I know that plants need light, air and water for survival. They have roots in the soil and grow towards the light and against gravity.
I know that vegetables generally appear in summer, fruits in summer or autumn, bulbs in spring. Except autumn crocuses, which are bulbs that come out in autumn. Flowers can appear at any time of year, depending what the flower is.
I know that most plants and trees die back in winter, then reappear in spring. Except Christmas trees, which appear in November, flourish in December, and are afflicted by a selective and vicious pestilence that disgorges them all over the pavements in January.
I know that different plants like different temperatures, quantities of sunlight and water, types of soil. They like to be sown, pruned, repotted at different times. But I don’t know which plants, or which times.
I know that certain plants that will never grown in Scotland, no matter what. Plants originating from the jungles and deserts of the world will turn their noses up at this lovely land. But I don’t know which of the plants that grow contendedly in the gardens of Southern England would not like to grow here.
So you see, I have a decent handle on the general stuff. More of a handle, at least, than the imbecilic office worker one too often meets who simply cannot understand why the office spider plant/swiss cheese plant/african violet left faithfully in their care has gone brown and expired. (‘Plants just die when I go near them. I don’t know why.’ These people should not be allowed to have children.)
But as we know from the splendid Alan Bennett, knowledge is not general, it is specific. I don’t know the names of most of the plants in our garden, nor their characteristics or tendencies. I don’t know what extra attention, if any, each one would like by way of feeding or pruning. I want to grow tomatoes, courgettes, peas but I don’t know which varieties to buy nor when to plant them. I don’t know when to fertilise the roses, when to deadhead the hydrangeas (at least I know they are hydrangeas), nor what best to plant in the unused plant pots that are loitering about the garden. I don’t even know what I don’t know, only that there is a lot to know and a lot to do, and I may struggle to keep up.
But I am going to learn it all. I suppose it comes down to why I am gardening in the first place, which requires a whole essay of its own. I have already learned all those interesting things about the snowdrops. I am about to learn a whole lot more about the bulbs I planted myself and which are poking their curious noses out of the soil at this very minute. It’s one thing to read on the packet that a bulb comes up in February, another to look out of your window on your birthday to see crocuses and thus learn that crocuses mean February.
And I have splendiferous teachers. The internet, of course, which can provide any quick answer I need. I am also blessed to have The Cousin living round the corner because quite splendidly he actually gardens for a living, and has already been round our garden telling me what everything is (I forgot plenty of it quite shortly afterwards). Then there’s The Sister, who also lives nearby and though doesn’t have a garden of her own has grown tomatoes and various herbs successfully and speaks with a great deal of confidence and authority on most subjects which is morale-boosting if not always accurate. There’s my mother, a veritable horticultural guru, hundreds of miles south, and her siblings, my aunts and uncles, all hugely experienced gardeners each with their own beautiful garden filled with flowers, herbs, shrubs and trees of wondrous health and variety. On the top branch of this tree of knowledge is my grandmother who despite being 92 years old and mostly blind has the prettiest and most fragrant English cottage garden one could ever wish to have the privilege of wandering through.
After one or two initial ventures in my new garden I feel no longer afraid of what I don’t know, only impatient and keen and courageous, and wryly grateful of my garden’s restrictions and limitations, the low, slanting, fleeting light, the cold and damp, and the late frosts, knowing they will help to focus and structure my development as a gardener just as writing to the rules of a sonnet disciplines the poet.