This week my mum and I went to see the novelist Charlotte Mendelson talking about her new non-fiction book about her tiny North London garden, Rhapsody In Green, to the Lewes Literary Society.
Charlotte was warm, exuberant and funny, making fun of her own ‘pre-war vowels’, and made me feel a lot better about my own – very imperfect – style of gardening. She declares in the Prologue to her beautifully written book – there are no pictures and it doesn’t need any – that this is not a book for anyone who likes a neat and pretty garden, low maintenance plants or who can measure their garden in acres. Instead she urges anyone who nurses “secret dreams of self-sufficiency, of orchards, livestock and Little House on the Prairie-style preserving” to come closer.
As her own garden measures just 8m x 4m, she only grows plants that she and her friends and family can eat, but these she grows in abundance; “in an ordinary year: eight types of tomato; five varieties of kale; golden raspberries; twenty kinds of lettuce, chicory and Asian greens; Italian climbing beans; about fifty herbs and a few flowers, all edible”. She also talked about the lies she tells to her nearest and dearest about how long she spends in the garden – “This won’t take long”; “Just give me another hour… or two.”
What appeals to me most is that she gardens for herself, with passion but without adhering to any rule book. She does not possess a greenhouse or even a potting shed and lives “in the only house in North London without windowsills”, so grows all her seedlings “on the mat by the back door”. Her children are long-suffering, urging their mother to stop dawdling to admire plants on the way to school, and demanding cheese toasties rather than the homegrown fare she serves up to them.
She also demonstrates that gardening is a suitable pursuit for writers – something I knew already living in Sussex where Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West gardened – but which it is always nice to be reminded of. There is something very freeing about her garden writing, reassuring her reader that it is ok just to get out there and do whatever feels right in the garden. Unlike Charlotte, I love growing flowers as well as fruit, herbs and vegetables, but hearing her speak and reading her book has inspired me to grow them all together in a glorious jumble.
Having recently moved to a new house and garden, I particularly like her paragraph about getting to know her garden: “In my excitement I had already read enough to know what people do when they inherit a garden: they leave it for a year until, after flowering and dying back, the garden’s bones (they always say ‘bones’) emerge… Oddly, that is not how it turned out.” Instead she plunges right in. I think I will follow her advice.