Our gardens are the proof that life really does go on

Our gardens are the proof that life really does go on: That’s why ALEXANDRA SHULMAN says her days of being lazy to dig and weed are over

Many of us have an alter-ego who enjoys doing something we would like to enjoy, but honestly don’t. Mine is a real gardener. 

A person like my friend Daisy who brings home armfuls of cut flowers and trugs of fresh veg from her dawn forays to the allotment. 

Or Kari who is never without a colourful display in her back garden that survives the wind and salt of the south coast no matter the time of year.

My reality has always been somewhat different. I like gardens. I like plants. I love the scent of box, lavender, a delicious rose, winter jasmine. And the sight of magnolia and wisteria soon to be in full fig is heavenly.

Alexandra Shulman in her garden April 2020 taken by her son, Sam

But when it comes to heavy lifting, or even a relatively small dig, my enthusiasm is low and my impatience high. This year though, things are going to be different.

Early April is a marvellous moment in gardens – especially this year. On the streets all is anxious, eerie, toxic. But in my back garden buds are appearing on what for months have looked like dry twigs. 

Spring bulbs are popping up everywhere – especially delightful in places I had forgotten they appear.

This morning the azalea looks plump and ready to burst into flower just when the scarlet camellia beside it is about to lose its petals. 

Now is that wonderful stage when there is so much promise of the summer to come. Everything is ahead of us – pointing to the future warmer months.

Even in June I always notice a suspicion of autumn; the clematis stalks have turned grey, rose petals are beginning to brown at the edges, the vivid green of the euphorbia has collapsed. 

I know that within weeks there will be few flowering plants in the beds, which will be suffering from lack of water.

What any of our summers are going to look like this year is at best uncertain, but for those of us lucky enough to have gardens, these are areas where there is an element of continuity, even some control.

Alexandra Shulman was the longest-ever serving editor of British Vogue

There’s no reason why the barbecue can’t be fired up even if there’s just the three of us to enjoy it. Slugs and snails may be our sole visitors but we can still pinch the leaves of our pelargoniums and smell their delicious scent. 

Sitting in the last corner of evening sun will still be possible and, in the early morning, there will still be dew.

All my life I have treasured even the smallest patch of my own outside space – starting with the seven-foot-square bitumen roof of an early flat, which was four floors up with no parapet, where I had to climb out of a window to reach the few pots of geraniums and akebia quinata I cultivated there.

Next was perhaps my favourite ever ‘garden’, a beautiful south-facing roof terrace where everything seemed to grow and the only challenge was hauling compost up the communal stairs. 

The terrace was big enough for a long dining table and we spent many a summer evening listening to the music coming out of neighbouring windows with a glass of wine next to the climbing honeysuckle.

When my now-ex-husband and I had a child we had to leave that urban paradise and moved to a larger, more suburban, house but it contained my first proper garden with blackberry bushes and apple trees and a lawn for our small son to play on. 

Now my retreat is courtyard with a small tadpole filled pond (and hopefully some water lilies), deep brick-walled borders and heaps of pots.

Over the years, I have had brilliant gardeners to help with all the mulching, planting and pruning. 

I notice that whereas I rush to consider a plant dead, they always suggest a feed, a move to a different spot, to allow it time… are all proper gardeners eternal optimists?

Gardeners are apparently on the list of people who are still allowed to travel to work but they are, like the rest of us, wary of bringing in or taking out the virus and have scaled back.

My own gardener, Rob, is considering virtual gardening help for those of us who need it if we aren’t comfortable with him being physically there. 

Either way, over the next few months me and the garden are going to be flung together in a new familiarity, one in which I am going to have to learn not to get bored digging in the dahlias. 

One in which I become someone who take pride in a pair of clean secateurs, and who will get on a ladder to deadhead the Rambling Rector.

As you will have gathered, Alan Titchmarsh I am not. Although I frequently tune into Gardeners’ Question Time, it is not so much to learn but because I find the sound of it as reassuring as The Archers, which I use as an aural comfort blanket. 

So now the kitchen table, usually strewn with interiors magazines, is covered with plant catalogues as inspiration to get me out there.

Sadly, garden centres are currently filled with rows of plants going to waste and seeds are in short supply. 

Sensing what was coming, I luckily got under the wire and outside is a delivery of the scented daphne shrub and my first foray into gladioli (not sure if those spears are going to look eccentric or brilliant).

New plants, though, are a diversion since it’s taking care of what’s already there that counts now. This weekend I will be putting on my rather nasty floral plastic shoes that show the result of having laid dormant for more time than I am proud of, and my gardening gloves. 

I need to have a go at some of the fledgling climbers which are flopping all over the place and give the pots some attention. Those of you who are true gardeners will realise that this means I clearly have no idea what I should be doing. Cut back? Now? When?

Nonetheless I am going to resurrect my love for the shed I had built a couple of years back and which began as such a tidy outhouse with hoes and brooms neatly hung, pots stacked and shelves arranged with military precision.

Recently it has had to double up as a storage spot for household goods we might need if we can’t get out to buy them. 

But very soon it is going to look as cleanly functional as the nerve centre of my gardening operations should.

Because suddenly Britain’s gardens are one of our most precious assets. In these groundhog days, when hours are often indistinguishable and our vistas have shrunk, the garden changes daily and shows us that life does go on. 

Every day something different and remarkable occurs. Even the smallest of spaces, even a few houseplants, can provide reassurance, and a kind of proof that ultimately we will return to a more recognisable life.

And plants allow us to indulge our senses – in a way that no number of Zoom conferences or FaceTime calls or WhatsApp groups ever can.

Usually the business of my days – the meetings, emails, dinners, planning – means I don’t take the time to establish the relationship with my garden that these empty hours now allow. 

But this morning I wandered around it with a cup of coffee, and noticed the peonies have just appeared above ground, the lemon plant has several buds and, almost overnight, the clematis is about ready to flower.

I realise more now what many have realised throughout the ages – that as with our children the care and attention I pay to thegarden will be repaid a million times over.

Gardens aren’t just for looking at. And I’m really excited to get going.

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