The woman was tall, brunette and eccentrically dressed, and she appeared from nowhere. Had she arrived two minutes earlier she would have found me swearing at the car keys (or rather, the loss of them); as it was, she turned onto our driveway to see me sitting in the car about to set off. She was wearing what appeared to be a patterned velvet smoking jacket of Edwardian cut, teamed with a white T-shirt and a boxy black skirt, and when she turned towards us I thought for a moment that she might be crazy. She wasn’t, though. She was friendly.
‘I love what you’ve done with the garden!’ she cried, waving a hand towards the vegetable plot at the front of our house. She stayed a good four metres away, in the English social safety zone, from which one may leave as unannounced as one has arrived. ‘I’m trying to do the same thing, and I wondered if we could have a chat?’ My husband, one leg in the car, one on the driveway, explained that we were late to drop off our daughter, and that she should call back. We’d be happy to chat.
I get this a lot. It’s rather lovely. When we moved to our house the front garden, south-facing and sun-warmed, didn’t have much to say for itself: a path, an awful lot of gravel, and some scrubby lavender bushes. The soil was compacted, uncared-for clay, on which moss grew and even weeds looked sad. The back garden was landscaped and zoned and planted with real plants we didn’t know the names of. There was no space there for a vegetable patch, and I really wanted vegetables. It would have to be the front.
I was in two minds about this: after all, it’s the front garden. It was the first impression of the house, it was inescapably public, and it was – well – weird to grow veg in your front garden. Nowadays it’s terribly on-trend to grow your own, but I wasn’t making a statement. I grew up on an organic smallholding. I have gardened everywhere I’ve ever lived. It’s one of the great passions of my life. I didn’t want to look like I was a hipster in a Dig for Victory phase.
In the end, my desire for salad won out. We cut down the ornamental willow, dug out the lavender bushes and the woody old sage, and I turned over the claggy, resistant clay by hand. I bought old scaffolding planks and laid out raised beds in the shape of the rising sun, then filled them with topsoil and horse manure carted from the local Riding for the Disabled school in the back of our much-abused Ford Focus. I dug great pits in the borders and layered them with sharp sand, soil, manure and compost, and put in currants. I nicked little self-seeded herbs and cuttings from public gardens and planted sage, mint, thyme, marjoram, tansy, rosemary, lemonbalm, hyssop, and winter savoury. I ordered a little plum tree by the royal name of Opal-Krimsk, and put it in when the year was still grim and drizzly. And eventually I had something I could work with.
All of this took time, and sweat, and all of it was public. At first I felt embarrassed. Then the conversations started. It turned out that an awful lot of people loved gardening, and an awful lot of people loved our garden. I’m typing this looking out at it now, and I can guarantee that in the time it takes me to post this, someone will come along and have a look over the fence. This is not to brag about what I’ve created – it’s often less than perfect, with blighted tomato plants or slug-eaten marigolds – the point is that it brings joy. People call to me as I work, telling me they always look as they go by to see what’s changed. When I have too much it gets given away: the patty-pan squash left for the lady with the little boy (‘Put it next to the fence. Not there! The dogs will wee on it’); the lavender plant left for the man whose girlfriend needed pot plants, and the note of thanks in return (‘With thanks, Eric and dog’); the bunch of sweet peas picked for the old lady who wears the same beige car coat winter and summer. And despite there being no gate, no security light and a fence that’s 2 feet high, no-one has ever nicked anything. There was that time last year that something was dug up, but I half think it was foxes, so I’m not counting it.
Several people warned me about the risk of theft. Often they spoke as if I was being naïve. For a while I wondered if I was. As time goes on, though, I realise that your opinion on whether people will steal from me or not has more to do with your opinion of other people in general than your knowledge of our neighbourhood. It’s about your belief in human beings. Yes, people do shitty things. But they also do wonderful things, and often very quietly, and those things often go unreported. Most people are, fundamentally, good. There’s also the small matter of a lot of people not knowing what vegetables in the ground look like, but let’s skip over that.
One person who told me I was silly to plant in public told me that she’d seen people taking things: ‘A man, leaning over and taking strawberries.’ I knew who she meant. I don’t know his name, but I know he’s had a hard life. He’s no older than me, but he’s missing one arm and he has the rambling, disjointed look of someone who’s fought drug addiction. He spends all day walking: out in the car I’ll see him miles from our street, unmistakable in his bobble hat, with his stocky bulldog trotting beside him, going nowhere in particular because it’s the motion that matters. He’s stopped and talked to me from the start, asking which plants are which. Last summer he was admiring the strawberries, and I told him to come in and take some when he next passed. This is who she saw: a drug addict with a scary dog, stealing fruit. But then that’s what I saw, when I met him first. It’s only through putting myself out there, in public, on display, that I’ve learnt more.
All of which is a very long way of saying that creating something in the public view is always frightening, and often embarrassing. It’s what I’m doing now, and I’d be lying if I said I was confident about it. What if it’s no good? What if people dislike it, or make fun of it, or damage it? Well, they may do. But maybe the unexpected will occur, and someone will appear from nowhere to tell you how much they love it. If they’re wearing an Edwardian smoking jacket at the same time, so much the better.