This year the Garden Museum ran its second Mollie Salisbury Cup, a memoir writing competition named in honour of the Garden Museum’s late president.
This year’s theme was ‘The Problem With Gardening’, about which candidates were invited to send entries of no more than 1,500 words. Judged by Lady Rose Cecil (daughter of the late Marchioness of Salisbury), Nicola Shulman, and Mary Keen, the winner would receive £750, and two runners-up £250 each, and the winning entry will be published in Hortus. They also read their work aloud on the final day of the Garden Museum Literary Festival 2019 at Houghton Hall, Norfolk.
We are thrilled to share here the three winning entries for all to read.
1st Place – The Problem with Gardening, by Tim Relf
The problem with gardening is it’s never finished – and I’m someone who likes to complete things.
As a child, I couldn’t bear to leave a jigsaw puzzle partially done. I became an adult who hated to abandon any task unaccomplished. I make a lot of lists. I’m impatient. I’m a doer.
I’ve always believed that, with knowledge and hard work, most problems can be solved. And so I believed it would be with this garden.
“Shows potential,” the estate agent said, when we viewed the house in 2017.
“A rod for your own back,” my wife reckoned.
But how hard could it be? It was only a third of an acre. I’d look up where to put plants and put them there. They would grow. It would be like any other endeavour. I’d figure out what to do and do it.
Before the removals lorry had driven away, I was conjuring visions of wafting round it within the year, guiding friends from colourful bed to specimen tree – via tasteful hard landscaping, of course – with them making suitably appreciative noises.
I did my research, consulting countless books and trawling the internet. I drew lots of plans. I even went on a garden design course.
I questioned friends and relatives like they were suspects in a police drama. So in your opinion what precisely would be the best combination of perennials for early summer colour? What, exactly, would grow best in that shady spot? Where, based on your experience, would be the best place to run the new path?
I immediately hit a problem, though. Definitive answers weren’t forthcoming. My project-management days hadn’t prepared me for this. I like processes, order, rules. I was the kid who was deeply troubled when told that after you’ve learnt the rules of grammar, you could break them. Surely, you learn them precisely so you can avoid breaking them?
I could do this, though. It would be a challenge, but I’d find the solutions and implement them. It would be a task like any other. I’d complete it and move on. I’d finish it.
The problem with gardening is things die – and no one told me that.
Take last year. The wildflower plugs I planted among my fruit trees washed away in the March deluge. My beech whips, planted to fill a gappy hedge, fried in the summer heatwave. My beautiful box, the one I’d nursed through The Beast From the East (even venturing outside in a dressing gown in the middle of one particularly brutal night to haul it in to the garage) succumbed to blight.
“Don’t take it personally,” people told me. “This is what happens. You get used to it.”
I water and generously, I prune shrubs and trees at the recommended times, I try to remember Beth Chatto’s mantra, ‘Right plant, right place’. Yet still things die and I struggle with this. It feels too much like failure. I like things to be right, to be just so. I’m a stickler in that respect. Old-fashioned, perhaps. Friends tell me I need to loosen up.
But at times the odds seem stacked against me. Even putting aside my own ineptitude, there is the cold Welland Valley wind, the heavy clay soil which splits in summer and puddles into a paste in winter, plus the former farmyard on which we sit, my spade habitually hitting rubble, a footprint from a former era a few scratched centimetres under the surface. Every season is different; each brings new challenges whether it’s freak weather, diseases or slugs. Just when I think I know my enemy, another pops up. My latest adversary, moles – the evidence of which mounts nightly.
I’m realising you can’t buy your way out of problems, either. In fact, I’m having to positively ration my purchases. It’s all too tempting to spend money and there’s simply so much I need.
“Need or want?” my wife asks, as if that’s a distinction of consequence.
The prospect of a trip to a garden centre or nursery can virtually make me salivate. Meanwhile, I scan eBay for inanimate bargains: pots and trellising and, my latest acquisition, a beautiful wood and wrought iron bench in need of some TLC. As a young man, I managed to resist the allure of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll – ironic that it could now be horticultural hoarding that sends me sailing, smiling, to financial ruin.
