Alex Preston

Sowing seeds of comfort

Sarah Raven takes us month by month through a selection of the best flowering plants for form and fragrance

Sowing seeds of comfort
Perch Hill in Sussex, the home of Sarah Raven. Credit: Jonathan Buckley
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A Year Full of Flowers: Gardening for all Seasons

Sarah Raven

Bloomsbury, pp. 384, £25

In the Garden: Essays on Nature and Growing

Various Authors

Daunt Books, pp. 224, £9.99

If you had asked me a year ago how a pandemic-panicked world of stockpiles, curfews and social isolation would influence my life in the garden, I might have drawn you a picture of myself as a kind of prepper homesteader, proudly feeding my family from the veg beds, trading spuds for loo rolls in the lanes around my house. As it was, last year was all about flowers for me, and while the lettuces and tomatoes were indeed bountiful and welcome, it was the glory of the sweet peas — the first thing I smelt on recovering from Covid — and the roses and dahlias that meant most. When all the news was ghastly and life felt scarily provisional, the nurturing of seeds into beautiful life took on an almost religious symbolism. And the high priestess of that religion is Sarah Raven.

Now Raven, whose seeds and plants are spectacularly good and whose catalogues often take preference over more pressing bedtime reading for me, has published a book that is at once a guide for the many who have recently embraced horticulture and a reference book for more experienced gardeners. A Year Full of Flowers, written in chatty, approachable prose, takes the reader month by month through a focused selection of the best plants for form and fragrance.

The chapters are interspersed with sections covering the winning cultivars of each species — the most dependable narcissi, the loveliest tulips, the sweetest-smelling roses. There are also practical illustrations that show you how to build your own propagator, how to use old guttering for seed trays, how to weave plant supports out of branches. It’s a guide to the good life, a means, as Raven says, of stretching the abundance of the growing season into the year’s darker margins: ‘I want every direction you look in,’ she says, ‘to be like a May Ball in full, dressed-up parade.’

The book is illustrated with Jonathan Buckley’s lustrous photographs of Raven’s garden at Perch Hill in Sussex, making it as visually beautiful as it is concerned with the creation of beauty. And this, surely, is the real pleasure of great gardening books: not so much their usefulness in the height of summer, but rather as objects of devotion for bleak November evenings, when sowing and growing seem like the actions of another existence altogether; and curling up with a book as heart-lifting and joy-filled as this is the closest we come to hope.

One of its particular pleasures is how straight-talking it is. Raven may live in acres of rolling Sussex Weald, but there’s nothing haughty or exclusive about her writing; her advice might as easily be applied to a shaded patch of urban garden as to a grand estate. This is the benefit of a book that homes in so precisely on select flowers for each month. You can take what you need from it, whether it’s filling planters on a roof terrace or the borders of a community garden.

The idea that gardening ought not to be the preserve of the landed wealthy has gained significant traction over the past year. It provides the impulse for a collection of 14 splendid essays arranged by themes: ‘The Garden Remembered’, ‘The Collective Garden’, ‘The Language of the Garden’ and ‘The Sustainable Garden’. We open with Penelope Lively, whose Life in the Garden is one of the best books about gardening of all time. Here she writes in typically graceful prose of the way her gardens expanded and contracted as her life grew and closed in again. Then, in passages that are almost painfully moving, she writes of her ‘old-age London days’, when, during lockdown, she walked circuits of the public garden square opposite her house, ‘a precious space in the city, a kind of oasis of green and growth amid the tarmac and brick’.

Garden squares appear again in Francesca Wade’s essay ‘A Common Inheritance’. The author of Square Haunting provides a breezily fascinating history of the garden square, those havens of rus in urbe that have become ‘organs of class segregation’. Paul Mendez, whose novel Rainbow Milk was one of the most brilliant debuts of last year, writes of what gardens meant to his parents, children of the Windrush generation struggling to make ends meet in the harsh and unwelcoming Black Country:

The English dream remained perpetually out of reach, but disparities between the England they expected and the one they received could at least be resolved in their gardens. They could dig up a little bit of English soil and be responsible for upholding tiny patches of its beauty.

This instinct — the wish to create beauty where previously there was ugliness —informs many of the essays in the collection, particularly Jon Day’s heart-warming story of an urban gardening collective that develops an extraordinary momentum, sweeping everyone in the area up in a gardening frenzy, including Day:

We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we developed a vague, inextricable urge to watch Gardeners’ World. At weekends I found myself eyeing up hedge trimmers in B&Q.

The essays all seem to engage, either directly or obscurely, with the pandemic, but none so powerfully as the piece by Kerri ni Dochartaigh, which is a diary of her lockdown summer, starting with the cruellest month, April, and building into a glorious celebration of the power of seed-sowing, of sharing, of looking through the seasons to a brighter future: ‘I wish I’d known, long before now, that sowing is an act of trust.’

Rebecca Solnit has written, rather dismissively, of the way gardens have become the small-scale loci of revolution for millennials. Not willing to change the world, they are happy with improving the pH of their soil. She misses something that is evident in both this strikingly wide-ranging collection of essays and in Raven’s majestic A Year Full of Flowers. When Voltaire said il faut cultiver notre jardin, he wasn’t talking about backing away from the world; he was giving us the tools to survive so that we might fight another day. Gardens have saved many of us this past year, and here we have two books whose warmth, intelligence and beauty are testimony to the restorative power of gardening.