Magazine article The Spectator

Gardening Books

Magazine article The Spectator

Gardening Books

Article excerpt

Emotional geography is now a recognised academic subject. Is emotional botany heading the same way? This is a year for thoughtful books about plants and the way they affect lives, what they make people feel and how we can respect nature. Many of the year's works might appeal to non-gardeners. Readers hoping for rose-tinted pages may be disappointed.

Allan Jenkins's Plot 29 (4th Estate, £14.99) is ostensibly a diary of his allotment over a little more than a year. But, he writes: 'Sometimes, when I think of this book, I am almost bewildered. It has taken such a turn. It was to be about gardening... with personal stuff added in.'

The editor of the Observer food magazine, Jenkins grows exotic vegetables and describes them lusciously. He hits the Hampstead plot at 6am for a couple of hours, before leaving for a day in the office. An obsessive gardener, he sows heirloom seeds, coriander from Brazil, Trail of Tears beans from Cherokee, and mustard from India and Japan. He grows no roses, but always marigolds, 'common like foster kids'. Which he was. Between visits to the allotment, he digs up his past, 'the personal stuff'. He tells a brave story, but admits that it is 'lacking in laughter, the growing the only light to balance the shade'.

Radiant light shines on allotment life and on the occasional breaks which he takes to a family summer house in Denmark. Jenkins is a marvellous and observant writer. Mice eat the gardening gloves to prepare for winter, when snow will fall 'as soft as Tunnock teacakes'. He can summon swirling flocks of birds, or rain, or mist in a sentence. The Hampstead pages glow with references to friends and food. 'Home is homegrown,' he writes.

But he is always drawn back to the search for who he really is. These interludes make agonising reading, and long after the book was closed the dark memories lingered. If there was any doubt that gardens can heal the worst emotional wounds, this book is the proof. 'When I am disturbed, even angry, gardening is a therapy,' he writes.

Plot 29 is not a misery memoir, but a redemptive one. You want the ending to be happy for the writer, because he is obviously such a kind and remarkable man. Thank goodness he does, in the closing pages, find what has eluded him for so long.

Alys Fowler's Hidden Nature (Hodder, £20) has a lot in common with Plot 29. Fowler is a television presenter and garden writer, and this is another journey of discovery, an escapist adventure that involves a pack-up raft on Birmingham's canals. No roses here on the dank water, but fish swimming between discarded shopping trolleys and industrial waste. Like Jenkins, Fowler is trying to come to terms with a difficult moment in her life. Married but unhappy, she gradually realises she is in love with another woman. 'I started noticing mosses everywhere. In part this was a survival strategy. I was homing in on detail to block out the larger picture.'

At detail she excels. Fowler is a scientist, who can digress to explain fasciation, the plumbing systems of plants, or the geology of the Black Country. But perhaps most interesting is her revelation of what helps her to survive even better than mosses do. She admits: 'I garden because I am. I belong to the garden rather than the other way round... because that is how I make sense of myself and my place in this world. …

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