- Are you looking for tips and advice on how to keep your city garden in full bloom during self-isolation? Join Debora Robertson in the comments section of this article at 4pm (GMT) today where she will be answering your gardening questions. You can leave your question ahead of time below or join live.
The truism that gardeners are natural optimists has never been tested more than right now. That this time of socially-responsible, Corona-induced confinement coincides with the most beautiful spring days is particularly poignant, and those of us fortunate to have any outside space at all must count ourselves particularly lucky.
Normally at this time of year I am a gardening fiend, planting, digging and tending, with mud beneath my fingernails and every hair out of place. Each Sunday morning, in my previous life, I would pull myself out of bed to go to Columbia Road Flower Market. It was one of the happiest times of my week, weaving among the stalls, chatting to the sellers, buying cut flowers for the house and plants for the garden, then going home to plant and arrange before sitting down to Sunday lunch.
I haven’t been for two weeks now. The cheerful rhythm of my calendar has been disrupted. The rhythm of all of our lives has been disrupted, and the gentle domestic pleasures we once took for granted now - so quickly - feel strangely exotic.
There are many studies that show being outside in general and gardening in particular is beneficial to our mental health. It can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. We need it more than ever now. Those of us who have any outside space at all, from gardens, to yards and balconies, even window boxes, know that even at the best of times, these can provide precious balm. Mark Diacono, author of Grow & Cook: The Ultimate Kitchen Garden Guide (Headline, £10.99), says, “Until last week, I hadn’t really appreciated the pleasure I could get from something as ordinary as mowing. Being surrounded by hedgerow chatter felt so right. The hint of warmth in the sunshine pushed away the craziness for a while, and I think we could all do with some of that. Regardless of what’s happening, it is spring, there is hope, and being in it - even for the most mundane reason - allowed me to feel that. Gardening is so often spoken of as an act of hope, of investing now in a pleasure to come, but right now, even the simple tasks can lift the soul in a way that makes today better.”
There are still plenty of things we can be doing, even without trips to the garden centre or nursery. Now is the time to dig out all of those old seed packets you have hanging around. If you, like me, find them irresistible and always buy far more than I can use in one season, you should have plenty to be getting along with. While the germination rates in old seed are less reliable, you will still probably get decent results for your efforts.
Give old pots and seed trays a good scrub and get planting. If you have held onto empty egg cartons and loo roll tubes (surely more of a status symbol now that a duck-egg blue Tiffany box) they make wonderful seed planters. Just fill them with soil, plant your seeds and once the roots are well established, plant them out just as they are. For most of us it’s probably too early to be sowing outside – there is still a risk of frost at night – so keep your seedlings inside, filling up window sills with their cheerful promise. Once you can sit on the ground comfortably without suffering from a chilly bottom, you can probably risk scattering a few seeds outside, straight into the soil.
It’s a good time, too, to divide up clumps of summer-flowering perennials. Just lift them gently with a fork and work from the centre outwards (see rhs.org.uk if you are unsure how to do it). Plant them in their new homes and water them in well.
If you feel you must have new plants, there are still some nurseries offering a limited mail-order service at the moment (see box), from seeds and perennials, to shrubs and trees.
Certainly, many of us right now are thinking about growing some of our food, particularly quick-growing herbs and cut-and-come-again salad leaves. This is a wonderful place to start even if you have never grown anything before, as they can make a real difference to simple meals and for the most part, requires little skill or effort.
Novelist Charlotte Mendelson, who transformed her scrubby six-square metres of urban back yard into a garden larder and wrote about it in her book, Rhapsody in Green (Kyle Books, £16.99) says, “Gardening is the life-enhancing, soul-strengthening, mind-expanding and, crucially, muddy, therapy we all need now. Whether it's watching a coriander-seed from your spice-rack push its way through earth-crumbs, or overenthusiastically pruning a mystery shrub or, joy of joys, harvesting and eating even a single home-grown leaf or berry, nothing will make you feel smugger or more alive. Because I'm greedy I always forget that other people garden for looks, not munching. But there is beauty in every blossom and seedling, sensory pleasure in the smell of tomato leaves, the explosion of raspberry-juice on one's tongue. Gardening brings peace and happiness. It changed my life. I hope others are starting to feel the same.”
If our current circumstances have taught us anything it is perhaps that we should, if not lower our expectations exactly, but to take pleasure in what we already have. Laetitia Maklouf, author of The Five Minute Garden: How to garden in next to no time (National Trust, £9.99) says, “Forget anything you may feel about your garden; this is THE time to slough any guilt or overwhelm off and have your outside space fulfil its actual destiny - namely to bring you joy and peace and respite and BETTERNESS. You might be looking outside completely at a loss as to where to begin, and there is a cure for this condition: pick up a broom and spend five minutes sweeping your terrace or steps.
"This is like performing a magical act; the broom gets you outside and the sights, sounds and smells of the garden will do the rest. Now look, what's the first thing you see? Is it a pot of gone-over bedding from last year? Pull that out right now. Perhaps it's a prickly rose stem that always threatens to have your eye out? Chop it off. And perhaps prune the whole rose while you're there. Weeds appearing? Grab yourself a kneeler, a trowel or even a knife from the kitchen, and start clearing slowly and with purpose, removing brown crispy bits of perennial as you go, and any fallen leaves; just a small area... just five minutes.
"A few short forays like this, and you'll have the measure of your garden, along with the joyful spirit that fills the soul when something feels doable, and knowable, and under control. Mow the lawn. Put out cushions and perhaps a table cloth. Sit. Breathe. Be happy."
So there you are. Pick up a broom. Pull a weed. Put out a cushion. Love your garden and it will love you right back. There has never been a better time than now.