It’s hard to say when a mere hobby grew into an obsession. It was, perhaps, in the darkest days that my love bloomed. Winter is a test of a gardener’s devotion, a battle between hope and despair, a trial of the puritan spirit that says mulch, rake, plant, when all else is curling up and dying.
On a squally afternoon in November, I got through four bulb dibbers while planting 200 tulips; sweat and rain blinding me, my gloves sodden, fingers numb. In February, waist-deep in the pond, one of my waders sprung a leak, an icy ingress of water, and I longed for the green-grey swamp to swallow me.
The first year of my gardening life has been a catalogue of disasters and disappointments, mistakes heaped upon mistakes. I’ve found numerous ways of killing plants; a horticultural Tarantino movie. The distance between vision and reality is vast, but despite it all, I love it.
A year and a half ago, we moved, with a swiftness that surprised us, from London to the country, a few miles north of Rye. We landed in a rather unlovely 1920s rectory, left half-finished after an overambitious building project, the house islanded in a two-acre wasteland of rubble and mud. The old roses that had garlanded the house had been torn off, the flowerbeds filled in, the pond overgrown and silted up.
It was January, and that first morning in our new home, when the kids came into our room, we looked out on the garden in the grey winter’s dawn and it was like something from Passchendaele. I thought of Wilfred Owen: ‘the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water…’
Slowly the year shucked off its coat. Spring came, and with it the familiar hopefulness. The cherry tree outside my daughter’s window exploded into blossom, a ruddy bullfinch hopping about in the froth.
I learnt that one of the rectory’s previous inhabitants – a Father Green – had been the nature correspondent for the Wealden Times. I found a book of his – Notes from a Country Rectory Window – in a second-hand bookshop. In it he writes of fishing in the pond amid the yellow water irises, of apples from the orchard, of the fervid springtime life around the house.
He’s dead now, but traces of him began to appear in the garden like little hieratic ghosts: cyclamen under the old yews; foxgloves up the drive; shrubs – hebe, fuchsia and mahonia – that had survived the developers’ cull. I didn’t know the names of these things then, but they stirred something in me. I too wanted to leave behind such beauty.
Summer came and we began to understand that we, who knew nothing about gardening, had moved to a horticultural hotbed, caught in the net that spins itself between Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter, Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst and Sarah Raven’s Perch Hill.
You might beat a path from Dixter to Sissinghurst, from Perch Hill to Knole, from Smallhythe Place to Great Maytham Hall, walking only through beautiful gardens. These great stately grounds have seeded themselves in the landscape that surrounds them, so that every pond has a Dixter gunnera, every cottage is clad with Smallhythe roses, and every quiet village street hides a mini-Sissinghurst of pleached lime trees and white pergolas.
The bluff and sprightly Rod and his motley gang of sunburnt boys arrived to do what the experts call hard landscaping, and within weeks there was a terrace around the house, flower beds, a lawn upon which Rod and his lads danced a strange gavotte (to firm down the seed).
Summer flashed by, and soon I was picking apples from our orchard – 52 trees moored in a sea of wild flowers. The cider I made exploded all over the pantry, but the sight of a wheelbarrow buckling under the weight of the harvest gave me a deep and ancient-feeling thrill.
As autumn descended, I could feel the gardening bug biting. My mother-in-law, Annabelle, who’d built a beautiful Shropshire garden out of a field 40 years earlier, came to visit, and talked to us like the idiots we were, patiently explaining the difference between annuals and perennials. ‘You learn by making mistakes,’ she told us. ‘It’s how I learnt.’
We were coming from nowhere, knowledge-wise, couldn’t with confidence have told a foxglove from a hollyhock prior to our move. We learnt about plants with the leaping, ravenous hunger of autodidacts, and the more we knew, the more we loved our garden.
Bulbs began to arrive in the post. We subscribed to gardening magazines. We learnt the names, the pronunciations, the Latin taxonomy. My wife and I were furious when Gardener’s World took its winter break. We spent that fallow time plotting, planning, listening to RHS podcasts and reading gardening books.
As we made Kentish friends, we gravitated towards gardeners. Among the earliest and best were the painter Alice Instone and her husband, Hugh.
They live on the other side of Great Dixter, the grounds that surround their farmhouse an inspiration to us as we sought to transform our more modest, suburban-looking plot. Alice, too, had come from London, knowing nothing, but she was four years ahead of us on her gardening journey, and had an artist’s visionary eye.