We recently moved to a new home and, given how much outdoor spaces are now being used for entertaining, we have poured some energy into our inherited garden. Previous occupants have worked hard to maintain, cultivate, and increase the ground, and that shows. Many of them remain in the neighbourhood, and have pledged themselves to support and labour with me – their experience, skill, and work ethic adds immeasurable benefit. The fences are immaculately constructed and painted, the paths in and out of the garden have been cleared and laid in welcoming paving, birdlife and wildlife have been given a place to forage and feed, and the loam has been painstakingly watered – at times at great cost. We have no complaints about how the ground has been prepared, nor about the team of friends who work alongside us.
Working an inherited garden is, however, hard work. Patches can develop on the thatch because of human traffic, or soil that would not take the seed over the years. Some of the most colourful areas on the lawn are actually buttercup and dandelion, and their short term splendour is no compensation for the long term harm that they can cause. Behind the fence a patch of common ground yields ivy and bramble in abundance and, given a few weeks of innocent negligence, they would insinuate themselves into the garden quietly – weakening the boundary and choking the good growth which we are seeking.
We also have decisions to make about the future shape of the garden. Some principles have governed us, in terms of accepting the size of the patch we have, and the natural lie of the land which will always accept and resist cultivation in one way or another. There is also the challenge of making decisions now which might deplete our choices in the future, or which might require demolition and reconstruction. In the evenings we sketch out what our outside space could look like in the future, taking note of contingencies which might force a rethink – budget, time, equipment etc. We also consult books by experts who share about their experiences of inherited gardens, although it is easy to become discouraged by the size of the plot they have, and the seeming ease with which they see growth. Their insights are valuable, but none of them will ever actually till our soil.
One’s lifetime is also a boundary on how well the garden can grow. This is not the first garden that we have worked, and we have witnessed over and over again that key choices have to be made about what can actually be done. No person, or team of people, can ever possibly hope to finish a garden – that’s just not how they work. In some ways the modest ambition of leaving this plot in markedly better shape for those who come after us seems like a good one. There will be ground that we will till for years without much progress, but the very act of planting and failing might serve to enrich the soil for those who come behind.
There is a constant tension between the garden we hope for, and the one we have. Many friends and neighbours keenly show their ‘before and after’ pictures of amazing transformation, but few will share their ‘before and in the middle of the mess’ pictures. Such things don’t speak well of the gardener. At times there can be a temptation to rip it all up and start again, but that is seldom the way that gardens work. In fact the great call is to take what one is given, with its capacities and limitations, and work as hard one can, all the while accepting that a garden is always in transition and transit. There is also a principle of growth, a primal and properly basic sense of agency and chemistry in the soil, which produces more than our meagre labours could ever earn. Even so, we are given no guarantee that we will see a perfect garden.
An inherited garden is a humbling and hopeful thing. Images of the original Eden, and an even better Eden, make our imagination fertile even on the dry and fruitless days. As gardeners, we hold in our minds, not the ideal Platonic form of ground well tilled, but the heritage of the sweat watered soils of our ancestors, and the guarantee of the sweet yielding soil of our successors. The labour of a lifetime on a plot of earth is more than worth it, not because of the immediate results it brings, but because of the heritage it transmits to those who will sit in the shade of the saplings we plant today; and because of the prospect of enjoying halcyon days in the future in the garden of our Father, whose husbandry is of an other and far better kind than ours.