Gardens Illustrated
Alice Pattullo's illustration for Alice Vincent's column
© Alice Pattulo

Gardens immemorial: How do you document a garden?

Published: September 6, 2022 at 4:07 pm
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The ephemeral environment that constitutes the garden is notoriously tricky to capture in words and pictures. It doesn’t stop us trying, though, says Alice Vincent

In the depths of January I stood in the corner of the garden – under the tree, against the old brick wall – and remembered what had been there six months earlier. Spires of dusky-pink ‘Summer King’ foxgloves, clouds of feathery fennel. A wayward branch, laden with Victoria plums. The winter beds were comparatively bare, dotted with the keen growth of this year’s echinops and hardy geraniums. A few adventitious allium shoots.

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Afterwards, I went upstairs and scrolled through photographs of the garden in the summer on my iPhone. Honestly? I was surprised by how beautiful it looked, this happy tangle of ferocious growth. It held the same sharp, poignant realisation that comes with stumbling across a photograph taken of your younger self: that you were lovely, really, and wholly incapable of accepting it at the time.

How do you capture the smell of sweet peas in June, or the first hit of Sarcococca in January?

Gardens are infamously difficult to document. How do you capture the smell of sweet peas in June, or the first hit of Sarcococca in January? Those who work in our cherished historic gardens are archaeologists, too, unearthing records of what hardy annual was sown decades before in an attempt to capture some of the magic originally grown there.

And yet, we persist. I take endless photos of the garden, but often wish I’d taken more. Months, seasons later, the unglamorous shots of certain aspects are far more useful than the flattering close-ups of a tulip in full swell. It is the context that offers the best comparison.

Despite being a person who writes about gardening, I am hopeless at keeping a record of it. I long to be the kind of grower who has a dedicated diary, filled in each day with the weather and rainfall, of what is growing and what is behind. I have started a couple over the years, but they are never quite particular enough about the details and only, in very boring or floriferous weeks, filled in daily.

Alice Vincent © Camilla Jorvad
© Camilla Jorvad

I do, however, love reading other people’s. A couple of years ago, I saw Derek Jarman’s large, square sketchbooks open in glass cases at an exhibition, his elegantly sloping writing filling the creamy paper without a speck of dirt. I return to Jarman’s diaries often, usually in the form of a battered paperback of Modern Nature. He is a brilliant garden diarist: enthusiastic, opinionated, perfectly conscious of the world beyond his garden – which was, of course, boundaried by the horizon.

There is a strangely fertile gulf between the writing of a garden diary and the reading of it

In Grounded, released this April, author Lulah Ellender finds her late mother’s garden diary. ‘I thought it had been lost,’ Ellender writes. ‘And I realised that, of course, she was physically tethered here… most vibrantly, in the plants still growing in the garden, six months after her death.’ It’s impossible to ignore the quiet intimacy of unfurling leaves and wet springs in her mother’s absence. Her diary entries gently guide us through Ellender’s year of grief and upheaval.

Ellender’s mother’s diary was among a pile of books in the corner of the kitchen. Thousands of others will stay unopened, lost in the flotsam of a life a person leaves behind. But for those that are read – are published, are revisited – there opens a strangely fertile gulf between the writing of a garden diary and the reading of it. It’s from this space that ideas and imaginary gardens grow.

Do we write diaries to record, or to be read? Do we take photographs of our gardens to admire or to remember? I think the act of fixing our gardens for the future – whether that’s for ourselves, trying to work out if the frost was as late last year, or for those new custodians of the land we used to tend – is as much an attempt to pause time. Some flowers open only for a day, summer can be so brief. We record it in the hope it can last forever.

Read Alice Vincent's July column here.

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Authors

Alice Vincent is the author of Rootbound, How to Grow Stuff and Seeds from Scratch. A self-taught urban gardeners, she is behind the Instagram account @noughticulture.

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