Not a tidy gardener

ANYONE could see that we were an affinity group as we queued to board our coach. Our common cause may have been unclear, but we looked alike: all in neutral raincoats, and the sort of sensible shoes my mother used to call ground-grippers. Fifty-four of us, members of the local Horticultural Society, were setting off to visit a fellow member's garden.

Sometimes our outings take us to grand gardens like Hidcote, Sissinghurst, or Powis Castle. These horticultural triumphs of color-coordinated exterior rooms, separated by shaped shrubbery and set off by acres of faultless lawn, dazzle us. We come away impressed, but perhaps a bit down in the mouth about our own simple, small patches.

Not so when we visit the garden of one of our own. More often than not there's a moldering compost pile in plain sight, proclaiming its worthy purpose. There's a potting-cum-tool shed with a collection of clay pots rolling about, and tomatoes growing in peat-filled plastic bags on the floor. There are all sorts of cuttings and seedlings in incongruous containers. Tools show their term of service. So do old coats, hats, boots, and gloves, unmistakably imprinted by their wearers. Everything is intimate, so familiar that we feel as comfortable and content as we do in our own gardens.

That day our coach maneuvered through narrow hedge-rowed lanes, through Tudor villages and farming lands, until we stopped at the lych gate of an 11th-century Norman church. We disembarked. Probably the youngest of us was pushing 40. The eldest? Late 80s, I'd say, and still going strong. Gardeners are a long-lived lot.

To approach the garden we were waved through the gate, led around ancient headstones and over a stile into a pasture studded with sheep. Then we climbed a bracken-edged path up more than 100 feet. Not a complaining word was heard. Our host was at the top. His garden flowed around his timbered stone cottage like a fragrant moat of color.

From its height he had views of distant land as though he owned it all but didn't have to care for it. His patch was a picture: a plain man's paradise, nurtured with his own hands. Cat mint was as revered as camellia trees. Drifts of speedwell and mini daisies were allowed in the lawn. Buddleia plumes bloomed with butterflies. Halved coconuts filled with seeds were hung for birds, dishes of bread and milk set out for hedgehogs, windfall fruit for foxes.

After welcoming us and offering us free access to his domain, he said: ``I'm not a tidy gardener anymore. I used to be, but now I let plants have their own way, as nature does. Everything coexists here, all of us better for it.'' We wandered happily around his unrestrained, lively borders. His wife gave us tea and melt-in-the-mouth shortbread. He gave us tiny potted alpine plants he'd grown for our visit.

Then each of us, with careful consideration, chose cuttings and seedlings from his collection so we could transplant bits of his garden into our own. We left a few pence for this privilege of floral increase in a discreetly placed saucer.

Then it was time to descend the hill, walk through the grazing sheep, over the stile, through the lych gate to the coach. This time as we queued to board, our affinity was evident: 54 pairs of hands, gardeners' hands, held aspiring plants. Our gardeners' fingers, burned brown with sun, stained with soil, protected our treasures with gentleness born of contact with natural elements.

Drab no longer, we bloomed ebulliently, vigorous and fresh with perennial promise. After all, gardeners grow as plants do in a garden.

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