Kate MacCarthy on the myriad benefits of developing a green thumb a little earlier than most…
I’m not sure I can call myself ‘young’ anymore. Now that I’m in my mid-to-late twenties (you’ll note that I can’t bring myself to tell you the precise number) I’m positively geriatric in many ways. All of the music in the charts sounds the same to me; I prefer pubs to clubs; my Young Person’s Railcard has expired and I’ve had to start ticking a new age range box when filling in forms. Perhaps the only arena in which I still count as young is gardening.
Research last year found that the average age people become interested in gardening in the UK is 41. Asked to imagine a typical gardener, you’ll probably conjure up a grey-haired septuagenarian pottering around a pristine lawn, tending to well-loved flowerbeds. It’s thought of as an activity for the late summer or autumn of your life. So while twenty-something might not be gardening’s target audience, I love it.
When I was little and dad grew tomatoes in the greenhouse or mum planted Sweet Williams in the rockery, I took no interest whatsoever. I loved being outdoors in the garden they had painstakingly created but I wasn’t in any way bothered about how my surroundings had come to be so lovely.
In later years I helped out with all of the menial tasks that make a garden so rewarding come summer. There was endless weeding. Laborious, repetitive work that stopped me from thinking about anything else. There’s no telling how much time has passed when you’re in a trance-like state, scanning dark earth for a trespassing flash of green.
Over time I became familiar with terms like ‘perennial’, ‘ericaceous’ and ‘potting on’. I was in the garden at every opportunity, looking for a new task. If I was sad it got me out of the house and meant I was doing a little bit of exercise without really realising it.
The mental health benefits of gardening are immense. It’s good for the soul. You instantly feel better the moment you’re out in nature. I suppose it’s like green-fingered meditation. Even getting away from your desk to go for a walk outside at lunchtime can boost your mood. If you’ve ever left a big city to seek out rolling hills and big skies at the weekend, you’ll know about the feeling of decompression that washes over you once grey pavements give way to green fields. This phenomenon even has a name: biophilia. Biophilia theory is all about the idea that human beings are born with an innate desire to connect to the natural world. We’re emotionally drawn to the great outdoors and we react strongly and positively when we’re exposed to it.
It’s hard not to sound a bit insufferable when employing this buzzword but gardening can be a form of mindfulness. You become focused on your surroundings and the task in hand. You notice everything, from the blackbird tweeting nearby to the feeling of sun on your face or soil running through your fingers.
Gardening also gives you a different perspective. When you literally stop and smell the roses, life’s frenetic sprint slows to a gentle stroll. Time takes on a new quality when the seasons of the year actually mean something. I planted bulbs in pots November. I wondered whether all I’d done was leave out a delicious last supper for the squirrels to gorge on before hibernation. But then, in mid-January, at the very bleakest time of the year, green stems appeared. Miraculous stalks of life shooting up into the sky, yearning for light. As someone who suffers with a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly abbreviated to S.A.D.), those first snowdrops are the most hopeful flower in the world to me. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that spring will ever arrive when you’re in the dark depths of winter. It’s unstoppable, though. The earth keeps turning and a new season is heading for us like a steam train. Croci, irises and daffodils announce that brighter days are on the way.
Getting into gardening even slows down how hectic life can feel on social media. In amongst the fashion influencers and journalists I follow on Instagram are a sprinkling of horticulturalists. Of course, there’s Monty Don. My oracle. (Side-note: nothing soothes a hangover better than Gardener’s World). There’s also Becky Crowley and Alice Vincent. They post a picture from their day in the garden- maybe a sunset, the robin that joined them on their tea break or the slow progress of a flower- and I’m instantly calmed.
Now, I have a small, car-sized patch of soil at my disposal. It’s clay-based and south-facing. In it, I’ve grown beetroot, leeks and raspberries. Last year I planted sweet peas in a pot which provided stunning flowers for months on end. This year I’ve been researching the niche varieties I can buy, seeking out the most gorgeous, fragrant sweet peas on the market. This is how I do my online shopping now. From ASOS to yougrowgirl.com. I’m obsessed. My shopping basket this year contained seeds for the silvery blue Oban Bay, the heavily perfumed Edd Fincham and Rouge Parfum, which I’m hoping does what it says on the tin.
Watching something come to life after planting and nurturing it is so rewarding. If you have limited outdoor space or live in rented accommodation with no garden, an orchid or spider plant indoors will absorb carbon dioxide, emit oxygen and even lower blood pressure according to some studies. If you have more space at your disposal or access to an allotment, then a vegetable patch means you get to be smug about your home-grown produce. I have bored my friends to tears with endless beetroot recipes but hey, no one’s complaining when I bring out the pink houmous.
I know very little, really, about gardening. I don’t have encyclopaedic knowledge of which plants do well in which conditions or when to plant and prune. But you can look all of that up. I consult Monty and do whatever he says. I am learning, slowly, but being in the garden has given me so much more than that. Getting in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and connecting with nature reminds you of your place in the world. The cycle of life carries on regardless. Clive James put it best in his achingly beautiful farewell poem, ‘Japanese Maple’: “Whenever the rain comes [the tree] will be there, Beyond my time, but now I take my share…”.
Gardening is all about relishing the short-lived beauty of something. You put in the effort to nurture life so that, when the time comes, you can be present in the moment and enjoy it. Drink in the sight of the peony in full bloom or the scent of the honeysuckle. It’s always bittersweet. It won’t last forever. But then again, knowing that everything is in a constant state of flux is comforting too. It reminds you to savour what’s good in life and have hope when things are bad. Everything is temporary. This too shall pass. And the garden looks fucking beautiful tonight.
Follow Kate on Twitter: @thepenintheink
Illustration: Cathy Lu