I met somebody a few days ago who claimed he had never grown anything. He was referring to plants specifically, rather than a beard or a deep dissatisfaction with government action on climate change. Specifically, he claimed never to have grown a plant.
I have to ask; what the hell did he do at school? Did he not have Mr. Freeman (who had already grown a beard) and the long succession of cuttings and graftings that thrived in the greenhouse, but did less well in the dark confines of a school locker? Did he not germinate seeds with Mr. Rix (who only eat plants and noting else) in Biology? Did he not grow flowers in the back garden to keep his mum happy? Listen to Percy Thrower on the BBC? Have pot plants at college – that’s plants in pots if you were wondering! Keep carnivorous plants as a marker of teenage angst?
He may, of course, have lived in a high rise flat, with concrete views and grey vistas, with corporation gardens stripped of all but the most robust plants, where growing plants is a luxury. He may have, but he did not. He lived in a leafy suburb with trees and lawns and manicured box hedges. And yet he had never grown a thing. You may have guessed by now, but I thought that this was remarkable to say the least, and sad in a way that is typical of many younger people, but surprising in one of his age.
I know from firsthand experience that time at school is precious and crowded. Demands push in from all directions. From governments sitting above the school, from parents standing alongside their children demanding equity, quality and opportunity and from organizations convinced that our children will be destined for failure without knowledge of dog handling, ethnic dancing, the mysteries and delusions of religion and healthy cooking. And here I go adding one more thing to the list. Kids should grow things. In gardens if possible, in pots if necessary or in margarine tubs if nothing else comes to hand. And if at all possible they should eat what they grow. Now Mr. Freeman may have had difficulty with this, as we always seemed to grow nothing edible, just cacti and other textured succulents. I am not sure that basil and exotic vegetables had made it to Midsomer Norton by the early 1980’s. They may not have made it there yet!
I try (and fail) to spend some time in my own garden every day. Even if it is just the slow walk in the morning to collect the paper, and the equally slow return at the end of the day. I try to find time to look at the tomatoes. I don’t know what I expect to see on any of these excursions into the world that grows within the confines of my garden, but I normally see something.
Gardens are a microcosm of the rest of the world. Plants are front and centre as they should be.
They make a garden what it is, which is apt for producers. Plants are sunlight made tangible and I am, directly or through a more twisted route, the product of plants. We may be made of star stuff, but we need plants to carry out the basic fixing and trapping of such material before we can use it. And there is only a limited amount of this celestial matter about, so we better recycle it, lest supplies run short. And there in the compost bin, hidden in the unloved part of the garden behind the shed, next to the wood pile, is a recycling plant of exquisite simplicity and complexity. A compost bin. Pile stuff you no longer need into the top, wait a while and organic gold can be mined from the bottom. Compost, decay, rebirth.
If kids could see just these two things they will have witnessed the processes that keep the biological world turning. Energy to do what is needed and endless (but recycled) matter to build what needs building. That’s what growing things teaches us. Energy and matter. Physic and chemistry made concrete by biology. That really is a trinity worth getting excited about.
Beyond energy and matter there sits a world of wonder that gardens can show us. The problems of elsewhere will remain elsewhere until you can see the link to here and now. Gardens are rooted, literally and metaphorically, in the here and now. The tangible, the testable, the tactile benefits of growing things, and keeping your eyes open as you do should not be overlooked.
Yet it seems for many people that there is little contact with the growing world of plants. Lawns and playing fields, if they are considered at all, are seen as little more than a green carpet of convenience. With the drought the green may be brown and the carpet threadbare and worn. Lawns have become a symbol of depraved over use of water – but we can grow other things, we don’t always have to convert our only spaces to gravel zen gardens, full of positive energy and empty of children.
This morning there was a spider web – almost a meter across – and anchored to an apple tree 3 or 4 meters below in the garden. It seemed to be catching the early morning light rather than insects, but here again we have the garden as home school. Predators, prey, adaptation, life, death, selection, evolution. All hanging from the telephone line over my garden. And the spider was there because the insects were there, and the insects were there because the plants were there, and the plants were there because this is a garden where things grow. Community, food web, populations, food chains. Each of these a link with flows back to plants. Each going back to the things that grow.
My gardens food web must be complex, my understanding of it limited. But each day brings a new link. Lizards by the rocks, hunting for the unknown. Slaters hidden under plant pots. The large and rather intimidating spider that emerged from the garden umbrella. What do they eat, what eats them? I don’t know – but whatever eats the spider will have to be large, and the spider itself looked able to handle a small dog! Biodiversity is not something that exists elsewhere or can only be seen in a zoo or on safari.
Some biodiversity can be less welcome. There are rather unpleasant creatures eating the pears on the pear tree. It’s a forlorn hope that we will get a crop this year. If the bugs don’t get them the possums will. Or the bats!
I work in an office. My garden is more important than ever. It brings connection, community and space.
I just need to go and check on the tomatoes!