Escape to the Yarden
Updated: Jul 4
Cicero claimed that “if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Out of sheer practicality I’d suggest attaching a house to them in some way, unless you can sleep, eat and wash in the library he had in mind. (He was a rich man; maybe he could?) Other than that, though, I’d agree with him. And, still in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown of 2020, the simplicity of his two-millennia-old wisdom feels even more timeless.
My wife and I live in an old Victorian terraced cottage in south London. My ‘library’ currently consists of two bookcases in two different rooms and about a dozen weighty boxes in the attic. One day, I’ll have a whole room to while away the hours either gazing at or delving into all those read and unread tomes I’ve collected over the years. That’s a dream for another day. The garden bit, however, we’re lucky is not a dream.
Yes, it’s only 20-square-metres of paving, gravel and shed – the latter claiming three of those precious squared metres. But it’s outside space, and it’s ours. With the gorgeous spring we enjoyed in 2020, as we were all obliged to spend more time at home, it was a genuine blessing to have any space at all in which to sit and feel the sun on our faces. That it’s large enough for me to experiment and expand upon the rudimentary plants I’ve grown in the past seven years, is undoubtedly a bonus. Like so many people during the past few months, I’ve earned my Amateur Lockdown Horticulturalist badge.
Now, first of all, a note on terminology. For years now, I’ve called our little patch of paving the “Yarden”. This is owing to the fact it’s an old worker’s cottage courtyard, with no bare earth or grass to warrant – to my eyes, at least - the salubrious title of “garden”. I didn’t coin the word ‘Yarden’ but I have adopted it, and shall continue to use it until I receive the cease-and-desist from the more imaginative person who did. (Perhaps we could share it?) Whatever its name or form, our Yarden has been a haven for me; not just this year but in all the years we’ve been lucky enough to live here.
It’s not always been an easy project. Although the Yarden is south-facing, the 30-foot-high pine trees in the garden of the Council hostel at the rear of our house tower over and cast perpetual shade over a third of our space, even in midsummer. The weak midwinter sun lingers on the back wall and barely reaches a paving stone. Perhaps most galling of all, despite casting deep shadow the tall screen of trees seem to provide no shelter from the wind, funnelling it between them and the other back walls of the terrace. Inclement and windy weather seems to be amplified, sweeping down from the cottage eaves to bully over the flowers and small trees I’ve cultivated over the years. It feels unfair at times, for the trees to cast shadows without offering any beneficial break in the wind, but I must admit it’s nice to lay in bed and look out our window at nothing but pine trees swaying gently in the wind. During the lockdown, we’ve had (or at least have heard more clearly) the resident orchestra of garden birds who roost there.
In the summer, the side-return section of the Yarden becomes a little heat-trap, regularly reaching over thirty degrees as the heat radiates off the old brick and the paving to create a delicious microclimate. Peering over the tops of the pines, the midday summer sun has a window of just three hours for us to make the most of the one deckchair that will fit in the side-return.
Overall, I could say it's been a manageable education. I’ve discovered that short but hardy perennials are better suited to surviving the few devilishly blustery days. That a single propagated hydrangea looks lovely on the windowsill, but will have its petals scorched on the days of freakishly hot sun. I’ve learnt how Mediterranean herbs enjoy the hottest sun of the day on the West-facing kitchen windowsill. That olive trees might be indestructible, but are also incorrigible. That the fleabane I bought four years ago and have never got to flower simply needed to be moved into the full glare of the sun. How cyclamen keeps coming back year after year if you give it a nice cool shady spot. How you can create a wonderful Mediterranean vignette, growing lavender, tomatoes and even figs, so long as you have enough pots, take the time to minutely map out your space, and are prepared to water your darlings on a sometimes daily basis.
I planted my first-ever tulip and daffodil bulbs late last autumn. Even before coronavirus struck, it felt like such a hopeful thing to do. In the November greyness, to be digging and planting something that wouldn’t appear for months. And when those delightful green shoots emerged, followed by the warm sun of late winter and then the flowers’ gleeful colours, it seemed to dispel all those ideas I’d had that hopes and dreams mostly don’t come true. It made me smile. Because, as with any dream, it’s a numbers game. Plant enough bulbs in the darkest hours and you’re guaranteed at least a few spring flowers.
And now, in the warmth of a flaming June, my wife and I sit side by side on the new garden bench she bought online (like everything else we’ve bought since 17th March, apart from groceries and toilet roll). It replaced the inherited but unsightly waterbutt I finally removed in the spring, and we can now enjoy the full sun for several hours of the afternoon and evening. Beneath the broad leaves of the fig tree that began as a cutting from my mother-in-law’s garden, I’ve spent many an hour watching the slow but steady progress in the Yarden.
My first tomato plants, raised from seedlings on the spare room windowsill, are spilling their leaves from the once-roomy confines of the new, rather basic plastic greenhouse. Bees of the bumble, hover and solitary persuasion continue to feast on the messy masses of blue borage I grew from seed in far too many pots. The sweet perfume of the rosemary wafts and mingles with the mint and thyme as they all do a merry dance in the wind. The hydrangeas, grown fat and proud in the shade and partial sun, explode with firework bursts of colour amongst their dark foliage. The purple of the clematis ‘The President’, pouts from the fence in the last of the evening sun. The swaying buds of the hibiscus hold on to their secrets until the other players have long been onstage.
All of this I’ve enjoyed through the spring and early summer; and then, for the first time ever, I’ll enjoy the warm, ripe tomatoes straight from their gracious vine. Yes, it will be, for good or ill, a summer like no other.
The past few months have been extraordinary. My wife and I have been fortunate to still have our jobs, to not yet have children to entertain, and to have healthy parents. We know many others have been less fortunate. Many people we know don’t have even the modest outside space that we do and have been, quite literally, cooped up for the whole of lockdown. And that’s why I’m so grateful for and effusive about the humble yet generous bounty of our little Yarden. Grateful, too, for all the important lessons it has taught me recently.
They are the same lessons that lockdown itself has taught me; and, I hope, has taught many people. That we need to be grateful for all that we already have. That we need to appreciate the simple things. That we need to take a leaf from Nature’s book and… slow… down.
Look around us, observe the slow and steady progress the natural world makes, the way it thrives and celebrates in the process as much as the payoff. We can’t quicken nature’s pace, as much as we might want to. We can’t rush a fig to ripen. Sometimes all you can do is wait and let Nature take its course.
Sometimes all we can – and should - do is sit down, feel the sun on our face, and listen to the breeze in the trees.