Twelve or so years ago, of a late Friday afternoon, it was not uncommon to see a young, conspicuously muddy man on board a crowded First Great Western train, leaving Paddington for rural West Wales. Yet more conspicuous was the muddy compost sack standing among the commuter cases. If a carriage shudder un-crumpled the top, as often happened, passengers caught a disconcerting sight of dark roots and loamy worms; more accurately, a sack of mud.
These were my early months as a maintenance gardener in London, sleeping on sofas throughout the week and returning home for the weekend with a bag of perennials. I was at that time newly under the gardening spell, when every Latin name learned is a glimpse at a camouflaged language — an empowerment of a kind — and the very notion that the world’s most spectacular and well-known flowers may be grown from butchered chunks of illegible roots is both thrilling and baffling.
First were tall white phlox, blood-red Russell lupins and Japanese anemones; plants I would be splitting and transplanting in the borders of North London gardens and laying aside rather than disposing as offcuts. More than a decade on, this is still the realm of horticulture I find most enthralling: flower roots crudely riven by a blunt spade, yanked up and shared. Flowers from quartered mud. This remains a marvel.
All London castoffs were at that time destined for a new garden borne of Welsh clay and an amateurish design, initiated while living back under the parental roof in the months between university and London employment. The city for me then, as for all those starting out, was a combination of improvised independence and unaffordable rent. The gardening was fast-paced, exhausting and professionally objective, repaying with experience what it wouldn’t financially.
By contrast, the garden in Wales was evolving into a playground of un-pressured experiments. At its outset, months before, my mother and I had puzzled from the contours of a newly levelled landscape around the family house – a rudimentary configuration of reinforced banks, brick paths and rustic walls. It is an incongruous design inconceivable to either of us now, but one I wouldn’t dream of changing for its proud exhibition of naive decisions. Lessons learned in one’s first ever garden are the all important ones, those that follow matter half as much — "mistakes" continue in perpetuum. The Welsh garden soon became an obliging depository for my developing occupation, I returned with half-baked, high-spirited ideas and ever more plants in soil-filled bags.
Naturally, visits dwindled. An interval of a fortnight, then a month, then a season. As such, the garden itself became the primary familial link: phone calls home were more Gardener’s Question Time than anything else. Meanwhile, its plantings evolved in-step with my career: out with the cheap osteospermums, hell no to hyacinths; in with persicarias, ligularias and frost-tender asters. I sent envelopes of collected seeds and those passed to me by colleagues — crimson marigolds from Great Dixter, echiums and eryngiums destined never to germinate. I distance-planned an extra border, altered shrubs via text and arrived once with a nine foot paperbark maple and no idea where to put it. During this time my mother ploughed on with the rest of the garden, creating hedged-off rooms for vegetables, a gathering of trees and areas of shrubs and lawn. Her horticultural interests rekindled as my own took root, our conversations overheard as riddles of ardent opinion: she knows the limits of the valley’s rich, wet clay, I remain woefully optimistic of what it might yield. Similarly, she has patience — enough to trust little whips to develop into an impenetrable windbreak hedge, while an overeagerness in me starts to question our species choices. Further lessons from the soil.
Two months before the first lockdown of 2020 — oblivious to the impending storm — I drove home for an overdue visit. We had decided to go looking for wild Welsh daffodils in Pembrokeshire, the stout little all-yellow Tenby narcissus (Narcissus obvallaris) that has for centuries appeared in the hedgerows of Southwest Wales. I was growing Tenbys in pots at the Garden Museum that spring but wanted to witness them out in the open, at large on the home turf. A memorable morning navigating narrow lanes and backwater copses led us to the Cleddau estuary, near East and West Williamston, where on the slope of a walled churchyard we spotted the signature glaucous, low-sprung foliage of a Tenby. The find was cheered with a beer in the back room of a noisy homespun pub. Now an alien concept.
I couldn’t have known then how little our family would see of each other across the subsequent year. Two abandoned Easters; cancelled weekends, cancelled Christmas, a tough long year for families. Gardening, however — whether outdoors or with houseplants — has undoubtedly been one of the year’s few escapes. Throughout the pandemic national press has reported the increasing volume of people growing things for the first time, a gardening nation turned to the trowel and redoubling its horticultural fervour. Seed companies have experienced surging sales, garden centres have anxiously counted their diminishing compost stocks. Early on, my mother called regarding soft-tip cuttings, and, though distanced by 200 miles, the garden exchanges pulled a rope between us. This is the nature of gardening.
Last autumn, with nowhere suitable at the museum to transplant my flowered and now dormant daffodils, I packed the bulbs in soil and took them to the post office; packaged mud once again travelling across the border. The little Tenbys, I hear, are now pushing up through the garden’s clay; surfacing, as is tradition, by Mother’s Day.
Words and images by Matt Collins.