May 19. Last week the invaluable Office for National Statistics published a survey of gardens in the UK. The headline news was that one in eight homes lacked a garden, another measure of the wide-ranging inequality of experience in this crisis.
It is possible, however, to take a glass half-full, or seven-eighths-full, view of this finding. It seems to me astonishing that on this over-crowded island, so long after the invention of high-rise living, the great majority of people in Britain want to live in property with a fenced fragment of nature attached to it, and are able to do so. For the locked-in elderly the proportion of those with access to private outdoor space is even higher at 92%.
The size of the patch of land is not really the point. Obviously, half an acre is a luxury to be enjoyed if it can be afforded. But each of my children, living in their first houses in London, take immense pleasure in the small rectangles of grass and surrounding borders beyond their back doors. The two that have young offspring have room for a sandpit, a paddling pool on hot days, a portable wigwam to play in. It’s been kind of rite of passage for them to start acquiring the horticultural knowledge and skills that they saw their parents possess and practice when they were themselves growing up.
Possession and use of a garden are matters of private choice. It is a measure of the relative transience of the coronavirus pandemic is that we have not been instructed to ‘dig for victory’ as was the case in the Second World War (although today Prince Charles has launched a ‘pick for victory’ campaign to help the commercial fruit growers). Despite occasional gloomy forecasts, we have not been told to grow our own food to survive. In the First World War the pressures of urban slums were relieved by the provision of over half a million allotments following the Smallholdings and Allotment Act of 1908, which required local authorities to purchase or lease land upon which their communities could grow flowers and food.
Gardening is a necessary pleasure. As we begin to reduce the lockdown, garden centres have been amongst the first to be allowed to re-open, albeit with appropriate distancing measures. That much of their retail space is out of doors makes them a safer proposition than, say, clothing shops, but the queues that immediately formed once the relaxation was announced were testament to the pent-up demand. As I noted in a previous entry, the fact that in the northern hemisphere the pandemic has coincided with Spring not Autumn has helped to make the crisis bearable, but it has also created a lively market for plants, fertilizer and other sundries.
As with any recreation, gardening also performs the function of providing substitute dramas and anxieties, to distract from the larger problems. Last week the major misfortune in my life was not some coronavirus-related event, but a sharp May frost which decimated fifty cosmos plants that I had grown in my greenhouse and just planted out in the garden. Then there is the mole which has started digging up a lately sown patch of grass. In a Zoom session with my home-schooling seven-year old granddaughter, I asked her to research humane remedies for moles. She came back later in the day with information that putting pickled eggs down their holes should keep them at bay.
But where, in the midst of a lock-down, am I going to obtain pickled eggs?