Personal Pleasures no 1: Gardening

Aristotle teaches that virtue is both a means to an end (eudaemonia, a worthwhile life), and an end in itself, because being virtuous is one element of eudaemonia. History does not relate whether Aristotle was a gardener, although it is hard to think he could have resisted the temptation to have an allotment whilst he was on Lesbos, if only to find out more about what promoted flourishing in vegetables as a change for studying the problem in human beings. If he were, he would have found that gardening is similarly both a means and an end. The end is of course the products of the garden; fruit and vegetables for the practical gardener, and the beauty of flowers and foliage for the more aesthetically orientated horticulturalist. These are themselves personal pleasures, but here I want to talk about the intrinsic pleasure of gardening itself.

Gardening is of course a form of exercise, and a most satisfactory way to enjoy fresh air in winter or early spring, when being outside is only tolerable if you are active. That can be a real pleasure, although a bit like hitting your head against a brick wall, because the best bit of it is the warm soup or hot chocolate you have in front of the fire or stove when you stop. But though this pleasure is intrinsic to gardening, it is not specific to gardening – a country walk or cycle ride can produce the same effect. The association is as the philosophers put it, contingent rather than necessary.

But gardening has its peculiar pleasures. Probably the greatest one is the opportunity it provides for co-creation – working with God in making the world a better place. Co-creation and its sister doctrine co-redemption are both logical implications of St Paul’s insight that “We are the Body of Christ”. If as St Teresa of Avilla said “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours” then it is through us that the world of creation and redemption of the world goes on. I once heard a sermon on the role of Our Lady as co-redemptrix by a rather dotty and very extreme Anglo-Catholic priest, whom I often thought might have been the model of Fr Chantry-Pigg in Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond”. He drew out from the fact that Mary’s consent was required for the Incarnation, so that she contributed to our redemption, the idea that we all by grace have a small share in redeeming the world. Apart from that I cannot remember hearing anyone preach on the subject – which is a shame, as it might make people take their role in the world more seriously.

But getting back to gardening. Cutting back a buddleia, a dogwood or a clematis so it can bring forth new growth and flowers in due season; pruning a rose with just the right severity and the cuts at the appropriate angle; shaping a shrub, not into an artificially symmetrical shape, but to show off its natural habit to best advantage; like a good hairdresser rather than a cosmetic surgeon; all these are works of co-creation. As is reining in the natural exuberance of more thuggish plants so that they doesn’t intrude on their neighbours (a bit like teaching children good manners).

This pruning is the great pleasure of late winter and early summer but it goes on at a slower pace for the rest of the summer. One must seize the moment to cut back the flowers that bloom in the spring (tra-la) like chaenomeles and choisya when they have put on their show, and give the heather its haircut when at last its winter flowers start to fade; if not then these plants won’t do their duty and brighten the opening months of next year. And of course there are some shrubs so thuggish that they need trimming not once but two or three times in the year, lest they take over the world.

Another early year pleasure is tidying up – removing last year’s dead leaves, fallen twigs etc. Some people do this in the Autumn, but ecologists tell us this is a bad idea, because this dead material provides homes and food for insects over the winter. Doing it in the Autumn also smacks of the “gardening as housekeeping” school of thought – getting the garden neat and tidy for the winter in the same way as you oil the garden furniture and cover it up and put away the croquet set, In contrast doing it in the spring is about getting rid of the old stuff to reveal new life and let it grow and flourish – a very suitable activity for Lent.

A year round pleasure of gardening is weeding – spotting and removing things which ought not to be there. There is a sycamore tree about a hundred metres from our house, and its seeds with their clever little helicopter wings regularly make it to our garden. The price of not living in a sycamore forest is perpetual vigilance. Another particularly satisfying pleasure is rooting out bindweed – its white runners, snaking beneath the earth and popping up in unexpected places to strangle good and worthy plants seems to be the epitome of evil, and finding and removing it gives the same grim pleasure as inquisitors must have got from rooting out heresy.

Weed is of course a functional, not an ontological category. A weed is a plant in the wrong place. Some of the things which arrive through the will of God – borage from the garden of the Archeological Society four doors down the road, the teasels and the thistles which pop up from time to time – these are not weeds but welcome arrivals, a remember that God is a God of Surprises. Conversely some of the things we put there deliberately have a tendency to get above themselves and need to be culled regularly if balance is to be maintained. Crocosmia, bluebells and alpine poppies all fall into this category.

But the greatest of all the pleasures of weeding is that it makes you really look at the garden. Looking for weeds you really have to search the ground and notice the shape and colour of the leaves, just as deciding on how to prune forces you to look at the shrubs properly and notice the branches the leaves as well as the showy flowers. Gardening teaching you to look.

But perhaps this pleasure is really part of the next pleasure – Just Being in a Garden