For those unaccustomed to botanic gardens, the order beds are the area lingering from the original botanic garden purpose – the place where the living specimens of plants are laid out according to someone’s botanical system – I think ours was laid out according to Bentham & Hooker’s scheme.
One January I decided to go on a diet, but I was also double-digging the order beds for about six hours each day and cycling 6 miles to work – then back again.
This is not my favourite winter on record.
I remember going back into the mess room for tea break one day. One of my colleagues suddenly said, ‘Will someone please hit me over the head with a spade?’ We were all stunned, our chatter silenced – Malcolm never said anything at all (and I mean, not a word). Suddenly here it was, the awful elephant, trunk raised in protest … We all earned our living doing something that would devastate our bodies, earn very little money and bore us to death in the process. Why?
Malcolm lived in a very tiny bedsit – he was probably about my age now when he made that comment. Worth, perhaps, giving to Perennial, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society for retired gardeners? Out with the romanticism and in with the reality, I say.
So I don’t really like digging – that’s the point, in case you’re slow on the uptake.
When I moved to a lovely little cottage in Suffolk a few years later, I remember admiring my neighbour’s grandfather. He was in his eighties and went out to dig her plot with great vigour and enjoyment. (Why wasn’t she doing it? She was in her twenties.) He’d been the head gardener at Grundisburgh Hall before he retired, and clearly relished digging, even if it was only for the sake of the veggies. The philosophy of ‘digging’ is complex, and I’ve had plenty of time to ponder it over the last thirty odd years.
Years later I was working as supervisor of the order beds in another botanic garden. That’s a working supervisor. Myself, one other female colleague, and a student had to dig the beds every winter. I will pass quickly over the terrible fantasies suffered by one schizophrenic student (clinically diagnosed, on medication) forced to do this. Unfortunately I had informed her (in my stupidity) that our beds lay over a medieval Jewish cemetery.
My full-time colleague and I used to laugh, because when she went home to her husband and two children every night she admitted (to me, at least) that she crept into the marital bed still wearing the dirty t-shirt she’d been wearing during the day because she was so exhausted.
Such are the joys of digging!
My husband will confirm to anyone interested that probably my worst ‘complaining day’ has been digging a bed for planting potatoes in our previous garden in Ireland. It was really difficult, I promise you, and given the number of tree roots we really shouldn’t have been planting potatoes anyway!
Fast forward to today’s digging on 5 March 2015. I had a ball. When I’m digging with pictures of beautiful plants in my head – this is a totally different experience. Visions of Hydrangea sargentiana var. villosa and Viburnum plicatum ‘Watanabe’ dance in my head tonight. And thank goodness someone taught me how to do it!
How do you feel about digging – or how do you avoid it?
Ok – yes, I haven’t been ‘following you’, as promised in my last post. This last fortnight has been truly horrendous, but we’ll pass quickly over the details. The nicest thing that came out of it all is that a friend taught me a French country motto, which is kind of the equivalent to ‘it’s not the end of the world’. ‘C’est pas la fin des haricots’ [‘It’s not the end of the French beans’], she said to me one night, when I was recounting my woes (her own family situation is many times worse).
I love things like that – things that remind of us of how hard life used to be and how lucky we are now. Everyone still bottles French beans in brine furiously at the end of summer around here. Just imagine coming to the end of those precious summer treasures, laid by in the sunny days, and imagine living for at least a month, maybe two, without anything green to eat at all? You’ll feel better, I promise! (If you don’t, it may be time to consider eating more healthily?)
Meanwhile – here are parting shots of the ‘simples’ garden belonging to the museum at Châtillon-sur-Saône. In a way ‘simples’ gardens (for useful culinary and medicinal herbs) are the early relatives of the order beds.