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In 2002, I accidentally started gardening when a friend and I thought it might be a laugh to take on an abandoned allotment in the Hampshire countryside. What happened during the first year of this venture ended up in book form; Allotted Time was published by Pan MacMillan in 2006. I managed to squeeze out another tome – The Incomplete Angler – which did nothing to add to my thus far glittering literary career…
Surprisingly enough, there was a limit to the market potential of a man approaching middle-age with all the grace and dignity of an elephant on ice-skates documenting his own incompetence in a brace of disciplines, whereas there seemed to be a gap in the market for another jobbing gardener with a desire to make a bit of money to prop up the garret. In short, the weeding flourished while the writing withered on the vine.
Fast-forward the best part of twenty years and my relationship with plants, gardens and gardening is like most interesting relationships; deeply conflicted and absurdly complicated. Having spent two decades working in a wide variety of gardens containing a myriad of species for an equally diverse cross-section of people, I have learned much about all three; discovering that everything one needs to know about human beings can be learned from how they treat their outdoor spaces, and everything we need to know about how to treat other people can be gleaned from how we nurture plants.
To say that I’ve hated every moment of my professional gardening career would be over-stating the case a little. But only a little. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I gained a first class degree in Jewellery and Silversmithing in 1995, and certainly wasn’t part of the plan when the first book got published. Every time I went into someone else’s garden, it felt like I was wearing a skin that didn’t fit, that wasn’t mine. Insert long story involving therapy, medication (self-administered and that provided by mental health-care professionals), nervous breakdowns and a brush with homelessness here.
Aristotle came up with the expression ‘Horror vacui’, which roughly translates as ‘nature abhors a vacuum’; a void is unnatural and wherever one exists, the desire of the universe is to fill it with something. To my knowledge, it took a couple of thousand years for Michael Pollan, in his wonderful book ‘Second Nature’, to paraphrase this and suggest that what nature truly can’t stomach is a garden. Horror hortus. The concept of neatly arranged and ordered plants, hailing from everywhere on the planet, is true anathema to the natural way of things.
It’s tempting to see the last twenty years as a waste of time. Why wasn’t I writing, making, photographing instead of stumbling along an inexorable and inevitable journey to shoulder surgery in July 2020 to fix a torn rotator cuff and dislocated bicep tendon sustained during a heated debate with a tree root in 2018?
One of the things that gardening has taught me, though, is that everything happens in its own good – or allotted – time. This ongoing project is an examination of the nature of the relationship between humans and plants, with a specific emphasis on this particular human and plants, as well as experimenting with and exploring the correlations between the chemistry of those plants and that of photographic processes.
Maybe I’ll write another book about it one day.