I was sitting on a simple wooden bench, in front of me a lush arrangement of foliage plants dominated by a tree fern. The planting was set against a louvred wooden screen which wrapped halfway around the small courtyard I was sitting in.
Around the bench tall, neatly clipped yew hedges formed a niche, the perfect place for a conversation with Tom Hoblyn, the designer of this garden. ‘I think there is something particularly pleasant about being surrounded by plants,’ I said. Tom agreed and told me that since the beginning of the pandemic he felt drawn further and further away from people and into nature. It was the same for me.
Sharp rays of early autumn sunshine illuminated the scene in front of us. Fern fronds cast fine lines on the roughly hewn wooden slats behind them. Lower down the oversized leaves of Tetrapanax protruded from a dense cushion of smaller foliage plants. The whole planting was edged in smooth, pale paving adding to an overall serene and calm atmosphere.
The space felt beautifully secluded yet it could hardly have been more public. If I concentrated I could see people standing just behind the wooden screen. This was a show garden and Tom and I were sitting quite literally in the middle of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021.
The garden was part of the ‘Sanctuary Gardens’ category which the show’s organisers had newly introduced this year. I don’t know if this had been planned for a while or if it was an immediate result of the pandemic. In any case, after months in lockdown everybody had understood the beneficial effects of gardens. It was not unusual now for people to refer to their garden as their ‘sanctuary’.
As I was sitting in Tom’s garden, I thought of my grandmother. Her garden had been her sanctuary. My grandmother had spent a lot of her time outdoors but she had never rested, never sat in her garden. Her fruit and vegetable garden had not had a bench, not even a chair. She had singlehandedly grown all produce for our household. In summer she would get up hours before everyone else to go outside and sow or weed or harvest and in the evenings after supper she would be in the garden again to water.
I don’t think it ever occurred to my grandmother that one could simply sit in a garden, for no other reason than to enjoy it. The society she had grown up in would have labeled it ‘laziness’, something she certainly did not want to be accused of. My grandmother was born in 1915. Convent school taught her needlework, not intellectual freedom. Even worse, at 16, all her opportunities in life evaporated when she became pregnant. From then on physical labour filled every minute of her days in order for her to sustain the life she had not chosen.
By the time I was born, my grandmother’s circumstances had changed. She did not have to work anymore but still chose to do so – in the garden. The garden was a place of freedom for my grandmother. Nobody else was sufficiently interested to influence what she was doing there. My grandmother could follow her own judgement. She could decide when to harvest the first potatoes, which flowers to plant for cutting and whether to experiment with sprouting chicory in a tub of sand in a dark corner of the shed.
My grandmother’s joy was most apparent the moment she returned to the house. She proudly filled vases with flowers and prepared delicious meals from the fruit and vegetables she had grown. The garden was my grandmother’s domain, her sanctuary, and the source of her self confidence.
P.S. After writing the above text I looked for photographs to illustrate it. I could not find any of my grandmother’s fruit and vegetable garden. Then I realised why. Growing food had been considered purely utilitarian. To take a photograph of cabbages or strawberry plants had made as much sense as photographing the washing machine. At the time I did not understand how absurd this was.
Only a decade after my grandmother had passed away did I photograph the area of the garden where she had once grown fruit, vegetables and flowers for cutting. By then there was almost nothing left. A rose, a few gooseberry bushes and a scion of one of my grandmother’s old peach trees were all that had survived.