The problem with gardening is you can never know enough – and that frustrates me.
Having been informed that studying neighbours’ gardens is a great way to learn what grows well locally, I’ve been wandering round the village, my dog as decoy, peering over fences and walls.
Occasionally, shamefully, I take covert photos on my phone, probably already marking myself out as a would-be burglar in the process (“I was only taking photos of the aquilegia, your honour”).
I collect the resulting ideas like a magpie. Verbena in New Zealand wind grass; grape hyacinths for a burst of blue at an otherwise dull time of year; a repeat-flowering rose, trained around the trunk of a gnarled apple tree.
In the mornings, armed with this newly acquired knowledge, I’m like a greyhound in a trap. I simply can’t wait to get out there and get on. It’s impossible to spend just 20 minutes outside – one task merely opens the door on another. It’s like dominoes falling. I come up for air and an hour’s passed.
There’s always more to learn, though; you simply can’t know enough. I consume books and TV shows by the dozen. Sadly, I’ve discovered the only thing I have in common with gardening God Monty Don is a retriever. His pair, however, pad dutifully and responsibly around after him; mine digs at the lawn, galumphs through my borders, refusing to respect clear no-go zones, and hoovers up windfall apples, only for them to reappear later in various unpleasant formats.
I read on buses and trains, I read in bed; I read when I really should be working. I wake in the night and swimming through my sleepy brain are curious and beautiful words from my newfound vocabulary: black-eyed Susan, snake’s head fritillary, pheasant’s tail grass. Having never studied it as a kid (my school was bigger on metalwork than mythology), I’m even absorbing a few Latin terms: Stipa gigantea, Spiraea japonica, Fagus sylvatica.
The thirst for knowledge is addictive.
The only real problem with gardening – the only big one – is that the little problems can sometimes feel so many and so varied it’s occasionally easy to forget why we do it.
Right now, I have a to-d0 list that’s so long it could fill a whiteboard. Here’s what I’m going to do, though: I’m going to go and sit on my bench, the one I’ve painstakingly restored. I’m going to leave my phone in the house. I’m going to take a few moments among the birds and the blossom to remember, along with my many mistakes, my more sporadic successes: the smell of my first-ever rose, the border-cum-wall I built from local stone, my alpine bed, sparkling in the sunshine.
Two years ago, I thought a garden was a task to be completed. I was wrong. You don’t solve it, fix it, beat it or reach a categorical conclusion. There are no simple, off-the-shelf answers – just trial and error and experience and a healthy dollop of luck (and often a healthy dollop of horse manure). It’s a never-ending process, a partnership.
I think of that boy, the one enthusiastically – no, let’s be honest because gardeners are generally a straight-talking bunch, obsessively – finishing jigsaw puzzles. He was convinced perfection was a state that had to be attained, one that could be learned, like a list of spellings or the eight times table.
It’s taken decades, but this garden is teaching me that there is a kind of perfection in imperfection – in surprises and random events and compromises and things not quite right.
Life always felt like a race to me, but gardening has helped me slow down. I feel in touch with the seasons again. I sleep well at night. For the first time in years, people tell me I look well. I am very much a novice, but I feel inexplicably protective – even a little proud – of this slab of soil.
Now, sitting on this bench, I’m suddenly startled by my foxgloves, spearing skyward. I swear they’ve grown overnight. Yes, things die. But they live more.
Perhaps this garden is the jigsaw. One with my story, our story – the sum total of my experiences, loves, hates, hopes and fears – painted on this patch of Leicestershire ground.
I’ll never finish it or make it perfect, but that’s not the point. Being out here in all this sometimes baffling, occasionally expensive, ever-changing, beautiful, unfinished possibility – that’s the point.
Two years in, this is just the beginning.
Runner up – The Problem with Gardening, by Ruth Landreth
Then– Birds shout at each other- banging on about us playing / gossiping;
the sentinel watches me and Madeleine, live broadcast.
Vrrrrmm as hedge sparrows nip across and back.
