Our garden is nestled behind our cottage that sits on an unfashionable suburban road. I bought the house over a decade ago now, when conflicts abroad had come too close to home and weighed heavily on our hearts and minds.
Tube journeys no longer felt exciting, but fraught with danger. The babble of many different languages from lips I could not see was no longer cosmopolitan but unsettling. I hated myself for feeling like that.
To regain my previous more positive outlook on life, I retreated from the capital to somewhere that felt more like home. Somewhere where we could afford to raise a family and to have a garden for them to play in safely.
While I liked the thought of freedom that having this plot of land promised, I was a most reluctant gardener. A laissez-faire attitude to gardening was therefore adopted. This amounted to letting nature take its course.
For a while this hands off approach served me well, with lupins and fox gloves and sweet peas popping up in the most inhospitable of places. Seeds were carelessly planted with the children and now and again the fruits of our lazy-labour were enjoyed straight from the trees. It seemed, for a while, like a little garden of Eden. But then a good friend came round and pointed out the dandelions.
Following my friend’s comments, more and more unwelcome intruders seemed to appear. In my narrow mind, they threatened the harmonious balance that nature had, so far, managed to sustain.
The more I thought about the dandelions, the more of them I saw. They were so wilful, determined, intent on spreading their toxic seeds by manipulating the kids to ‘tell the time’. The kids obliged and soon, thanks to their huffing and puffing, huge clouds of dandelion spawn engulfed the valley that our house perches upon. I had to stop them before the more established plants became overwhelmed.
My Father in Law, a veteran in plant war fare, seemed the logical place to go to for advice. His response to my woes?
“Think differently about the dandelions.”
“Fine”, I hurrumphed, internally. “I’ll tolerate the bloody dandelions.”
I quickly realised that to tolerate was not for me. Forcing yourself to begrudgingly put up with something day in day out leads, I find, to a nagging resentment. Tempers grew short when the kids headed towards the dandelions.
Instead I decided to launch my own shock and awe offensive on the blighters. I didn’t want weed killer anywhere near the kids. Instead, a little blood, sweat and tears would surely do the trick.
I didn’t really understand just how much blood or sweat would be required. The tears followed swiftly.
After a couple of weeks worth of effort, it dawned upon me that this was literally a never-ending task. I feigned a hollow victory, but in the pit of my stomach I knew I had not won this battle. With dirty hands and a sense of failure I shrugged my shoulders and decided to let the plants fight it out.
Before long, the carefree wild flower meadow was a tangle of not just dandelions but nettles, and bind weed and that hideous thug Japanese knotweed.
I returned to my father in law for more advice. He looked a little horrified that I hadn’t mentioned the knotweed before. Its single-minded, rapid growth produces roots that can cause untold damage, including to the foundations of long-standing family homes.
Feebly, I explained that I’d never really bothered to identify the different plants in the garden. I didn’t really understand the different components of this garden at all, either in isolation or the impact neighbouring plants would likely have on each other. All I knew was that if I liked it, it was a flower. If I didn’t, it was a weed. How much more complicated could it be?
My Father in Law gave me a few pointers. When he suggested I think differently about the dandelions, he didn’t mean to merely tolerate, but to positively embrace. Sure, the odd one might get too big for its boots, but to deal with that is not too onerous. The rest of them? You never know, you could learn to love them.
Likewise the nettles: as long as the kids know they can leave a nasty sting, leave the weed in place as a sanctuary for butterflies.
And as for the bind weed, well, like a disillusioned teenager trying to get his moment in the sun, it could indeed cause untold damage if left to its own devices. However, if the problem were nipped in the bud (literally for the bind weed, metaphorically for the teenager), it soon would not be much of a problem at all. Rather it could become something to keep an eye on and gently put in its place, if required, day to day.
The knotweed was a different matter. In this environment, it is a dangerous menace. It needed eradicating, quickly. The heavy artillery of industrial weed killer would be warranted in this instance.
Given where it was growing, amongst wondrous bog plants and close to a stream, expertise would be required. The expert I used to help would need to not only understand the tools required to eradicate the knotweed, but the terrain in which this enemy had taken hold. Otherwise, a whole community of welcome flora and fauna could be wiped out, and my kids could end up covered in the toxic killer.
Talking to my father in law, it soon became startlingly evident that it wasn’t enough to long to wander freely in a peaceful patch of land. We’d need to work hard for that freedom and, once won, keep monitoring, nurturing, and protecting it. Being free, it turns out, requires a lot of discipline, a lot of work, and a lot of, paradoxically, feeling like a slave to the cause. Gardening was beginning to sound a lot like parenting.
Gardening requires understanding the environment around us. It requires constant nurturing and tending and encouragement. It requires us to be ever vigilant for problems that we then promptly and tenderly nip in the bud. And, every now and again, when the thugs try to disrupt the gentle harmony of the most unlikely of companions living peacefully side by side, it requires swift, quite ruthless action by experts who can anhiliate the problem without creating devastation in their wake.
Now, more than a decade on, conflicts abroad are once more feeling closer to home. News stories reveal images that are the stuff of nightmares, and the grief of parents directly affected is too much to handle. Our hearts weigh heavy and our minds fill with fear. I am thankful that we have the garden to retreat to, and for all that it has taught me.
I wish every person on every side of every conflict could learn to see the world through the eyes of the reluctant gardener.
I wish we could all learn to think differently about the dandelions.