Gardening can be devastating at times. The chomping of slugs, the vagaries of the weather, your enthusiasm crushed by a pitiful harvest.
It’s easy to despair, especially when TV and books make gardening sound so simple – surely you should be drowning in marrows by now? Eating homegrown radishes with every meal? Making jam? But no. Fortunately, novelist and gardening writer Charlotte Mendelson is very familiar with this pain, and has poured it all into her book, Rhapsody In Green – now out in paperback. “The garden I describe [in the book] is not my garden anymore,” she explains, “but the sentiments are exactly the same.”
Despite her tomato-filled balcony and the edibles she grows on half her downstairs neighbour’s plot, her gardening dreams still sometimes outstrip her green-fingered realities. “If I lived in Oxfordshire, I would have some Oxfordshire apples, it would be incredibly cool, but I don’t,” she muses. “I have small tragic things on extremely polluted London soil. But I’m still very proud of them.”
If looking at your patch of earth sometimes feels paralysing, read on and feel comforted.
Don’t hold yourself to impossible standards
“One of the things I was trying to do in Rhapsody In Green was basically be honest, because I think so much of garden writing is about ‘here’s my enormous garden and I have a couple of little men who help me’.”
The reality, for the majority of us, is anything but, says Ms Mendelson. “Most of us have four pots, all the pests it’s possible to get, and we’re still relentlessly trying!
“I just feel really militant,” she continues, “that a) [gardening is] the most wonderful thing and it changes your life and b) nothing you’ll read or watch about it applies if you’ve got a [scrappy] bit of urban space and a full-time job.”
Some gardening ‘truths’ are myths
Have you heard the one about the single courgette plant being enough to feed a family of four? “It’s absolute b******s,” says Ms Mendelson good-naturedly. Gluts in general, she continues, might be a consideration “if you have a massive allotment and loads of time”, but otherwise, “for most of us, it’s a myth”.
Focus on enjoyment, not yield
Reframing your expectations can help, suggests Ms Mendelson. “Rather than thinking, ‘Oh, I want a glut of strawberries, how am I going to start bottling them?’ – if you have three tablespoons of wild strawberries, and they’re the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten in your life, then that’s a completely different thing,” she says encouragingly. Similarly, “I would love to be self-sufficient in fruit, but it’s not possible, whereas I can be self-sufficient in lemon thyme.”
She believes those of us with modest space should garden for the sheer delight of it, not the prospect of any kind of yield. “It’s a bit like writing novels because you want to be rich and famous. Just don’t. If you’re gardening so you can feed your family of four, it’s not going to happen. But if it’s just the most life changing joy, then do it.”
Aim to enhance what’s in the fridge, not replace your supermarket shop
“If you’re interested in growing edible stuff, [grow stuff] that will enhance your food,” says Ms Mendelson, championing herbs, myriad salad leaves and the odd berry.
Basics like carrots and beetroot just aren’t realistic if you’re short on space and time. “I love carrots, I get through millions of carrots, but I haven’t got the space to grow carrots or the energy to fight carrot fly,” admits Ms Mendelson. And that’s totally ok. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just buy them.
Be realistic about your growing options
Feeling demoralised, Ms Mendelson reckons, can sometimes be “a consequence of trying the wrong things”, so prioritise some pretty sure bets: “Beans and tomatoes are genuinely easy. You also can end up with too many and it’s very exciting.”
In fact, “if you grow three cherry tomato plants on your balcony, you will have massive joy,” says Ms Mendelson. “If you try and grow root vegetables and lots of brassicas, you will feel sad and embarrassed all the time.”
“I don’t grow broccoli, or cauliflower or cabbage, because I haven’t got space. And I don’t use them that often,” Ms Mendelson continues. “Whereas kale, I love kale. And it’s really, really easy. Let’s all give up on growing massive cabbages and just grow kale because kale is essentially perennial. And you can put it in salads, you can cook with it. It looks cool. I mean, what more do you want from a vegetable?”
You’re not alone in feeling gardener’s guilt
There are never enough hours. The weeds are ferocious and sometimes you’d just rather stay indoors. “We all feel like we’re letting our garden down all the time,” says Ms Mendelson frankly. “We are. It’s fine. It doesn’t care. It’ll just grow.” Do what you can, and what you want to.
Notice the small things
“A lot of the joy of gardening is about discovering things,” says Ms Mendelson. “It’s about noticing. So, if you’re in raptures about your beautiful orange nasturtium flower that’s delicious, that’s a big achievement.”
She recalls for years trying to grow a chilli on her office windowsill (“It was a martyr to green fly”), even asking her sister to water it while she was on holiday. “I just thought, ‘What am I doing? I’ve got like two chillies out of this, which I always then forget and leave at the bottom of my bag.'”
The thing is though, “it’s about the process. It’s about the joy. It’s about tending things. It’s about flow. It’s about noticing – it’s so unbelievably enjoyable.”
Try to remember, in the moments when the garden has become a tangled mess, or the pots on the balcony have got out of control, that “it’s the small joys and the overwhelming smugness of growing something really cool.”
Rhapsody In Green by Charlotte Mendelson is published by Kyle Books, available now.
Do you find joy in gardening? What fruit or vegetable have you had the most success in growing? Why not share your tips in the comments section below?
– With PA
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