MASTER MUSINGS: Avant gardener

MASTER MUSINGS: Avant gardener

Coloured gnomes. Plastic roses. Buddhas with pink lipstick. A Victorian lampstand. A wishing well. No wait, two wishing wells. When I was interviewing Diarmuid Gavin a while back, he showed me a photograph of a pink semi-detached house with a mint-green roof, surrounded by hundreds of such ornaments. It wasn’t a kitsch creation dreamt up by Diarmuid. It’s the garden that, 30 years ago, piqued his interest in challenging and cheering up strait-laced suburbia.

‘This little space had an effect on everybody who saw it,’ he told me. ‘Kids adored it, although it tended to make adults really annoyed, even angry. If my parents had visitors over and went for a walk, they would rush the guests past it. But when I started to study garden design I became fascinated by it because of what it represented; the private passion of the woman who lived there.’

My front garden is tiny. And devoid of Buddhas. With or without lipstick. It is but a sliver in west London. But a few years back, I decided to make the most of it. I placed a plethora of pots on top of the recycling cupboard, studded the flower bed with salvias and sedums, and in the spring planters, I went bat-tulip crazy: Belicia unfurled like ruffly silk ballgowns, their hems dipped in raspberry ink; Belle Epoque seduced in satin sepia; while Queen of the Night stood statuesque in Stygian splendour.

Beyond the beauty of seeing things bud and blossom, I’ve benefitted mentally. It has helped ease the severe anxiety that's long been my torturer, so quick to target my vulnerabilities, terrorise my thoughts and toy with me as I struggle. During the worst times, I’ve always managed - just - to carry on working. Dancing. Seeing the world. But gardening has proved invaluable. If I can push myself out there to pull weeds, sow seeds and turn over the soil, I start to appreciate the get-on-with-it reality of nature.

‘I appreciate the get-on-with-it reality of nature’

The therapy doesn’t stop at my gate. I believe the front garden is also important to passersby. Because so many people now stop to chat when I’m out there pottering and watering. I’ve met neighbours who I’d never spoken to before. Heard gossip I would never have heard (noooo, really). Made friends with people who, without my garden slowing their stride, would have remained strangers as they hurried on home. My little garden is able to divert them. Delight them. Draw us together.

It makes me think of dad’s horticultural obsessions. Back in the 80s, he would line up red geraniums, blue lobelia and white allison in regimental rows of the kind more suited to The Mall when the Queen was hosting a visiting dignitary. As for the lawn, it was in better nick than the carpets indoors. Even in droughts, he would hook up baths and sinks so that waste water flowed onto the grass. At the end of summer, everything had the faint whiff of Fairy Liquid.

In those days, most front gardens were tended. Some were formal. Others, more cottagey. I particularly remember Mike who specialised in roses. As a child with an acutely sensitive nose, I hated the manure that he piled up around them. The smell used to make me heave – once, I even puked in the gutter. I’m guessing that wasn’t the effect Mike was hoping for.

Front gardens changed when people began to own not one, but two, cars. Spaces were concreted over. There was no room for cheery marigolds when there was a Mazda to park, a practice that resulted in rain running off into the road, heading for drains too clogged up to cope. With the addition of battalions of daleks – I’m talking wheelie bins – and more litter blowing in like tumbleweed, many urban roads became depressingly dismal.

I think the tide is turning a touch. When a few people dig in and create a little oasis – or even just plant up a few window boxes - others often follow suit. It reminds me of the ‘broken window theory’. That if public spaces aren’t looked after, it encourages a downward spiral: the more rubbish there is, the more rubbish is thrown; the more graffiti is sprayed, the more will be daubed; and the more crime that exists, the more crime will escalate. But here’s the thing - when the local environment, even at a personal level, is kempt, it stands a better chance of being kept that way. Respected. So the more front gardens that are bedecked, whether it’s with bluebells or Buddhas, wisteria or wishing wells, the better for our collective mood. Let’s grow a sense of community.

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