I live in the middle of London, where my daily chorus is police sirens, the throb of drum and base through the walls from the students who live next door and the high-pitched chatter of school girls at the bus stop outside my dining room window. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sense of excitement, possibility, and pure street drama about where I live, but peaceful it ain’t.
Tuning out the noise
That is until I walk into my back garden. Our house is tall and thin, part of a long terrace. Somehow those street sounds don’t seem to travel over the roofs. At the back of the house, I can hear blackbirds, woodpeckers and the hoarse chirruping of squirrels.
I always think you’re doing the right thing when you don’t notice time passing. I have that feeling when I’m in my garden. I walk out onto the terrace with a cup of coffee and suddenly it’s two hours later and I’ve dead headed the pelargoniums, tied in the roses, pulled a bucket of weeds and cut some salad for lunch.
My passion for gardening grew largely out of greed. I was food editor at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage in Devon for several years. While I spent most of my time in the kitchen, I learned a lot about growing your own food there too, particularly that however small a plot you have – even if you only have a back yard, a balcony or a window box – there’s an enormous pleasure in growing at least some of the food you eat.
There are no failures
So in my small urban plot I experiment with the pretty and the pretty delicious. I have old favourites (roses, clematis) and new passions (espaliered apples, three kinds of blackcurrants). I have unexpected successes and some spectacular failures. But the best thing about gardens is that they’re very forgiving. There aren’t really any failures, only experiments that didn’t quite work out. So you try again with another plant, in another spot, on another day.
As a child, I spent a lot of time on my great uncle Jos’s allotment. He was a huge man, a miner, who spent his working life crawling through narrow seams in the velvet dark. Above ground, he grew all kinds of colourful fruits and vegetables, armfuls of chrysanths which won prizes at the village show, and raised bantam hens and rabbits.
Jos was married to my grandmother’s sister, Dolly. Dolly, my grandmother and their sister Louie lived in the same street and all of those Blair girls had what they called ‘good hands’. My grandmother was a brilliant knitter, Dolly could crochet the most intricate things and Louie was a fabulous baker, but they’d all have a go at anything. They didn’t have very much, but they embellished and gave grace to their lives with the things they made with those good hands. There was always a beautiful new sweater, a natty little bag made from an old coat and fairy cakes in a cake tin.
Give yourself permission to slow down
This is why I loved working on Gifts from the Garden. I believe passionately that while it’s wonderful to give gifts, there is huge intrinsic pleasure in making them too. These days we’re all terribly busy, but taking an hour or so to make some jam, a body scrub or scented room spray is inherently calming. It gives you permission to slow down a bit. For me, it’s better than yoga, even better than gin. And it’s certainly more enjoyable than schlepping down Oxford Street, haemorrhaging money on mass-produced tat and slowly losing the will to live.
I think that gardeners and cooks are intrinsically generous people. You seldom leave their gardens or kitchens without a cutting, a few seeds or a recipe scrawled on the back of an envelope. Transforming what you grow into presents takes that instinct and wraps it all up in a big, shiny bow.
So this month I’ll be tuning out the racket and seizing every moment I can to potter about in the garden – in a busy, noisy life, that’s without doubt the very best gift I can give myself. If you’re similarly inclined, things you can do now to ensure untold pleasures later are planting out tomatoes and courgettes for summer salads and autumn chutneys, starting off all manner of cut-and-come-again salad leaves in a few pots by the kitchen door, sowing some hardy annuals outdoors directly into the ground and choosing plants for hanging baskets and window boxes. In the weeks and months to come, you’ll be glad you did.
Debora Robertson © 2014