaved or worried it will lessen your pain. If you are happy, it fixes that happiness, increasing your chances of seeing beauty everywhere and enjoying that sensation.
What the lockdown has taught me is that gardening is in my blood, but I must learn to be more relaxed about it: I cannot have or create a beautiful English lawn and perhaps, at last, I don't want to. Inspired by the "Don't mow in May" campaign, we have created three meadow areas in the last few weeks. And just yesterday I spotted a tall, elegant yellow cowslip, so on the spur of the moment, I created another wild meadow area because I could not bring myself to mow it away. I also try to mow the grass in the last late sunshine of the day, the golden sunlight glows through every blade of grass and makes it look lit up from within and magnificent. If I see a clump of blue forget-me-nots or a particularly lovely cluster of daisies or buttercups I let them grow, the bees seem to be grateful. The birds sing their last arias at this time of day, and even over the sound of the mower, I can hear their liquid notes filling the air. I have made a bargain with myself I am going to try to make this unloved chore into something of a pleasure. I have raised the blade on the mower, so as not to scorch the grass and the lawn may still be weedy, but it looks vivid and healthy - that verdant vivid green of summer will soon shine through.
At last, I can see why my parents always bought a house with a big garden – they needed it – it gave them so much and nourished them in ways that we children could not begin to understand. Our family are all keen gardeners – perhaps, after all, the seed was planted half a century ago in all of us on those long hard Sundays in a garden in North Wales where we first learnt to hold a spade.
Walking into Alchemy: The Transformative Power of Nature by Amelia Marriette is available Worldwide from Amazon or directly from me – please visit www.ameliamarriette.com for special offers.