Sometimes I think I ought to stop referring to myself as a gardener. So much of the work I’ve occupied myself with has made planting a mere afterthought recently – a luxury to be indulged in when the real work’s done, and I find myself sitting with seed packets in hand, not quite remembering what to do.
But here I have the little greenhouse shelves, all ready and waiting for a much more orderly way of going about things. There’s no more heavy lifting to do. No more vast complexes of roots to get stuck into. I feel strangely light and a little disoriented – where are my tools? my weights and measures, by which I’ve eeked out the days? This is all so light and frivolous…
Purple Foxglove Digitalis, Corn Snapdragon from Botanical prints by H. Isabel Adams 1907
I wanted to write about my favourite plants. Those childhood playmates; the foxgloves wavering in the afternoon sun, the roses that tore open my thigh when I was just young enough for it to mean something ritual, magical, sacred. I wanted to write about the herbs glimpsed in a grubby book, nicotine-stained by my grandfather’s armchair, and his beautiful metered handwriting on blue paper, spelling out words that meant nothing more to me at the time than any foreign language, except they were big, meaty words – the opposite of the familiar (primrose, petunia, allyssum – those feminine words with all that bite behind them). Slipped between the pages of his Egyptology books, I thought they must have been related. Chrysanthemums – Asteraceae – white pom-poms stuffed into the mouths of mummified God-corpses. Jars of amber, floating flower-heads, twisting roots, Darwinian specimens of something other than ordinary life.
From mysterious words, to drawn blood on the pathway – to a book chanced upon in a teacher’s office (who had an old wash-pot planted with woodland flowers and a Culpepper’s Herbal set out for reference or atmosphere) – an old lady teaching us our native tongue, catching a bee in her soft, padded palm to let it out of the window without the least concern… ‘he knows exactly what I’m doing’ .
Ao Matsuda, tattoo artist
Now I keep planting purple things – as if the bees aren’t so much reading my mind as forcefully putting things into it. Verbena, scabeous, foxgloves and dianthus – open-hearted flowers that waft perfume and line up landing strips of leopard print salutations and welcomes. The bees who follow me around, sometimes resting on my bare brown shoulders with their little trousers laden with yellow swag.
A wild swarm descended one afternoon, and I’m ashamed of myself for running, but the noise was alarming, and I’ve never met one before, and I have a guilty conscience – the bees know everything, after all.
I wanted to write about particular plants – but there’s no such thing – no such thing as isolation in nature. Everything tumbles in, everything hangs on to the thing before and the thing coming after. We’re all so interwoven, if you pull one thread we all unravel.
They are all my favourite things in the garden.
Sometimes you just have to remember what a gardener really is.