Busy bodies. Starlings show off / flypast.
Mum digs, the slide of the spade into soil-
slice, lift, shift- repetition.
Watering in- hearing the ground / seeds / plants gulp-
poor manners / in competition.
Now– Whining lawnmower
Screech of chainsaw
Then– Dandelion clocks tell the time / wafting aimlessly,
Dad points out common blue, cabbage white,
peacock-show off, fritillary flight.
Peat versus Daphne,
Honeysuckle fights with Curry,
Sarah’s favourite- Jasmine, against Mum’s-Lily,
Sweet William mingles with Basil.
Dad opens the compost bin…
the smell of rotting, ‘Good for you. Breathe it in’.
Now– Bees hunted by a storm roll of pesticide,
trying to swerve, tiny missile, surface to air.
Ineffective against the advance,
sting no sword against chemical warfare.
Then– Don’t get me started…
Mum wants roses, a brash clash,
Amelia is pink, Alec is red, Arthur Bell rocks up- yellow!!!
Fetch the dark glasses- they let us plant a mass of marigold, rudbeckia, petunia;
Jenny’s grown a brazen poppy meadow.
Grey leaves pastel petals.
If in doubt, gravel it.
Then– Mum’s DIY fertiliser sits by the water butt- gently brewing-
that smell didn’t come off my fingers for weeks.
But as long as the plants are OK,
always the plants… cheek.
Midges crowd round the pond,
haphazard haze, they shimmer,
Frog spawn echoes unappreciated school dinners.
Now– Solar powered stream
bubbles over rocks of polystyrene.
Then- false pretences / con artists
Never saw a fox wearing gloves,
chocolate cosmos we couldn’t eat.
Never saw a bear wearing breeches,
candytuft was not a sweet.
Tobacco plant Dad couldn’t smoke,
fir trees that weren’t warm and snuggly.
Snowberries that oozed rather than melted,
those Lizzies definitely weren’t that busy.
Somethings don’t change- Littering and vandalism
Birds drop twigs, deliberately messing up Dad’s / my lawn stripes.
During black currant season purple guano-
so that it oozes up through our gullible / bare foot / toes.
Slugs / snails flaunt their destruction on my courgettes,
they only win silver.
Squirrels steal the hazel nuts- leave the husk,
take the treasure- stockpile for winter.
Somethings don’t change- Aggression
Thug thorns plunge in / hang on.
Butch brambles that wrap-and-conquer.
Nettles- the surreptitious sting- catching our tender places-
only blooming / itching later.
Spike of flower,
sword of sward,
body odour boxwood.
Bindweed strangles a gullible host.
Mint makes us a good cup of tea-
trying to choke / dissembling friend-
doesn’t fool me.
Lily of the valley, the teeny white flowers,
Underground their roots are plotting,
waiting for the chance to divide and defeat.
Ivy- tiny little fingers hang onto walls-
refusing to let go,
Somethings never change
Rummaging in the shed.
Runner up – The Problem with Gardening, by Shelley Hastings
The house was on a small cul-de-sac next to a dry-cleaning factory. It was council, two up two down. Our neighbours were squatters on one side and a builder on the other. It had a small concrete garden with a patch of grass and beds full of weeds. It was south facing though, and the sun streamed in the kitchen window. It was the first place we had rented that was all our own. I was nine and my sister was seven. We shared a bedroom and mum painted the yellowing kitchen cupboards and filled the window sills with house plants before starting outside. Our garden backed onto the red brick factory wall and someone had painted a large white rabbit on it, but the paint had dripped, so it looked like it was melting.
It was nearly winter, so it was a slow start. Mum got rid of the rubbish and stone and cleared the earth. I can remember her raking. Putting broken bits of brick and glass in piles. She dug it all through. I can’t remember ever helping. We used to stay a week with mum and then a week with dad – so every time we came back things had changed. She shaped the beds and put down turf. She planted spring bulbs. At the back she put two small trees, one for me and one for my sister, weeping willows. In the middle we had a small patch of grass and honeysuckle climbing over the door. When the frost had gone, she bought an old bench and filled pots with mint, sage, rosemary and lavender. She scattered wild flower seeds in the cracks in the concrete. She planted a fuchsia bush on one side, and it took quickly, growing fast, so when the spring came the fence was covered in pink and purple bell-like flowers.
