A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how my love of gardening began and asked readers to share their own stories as part of my research for a book I’m writing on our relationship with gardening and the natural world. I was overwhelmed by the response – over the next week, more than 200 gardeners from across the world contributed 25,000 words of personal recollections. Many readers, like me, dug far back into their childhoods, unearthing tales of Victorian coal cellars, air raid shelters, RAF gardens, memorial gardens and recoveries from mental illness. The stories frequently made me smile and, at times, cry – many spoke poignantly of the importance of gardening in their lives.
Almost every story begins with reference to a family member (most often a grandparent), an inspirational figure who passed on their knowledge and enthusiasm for growing flowers, vegetables and/or fruit. There are many recollections of childhood vegetable patches – supporting the idea that giving children the chance to have a go themselves is key in getting them involved with the process. The powerful experience of watching a plant grow is important to many, with lovely stories like the lady who recalls her father nurturing a weed all summer, knowing it was a weed, just to see it grow. She writes ‘I never forgot that tiny yard with its little weed that my father looked after.’
The importance of passing a love of gardening down through the generations is also emphasised by the number of people who mention their relationship with their own children and grandchildren. I was particularly moved by the lady whose love of gardening began:
nearly eighty years ago in 1938 when, as a five year old, I first encountered the wondrous kingdom of the allotment, but really took off later in the war when… [I] was befriended by a German prisoner of war who worked on the strawberry field next to the allotment field, who showed me with great patience and knowledge nearly everything I needed to know.
As past moves to present, she describes the ‘greatest moment… when my granddaughter brought her son (my great grandson) down to the plot and showed him where she herself had spent so many hours with me.’ Her recollections celebrate one of the fundamental pleasures of gardening – sharing the experience with others.
Gardens are also places where memories can be revisited, places of remembrance bringing us closer to loved ones who are no longer with us. Several stories touched on the way gardening creates a connection to those we’ve lost – plants taken as cuttings from family gardens, old tools lovingly used, smells which bring back warm memories and areas of the garden dedicated to loved ones, which all have a healing effect on the soul. This aspect of gardening is explained well by one writer who says ‘to me it’s more than gardening, it’s remembering time spent together’.
Mental and physical health are also recurring themes. The benefits of fresh air and exercise are well understood and the positive effects of gardening on mental health are now becoming more widely accepted by doctors. The stories describe the way gardening has helped people cope with breakdowns, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. One lady says that gardening ‘keeps me grounded’, another that it is ‘the one thing that’s keeping me sane’. This healing force is summed up by one gardener:
Gardening is so good for the mind and soul.
Senses emerge from the stories as an important part of our memories and none more so than smell. Many people wrote of the fragrance of tomatoes, alongside ‘the smell of earth’, ‘fresh grass’, ‘tuberose and jasmine’, ‘fertilisers’ and one gentleman’s memory of Uncle Wilf’s ‘two huge Victorian glass houses’ with the smell of ‘the coke and dampness inside when the heating went on’. Taste also evokes remembrance – my mouth was watering as I read about delicious ‘Blue-Mouth Pie’, ‘wine that tasted like whisky made from parsnips’ and the best accompaniment to cheese sandwiches – crunchy pickled onions.
It’s lovely to read about those who come to gardening later in life, either when they start growing houseplants or herbs on the windowsill, take on a new garden or begin to garden for or with someone else – a partner, parent or their children. These stories are filled with the joy of new discoveries, the sense of satisfaction when new gardens are transformed and several references to wonderful mother-in-laws who have passed on their knowledge – as one lady writes ‘I just can’t ask for a better mother-in-law nor a better gift than what she has taught me… introducing me to the pleasure that is gardening!’
For many, the interaction with nature is at the heart of time in the garden; as one gardener writes ‘quite simply I garden for nature’. Childhoods were spent playing in the woods and fields, birdwatching, learning the names of wildflowers, reading I-Spy books and adding contributions to the nature table (a tradition missing from many modern classrooms). Several people refer to a ‘kind of spirituality’ or innate connection ‘to the earth’ experienced whilst gardening which one gardener believes is ‘in everybody’s subconscious’. Whatever the essence of this love of the land, almost all the gardeners who responded are in agreement that it arises from contact with the earth and learning from inspiring friends or family members, and that it is important to pass on to others.
I began the first piece on how the love of gardening begins considering the inspiration I took from my Granny and I end the second with thoughts of how I might influence my own children. Although not everyone who responded had gardened throughout their lives, the majority saw the foundations of their love of gardening arising from their childhoods – even if they had come back to it later in life. In a society where engagement with nature is no longer seen as intrinsic to learning about the world, in a curriculum which marginalises nature study, we need, more than ever, to be sharing our love of gardening with the younger generation. ‘If children are introduced to gardening when young, it wires your brain for life!’ writes one lady and another suggests ‘we must teach our children about the natural world if we are to have any chance of protecting it.’
Thank you for sharing your inspiring stories – it’s lovely to read about the wide-ranging positive effects of gardening and to know that so many are passing on their love and knowledge for gardening and the natural world to the next generation.