We are nearing the end of winter – yes, it is only a week or so until spring arrives, traditionally a time of the year when we start to get back out into our garden. So this is an opportune time to think about why gardens are still an important aspect of our lives.
I have a very eclectic taste in reading and I was looking at some of my garden books recently I came across a quote that appealed me about gardens.
‘A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience careful watchfulness; industry and thrift; above all, entire trust.’ Apparently written by one Gertrude Jekyll about a century ago.
We know that gardens and more importantly the social aspects of gardens have become increasingly important in recent years – the growth of community gardens and school kitchen gardens are great examples of that.
There is, of course, an enormous history of gardens. Going back to the Romans, who always travelled with a chestful of herbal plants – thereby starting the growth of herb gardens all over southern Europe and into Britain. Many of these plants originally came from places like Egypt as they had already established many of the uses of these plants – both culinary and medicinally.
This all means that gardens were more than just the aesthetic surrounds of our home that we often see them as today. In the pre-industrial economy gardens were an important part of the food and health system. So, they understood that if you plant sage, thyme or rosemary around cabbage it will do well and plating borage near strawberries will also help them grow and parsley encourages bees. These days we call it companion planting but in days gone by it appeared to be a haphazard mixture of plants – herbs, vegetables and fruits in different areas of the garden. Thus, like many of the things we now do on the basis of science, there was an historical precedent.
We often talk about understanding our soil before we plant anything. One ‘old wive’s tale’ was that if you want to know when to sow, take your trousers off and sit on the ground. Of course, we have a much more sophisticated versions of this these days but essentially it was about understanding if it was warm enough to start spring planting. Clearly feeling the bare soil with one’s tender flesh was a good – if uncomfortable – way of finding that was the case.
There are, of course, lots of old gardener’s tales – one I particularly liked was about old shoes – back in the day when they were made of leather – it was recommended that you pull them apart and remove any rubber, plastic or metal and bury the leather bits in the garden – apparently, they are highly recommended for peach trees.