In an age where bad news streams constantly into our phones, the simple, rhythmic joy of gardening offers an escape. Is it any surprise millennials are returning to it?by / July 6, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
I resent writing this article very deeply, just now, because I’m mainly thinking about the dipladenia. I think I could twine her more precisely round the railings. I worry that she’s growing too wild and unkempt in my care. I want to be outside, making things work, and instead I’m inside writing what my generation unironically calls “content”.
I am not content at my computer. I’m many things, but content is not one of them: I am caught here, scrolling and typing and scrolling some more, waiting for something intangible to happen. Of course, you wait in a garden, too. You wait for rain. You wait for green shoots. You wait to see if things you’ve done pay off. You wait to see if the roses will bud again. You wait, you breathe, you dig. It’s beautiful.
Everyone is gardening. Millennials, apparently, spend more on plants than their parents. They do not buy plants in garden centres (sales down by 10 per cent!), but they buy plants in supermarkets, and hipster stores where everything is made out of galvanised steel and reclaimed timber, off market stalls for three quid a tray. They buy plants from Instagram and from apps. In the course of writing this piece I have already bought two pots of ivy and a sweet tea plant from an app targeting millennials. What can I say? I’m a gardener now.
I don’t have a garden, obviously: I’m a millennial, and more to the point, a freelance writer living in London. But I’ve got a two-foot-by-five concrete balcony overlooking a tarmacked carpark, and I have filled it with growing things. The snapdragons are very happy. The herbs are pretty happy, although I’ve not cracked the coriander yet (why are you sprawling? Why are you so yellowish underneath?). Supermarket roses: refusing to put forth any more flowers, but certainly alive. Hydrangea: sulking. Dipladenia: twining (although, like I say, it could be doing so more precisely).
I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of anything than this tiny patch of blossoming concrete.
Why that should be, I suppose, is the central question. What do I—and my generation—get out of gardening? Is it the same things that everyone gets out of gardening, just in younger and more Instagram-friendly planters? Or is it something new?
Like cooking, gardening is the kind of occupation that combines the two key elements of self-care: the Instagram “pamper yourself” kind of self-care that attracts such derision, and the common-sense, sort-it-out kind of self-care that nobody really pays much attention to. It looks good on camera, and it gets you outside. (You can’t look at your phone while your hands are buried in the soil.) It’s beautiful, and it’s useful. It passes the William Morris test on both counts.
In the garden, things happen at their own speed, or rather at a speed the mind can process. One day this, another day that. A seed, a shoot, a bud, a flower. You watch it happen: cause and effect. One day this, another day that. The garden is a steady, regular pulse to a world gone a little haywire where nothing ever stops happening and the twenty-four hour news cycle rolls out all night, and every morning you wake up to something else worse happening somewhere.
I worry, sometimes, that the human brain isn’t properly wired up to feel all these things at once: to worry about everyone in the world at the same time.
If it’s impossible to imagine somebody else’s grief, it’s beyond impossible to imagine everybody else’s. While the garden grows, there is a suicide bomb in Mogadishu, a school shooting in Anchorage, a chemical attack in Syria. The news shows babies in cages, toddlers drowning in the sea, melting ice caps, global warming, impending nuclear war. I worry that trying to understand all of these griefs is such an impossible task that it makes a person give up before they’ve begun.
“While the garden grows, there is
a suicide bomb in Mogadishu”
My generation refreshes, and watches it all, and I worry that it’s hopeless. I worry that the screens that bring us together keep us apart and the screens that keep us apart bring us together. I worry that we are all going to tear to pieces from simultaneously having too few and too many feelings. Frankly, I worry about everything, all of the time, and little of it makes sense and it’s all too much, and I don’t know what to do about the caged babies or the drowning toddlers or the Yarl’s Wood women or the stabbings in the city or the shootings in America or the rise in food bank use or the hundreds of thousands of other people in need all over the world or any of the millions of other pressing problems that appear, one after another, on my phone screen.
Then there is the garden, and it’s simple. I stand in the tiny flicker of evening sunlight that hits the balcony at about half-past seven, and dig my hands right into the bag of compost, and start thinking about how to move the mint into the new trough. Here is a problem I can solve. (The dipladenia I can look at later.)
In an uncertain world, the garden is a way to tame uncertainty: to learn to live with it. Renting in London, you never know where you’ll be next summer, whether you’ll see the crocuses buried deep in the spare planter come up again, or whether your spindly little flamingo tree will become sturdy or smoky with leaves. You don’t even know if any of us will still be here by then.
Gardening, here, is simultaneously a leap of faith (I will be here, I will!) and an assertion of being (I might not be, but I am right now!) and, ultimately, a grand shrug of the shoulders: who knows what goes on beneath the earth? Who knows which plants will thrive, or what will happen next year? You can, at best, make an educated guess. You can, at best, try. And that’s all there is.