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Book Extract | Andrew Timothy O’Brien: To Stand and Stare

Ahead of his book launch at the Museum on Tuesday 30 May, we share an exclusive extract from podcaster, writer, and online garden coach Andrew Timothy O’Brien’s new book To Stand and Stare: How to garden while doing next to nothing.

Let’s get one thing straight. Your garden will get along quite well without you. It just won’t be your garden. It will be that piece of land where once a garden was, and there is no tragedy in that. Every square inch of our planet’s surface is trying to get back to a state where it feels at ease with itself, a way of being from which forestry and agriculture, road building, town planning and, yes, even gardening continually strive to hold it back. This is not whimsy. This is science.

I can see it happening in my lawn, in my flowerbeds and borders and, particularly, in the more forgotten corners of the garden where plants I don’t remember inviting in make themselves at home, sinking roots deep down into soil while reaching ever skyward to gather in the sun’s largesse. I plant roses and paeonies, giant scabious and salvias, hardy geraniums and bold, bright geums – I water and feed them, stake them against wind and rain, deadhead and chop them to prolong the floral show. And as I labour, unseen by me, someone else plants nettle and cleaver, herb robert and wood avens, wild strawberry and creeping buttercup, foxglove, dandelion, forget-me-not, and dock – each will grow, flower, and set seed, and all of this while asking nothing of the human gardener. Ash tree seedlings will appear suddenly as if from nowhere, now six inches, now six feet (never turn your back on an ash seedling, it will be a rangy sapling tree before you know it), blackberries reach out to snag me across paths, defying summer drought to grow surely a foot a day with no need for the watering can without which my sweet peas would transform as I watch into a crackling tapestry, warp of dried raffia, weft of crinkled biscuit.

To please pollinating insects, I mothball the mower for several weeks and give the lawn leave to run to seed. Hoverflies and bees skim merrily from daisies to clover, selfheal and ribwort plantain. Blackthorn seizes the opportunity to rouse questing roots sent outward on previous excursions from the boundary hedge, and diminutive sloe bushes shoot upward through the turf. Bramble primocanes, having reached the peak of their trajectory, arch and plummet, taking root where they touch the ground. My garden wants to be a woodland, and seemingly the only thing in its way is me…

If you really want to garden while doing next to nothing, let the garden revert to woodland. Watch how its character shifts as nature gradually reclaims the space. Brave tangled growth to tramp the paths foxes will make through your wilderness – foxes are good at making paths, as are the badgers that might move in as you allow your space to rewild. Spend as much time with lowly mosses and lichens as you do with the loftier heights of holly, ash, hazel, and birch. Begin to number woodlice and worms among your friends. And so, the promise of this book’s title is discharged before we’re even past the introduction.

Going full tree-hugger could be a little extreme for some, but the ability to picture what that parcel of land could become – wants to become – if left to its own devices is fundamental to a fulfilling relationship with your garden, one that brings joy and escape and a sense of peace, rather than frustration, guilt and a nagging feeling of overwhelm. If becoming a gardener is about entering into a partnership, then it makes sense to get to know who you’re climbing into bed with, and while the garden doesn’t demand your activity, it does require your presence. How you choose to show up in that space, and what you choose to bring into being – whether a flower-filled wildlife haven, a sleek tribute to modernism, or something in between – is entirely up to you. But given finite resources of time, of money, of energy; given also the pressures on our environment at both local and global levels, perhaps a more low-intervention style of gardening – one where we develop the confidence to let it go and let it grow – is something that we need to think about embracing more widely.

This might not look exactly like the picture of a well-tended garden you, your fellow gardeners, or those who look upon your space carry around in your heads. But so what? So what if there are weeds (wildflowers – my heart!) in the lawn? So what if you have to push past sprawling perennials as they tumble haphazardly out of the flowerbeds and flop over paths? As well as extending our empathy outward towards nature, we need unashamedly to reconnect with our own preferences, needs and desires; reclaim the inherent joy of surrounding ourselves with abundance; and stop gardening to please other people. The emotional dissonance so many of us experience when it comes to our garden – that it won’t behave as it should, that we just don’t have enough time to tend to it, that we don’t even know where to start – have at their root a mistaken belief that we are somehow apart from, even above, nature herself. If we can restore this relationship then all our busyness in the garden begins to look less like work and more like time spent with a good, if slightly mercurial friend, with positive benefits of health and wellbeing for both parties.

When it came to writing this book, I didn’t think the world needed another “How To Garden” title – there’s a wealth of information out there expounding upon the many tasks that it’s all too easy to make your garden about. But there’s not so much about how you might like to be when you’re out there, at one with the plants and the wildlife and the weather. I’ve come to appreciate that an understanding of natural processes is the key to accessing the transformative power of the garden, and replacing feelings of confusion, overwhelm and stress with focus, a sense of inner peace and an increased facility to deal with what life throws at us on a daily basis…

Andrew will be joined in conversation by Chris Young, Consultant Gardening Publisher for DK Books on Tuesday 30 May, as they discuss whether or not a different kind of relationship with the garden might be the answer we’re all looking for.

Andrew Timothy O’Brien book launch tickets

To Stand and Stare is out now: buy the book

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