Our builder neighbour was called Burt. He was short and kind and always covered in plaster dust. He helped us fix things. He had a wild overgrown garden with very long grass, ivy up the back wall and nowhere to sit. He also had a magic black cat with six toes called Hampstead. Burt was often away for work and Hampstead was lonely, so we adopted him, and he prowled our new garden. He scratched his back against the bark of the trees, sniffed the flowers and curled up in the sun on our bench. Hampstead liked Burt’s jungle but seemed to like our garden more. I would lie on our new grass with him asleep on my belly, stroking his velvet black fur and kissing his huge soft paws. His purring whirring in my ears.
Mum would come down in the morning, unlock all the bolts and then stand barefoot on the concrete drinking her morning coffee. She would stroke Hampstead who would watch the birds but was too lazy to catch any. Lots of little creatures moved in. Bees and ladybirds and butterflies and ants. Forget-me-nots grew out the pavement cracks. After a while I stopped noticing how much the garden had changed. I became a teenager. I knew the once small trees had grown with me. I loved how sunny it was. I sucked the sweetness out of the honeysuckle and lay on the small patch of grass having secret fags after school whilst mum was at work. I pulled the curly red cord of the phone out of the kitchen with me so I could talk to my friends whilst I sat on the back step. It became my patch of land. My manor. One of my school friends moved to the end of the terrace and we would stick our heads out of the window and talk or climb into each other’s gardens, listening to Radio 1, wearing our swimsuits.
Hampstead got very old, his fur became thin and grey, you could feel his bones when you stroked him. He slept a lot and eventually he died. Burt came over and we made up a ceremony. We walked in line past the rosemary pots and fuchsia bush and stood under the willow trees that were strong and tall and we sang songs. Burt dug a hole. I wrote in chalk on a big old pebble. I felt very sad, he was the first thing I had loved that had died. A short while later mum adopted another cat. We called her Elsa, after the lioness from Born Free. She was ginger and white, and she loved being outside more than being stroked. She hid in Burt’s long grass and slept under the willow tree. She loved our garden and was much less needy than Hampstead. She kept killing birds and bringing them in through the cat flap.
When I was fifteen, we moved to a new house up the hill. My sister and I were getting our own rooms. The new house used to be my gran’s and had a bigger garden with a shed and a pond. No rubbish or bricks to rake through. We took photos of our concrete garden, of the flowers and the trees and of Burt’s overgrown grass and of all of us against the melting rabbit on the red brick wall. I was almost twice the size than when we had first moved in. After we left we kept Elsa indoors but when we let her out to explore she disappeared. We walked the streets. We were worried she was hurt or had been run over, she was a fearless cat. We put up posters on lampposts but two weeks later Burt called us and said that he had seen her sat in our old garden waiting to be let in.
We didn’t know the new tenants but when we got there Burt warned us things had changed. He let us out his back door and into his jungle and we peered over the wall. All mum’s planting was gone. The trees had been cut down, the bushes and honeysuckle pulled up and all the beds were dug through and bare. Only the parched lawn remained. It looked very empty and neat and square. Elsa was there. She was asleep in the middle of the yellowing grass. It was like she knew it was wrong, and she had been waiting there to show us. Burt climbed the wall to collect her and we put Elsa in the cat box. Burt said he hadn’t seen them do it, but that maybe it was just too much trouble for them to look after. He put his arm on my shoulder. Maybe they saw it as more of a problem than a pleasure, he said. Maybe, my mum said. Then she drove us home in silence.
When I remember that garden now, I still remember the shock of that day and of Elsa’s furry body on the shorn bare grass. Mostly though, I remember the willow trees, and our magic black cat with his soft padded paws. I remember the scent of the honeysuckle, and I remember my mum, early morning, holding her face up to the sun, waiting for the kettle to boil.