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Preview: Alice Vincent’s ‘Rootbound: Rewilding a Life’

Young Fronds exclusive! Ahead of the release of her new book 'Rootbound' in January, Alice Vincent has shared a little sneak preview, just among fronds.

Blending memoir, horticulture and history, ‘Rootbound’ (available to pre-order now) examines how bringing a little bit of the outside in can help us find our feet in a world spinning far too fast. In this extract, Alice delves into the new millennial fascination with glasshouses…

Millennials revived the Victorian fascination with glasshouses. Not by acquiring them in the physical sense but through the narrow window offered by our smartphone screens, where a whole world of glass and condensating green can be accessed. The swooning curves of Kew’s palm house; the vines that smother the spiral staircases in Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. The way that Monstera deliciosa become dwarfed by the brutal concrete heft of the Barbican Conservatory, itself only built to cover the enormous fly shaft attached to the complex’s theatre. The ethereal clouds that billow through greenery in Singapore’s sky garden and the narrow, smothered tropical corridor of Chelsea Physic Garden.

Beyond the public glasshouses lie the less accessible ones. Like rare ferns in the nineteenth century, the elusiveness of these has made them even more desirable. The small conservatory of the South London Botanical Institute is beloved because of how rarely it opens. The barely contained wildness of a greenhouse full of cacti owned by an elderly man named Richard in Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire has gained its own kind of fame. Hand-painted signs on the roadside advertise ‘cacti for sale’ and explain, inside the greenhouse, that ‘all money raised by the sale of these plants goes to help children in the third world’.

While these spaces may be oft-overlooked in real life, their digital representations have inspired wanderlust and relief in millennials whose greatest stability lies in a twenty-four-month phone contract. I hungered for a place of my own just like thou­sands of others my age, whether that was the fantastical walled garden I sometimes daydreamed about or something as simple as a residence for more than a few weeks. The notion of a perma­nent home had become a fallacy, something not to be relied upon. A garden was an even more unthinkable privilege and that placed greenhouses – so long a trapping of the retired, suburban or merely quiet – in a position of strange new luxury. Admittedly, they looked good on Instagram: the photographer creators of Haarkon rapidly amassed an Instagram following of hundreds of thousands by posting beautiful images of greenhouses they had hunted out on their adventures around the world. Hashtags grouped the shots together – ‘#ihavethisthingwithglasshouses’, ‘#greenhousehunter’. Caro Langton and Rose Ray, creators of Studio Ro-Co, had their online success bolstered by photographs of their House of Plants, the name given to a rundown coach house in Hampstead that was blessed with a conservatory the size of a studio flat. When I visited Clark Moorten, custodian of the Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium in Palm Springs that was founded as a ‘cactus museum’ by his father in the Thirties, he mused that his humble greenhouse – more of a bunker, really, covered in corrugated plastic – ‘must be the most Instagrammed greenhouse in the world’. Young, made-up women in kaftans wielded SLRs behind him, the better to contrast their glamour against cacti that had grown over the decades to cover the ramshackle staging.

This unlikely rise in greenhouse popularity thrummed with something I had felt since childhood. The physical release I find in gardening, in growing things, has many origins but my grand­father’s greenhouses are among them. That giddy confusion between being both indoors and out, of making magic from nature and the tiny triumphs and failures such spell-making contains. The lost hours and careful minutes, the littleness of seeds and trays and pots and the grand scale of ambition – to grow grapes and tropical plants in Sussex and Reading! – all collided to make these spaces special. Square metres of quiet and repose for the sheer pleasure and challenge of growing things.

Grandpa’s house was partially flanked by glass; the greenhouse was tacked onto what he called the scullery, but the front door was surrounded by a porch of intricate panels. I never really noticed it when we visited – the double doors were always open, and we’d bustle in to knock on the front door and await the sound of him shuffling down the hall some minutes later. I was surprised to notice it some years later, when I looked up the listing online and saw his house in the estate agent’s photographs.

The light coming through the panes was green, bouncing off the magnolia tree and overgrown hedges of the front garden. This porch, an elegant Victorian creation, used to woo a new, anony­mous owner: I felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

I wasn’t yet twenty when I sought out Grandpa’s greenhouse for a university project, trying to satisfy the urge to retreat into my origins mere months after moving away from home. But even scrambling over the piles of plastic pots and bags of compost – the space had grown messy with Grandpa’s tenth decade – bestowed me with a kind of full-body sigh, a release that comes from occupying a space of concentrated growth. A week after he died, I found myself back in that greenhouse, taking in the smell of the spilled earth, too overcome to notice that all the plants were still growing.

Because things do continue to grow. Plants exist to live just like we do, in spite of bad days and confines. In spite of the punishing controls that we suffer under and that we put on ourselves.

Alice Vincent, photo by Giles Smith

Join us for the Rootbound Book Launch on Tues 18 February 2020

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