Gardening: a warning from nature

A friend of mine who is a gardener was bemoaning his workload to me and wondering how he was going to cope with the demands of the coming days. I mentioned that I was currently at something of a loose end and I could just about tell one end of a spade from the other (I would google it as soon as I got home) and he, perhaps rather foolishly, agreed to offer me some casual work. As a result of this chance meeting I appear to have become a gardener.

Now when I use the title 'gardener', this suggests that I have some deep knowledge of greenery and a profound understanding of the land around me, which I do not.  I use this term to describe myself purely because I have done some gardening and therefore I can claim it in good faith. I have got the weals, bites and cuts to justify the title even if I remain a complete amateur.  I have cut stuff back, I have deadheaded roses, I have dug up roots, I have removed ivy, I have tussled with a bush whose name even now escapes me but it bloody hurt and I have uprooted unsuspecting trees. I therefore feel justified in calling myself a gardener.

The guru

By contrast to my severely limited knowledge, my friend and now boss is one of those almost mystical people who feel this trade.  This is someone who gives off a wonderfully calming aura of awareness and experience and connection to every scrap of growing stuff surrounding him. He knows the whole history of a shrub, the evolution and vicissitudes of a tree, the location of the annoying tree stump into which you are going to crash the mower ( I haven't yet but it's early days...).  He has nurtured whole estates and exhibits a passion for every area of growth that is truly inspiring. The challenge is, having called myself a gardener after a mere two days of pain, what can I call this philosopher of nature?

The apprentice

The point is I don't want to give myself airs.  I have just done a bit of gardening and as someone who grew up in a flat in South London, my new pastime is proving to be both a delight and an education.

The first day was a straightforward introduction to the trade as I was given the job of mowing several lawns in the grounds of a beautiful house somewhere in darkest Oxfordshire.  This job was carried out on a ride-on mower - fun for the first hour, less so as the day wore on, although the insouciance with which I was throwing it about by the end of the afternoon was rewarding.  Who knew I would get the chance to render a croquet lawn smooth, taking care to keep to the rather haphazard shape, ending up in the middle where I was required to execute absurdly tight turns as I finished off the last few strips?  Driving away and looking back on your handiwork is somewhat akin to the feeling you get as a child when you build a particularly good Lego model of a spaceship or a cereal packet and toilet roll SS Queen Mary.

And the top field? Well, if Wimbledon needs a groundsman, I'm their man. It was like a billiard table by the time I'd finished. (It absolutely wasn't but you will never know the truth of it. Suffice it to say that it looked okay and the boss was satisfied.)

Negotiating my new toy around a small lake, up tiny tracks which felt like they were at 45 degrees and down the tiny rise to the compost bins was remarkably rewarding - helped, it must be acknowledged, by beautiful weather.  When the biggest problem you face at work is topping up the sunblock and staying hydrated, things are pretty good.

Something's bugging me

This first day brought one of those moments beloved of sitcoms.  Pootling along on the mower, I felt something in my hat. I waved it away but this was a mistake as what turned out to be a bee with an attitude took umbrage at my assault and joined battle. What ensured was one of those scenes beloved of 1970s sitcoms of some idiot in shorts hurtling (at about 10mph) towards a pond on a ride-on mower waving both arms and a straw hat as an unseen assailant sought to wreak terrible revenge on him for encroaching on its territory.  

The bee was a persistent little bugger and our duel continued for some way until eventually he decided he'd made his point and went off to tell his mates about the latest idiot they'd sent to cut the grass.  I rehearsed my choicest Anglo-Saxon and rubbed the wound this vicious creature had inflicted while the Buddha of Gardening wandered gently over and, grinning, proferred some cream.

Turns out bees don't die when they sting you, the wretches.

Dog days

Day two was similarly idyllic, even if nature decided to offer me something by way of a wake up call.  After a hazy start, the sun once more began to blaze and the surroundings were equally beautiful. I began with what was quite literally a more pedestrian mower which I used to do a smaller lawn in the artistic artistic curves the guru has recommended, all leading away to a focal point to increase the size of the vista.  

Before this impressionist mowing could begin, there was the job of removing the windfalls from beneath the apple tree and clearing up thousands of poos from four very happy dogs with healthy digestions.  Once this had been done, the work of defining beautiful lines began. This proved tricky as the grass was on the dry side and the sun blazing. Sunglasses helped, I discovered but still there was much gazing to see where I had gone before and trying to define the right line. I never imagined that gardening was this pernickerty.

By the end of the job I stood and looked, a little disappointed but the guru wandered up, paused, looked and suggested that I take a step back and reflect on the job. True to form, it did look better from the patio. It needed a bit of rain but this particular summer that was true of the whole country.

Hand me my machete

The lawn done, I was tasked with removing some unwanted growth from the side of the house (I couldn't begin to describe what it was: it was green and unwanted).  I entered into the task with gusto and everything was going fine until that dreaded moment when realised that far from simply removing the unwanted stuff, I had also cut through a plant which wasn't supposed to be removed. Cue 'I've dropped the best china' angst until the guru approached and I confessed my misdemeanour. He shrugged and told me not to worry, it would grow back. 

How on earth do you get that relaxed?!

Overconfidence and angry bushes

There was much tidying and some deadheading of roses. By this point I was preparing for Gardeners' Question Time, although I did have to ask twice what the stuff growing on the front of the house was (wisteria, it turns out - I'll never remember...).  The last job of the day was cutting back a very large bush of some description which involved a ladder, a prayer and a lot of wobbling around inside said bush as the ladder did the dance of the giddy gardener. Well, I thought, what could go wrong?

Me, it turns out. The bush and me fought it out, the branches fell and the blood flowed and I naturally developed an overconfidence born of tiredness and anger. I leaned a bit too far to reach an outlier and the ladder wobbled a bit more. The bush, apparently not bearing any grudge, caught me mid-fall and I clung on, confused, stuck and contemplating my apparently now inevitable fate.

I called for help from the guru but in true English fashion, I didn't call too loudly as I didn't want to disturb anyone. He was otherwise occupied so I faced the simple choice of hanging around or extricating myself from the torment single-handed.  This I did, swearing and cursing all the time, wrangling the ladder into a position in which I could rescue myself and clambering down to ground level. I regrouped and finished the job in a rather truculent manner, returning to ground level, nursing new wounds and with a growing respect for nature.  The guru naturally wandered up and took some generous pleasure in my predicament.

Don't let it end

There is clearly more to gardening than mowing lawns, angry bees and argumentative bushes but I am still at an early stage.  It remains immense fun despite the various hazards and the physical exertions. The dream will end eventually and I'll find myself back in an office, hopefully doing something rewarding but for the moment, gardening in the English summer sun is enjoyable beyond feeble description, despite the underlying chaos of nature and my pathetic attempts to manage it.


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