Hartley Magazine

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Greenhouse giving

Of all the gardening gifts that go on giving, there’s a clear – and solar-powered – winner.

Many of us gardeners, myself included, are about to be crushed under a barrowload of gifts we never wanted – much of them little more than ephemeral, opportunistic tat.

It’s easy for this season of goodwill to slip into ‘bah horticultural humbug!’ mode, so I’ve been fending off the allure of such grumpiness by celebrating the significant gifts that I’ve happily received – the ones with longevity that have helped my gardening life to blossom, taken my growing adventures to new places, shaped my career as a writer, and helped me garden gently, in as close a harmony as possible with our embattled natural world.

My greatest gift in its winter slumber.

Whittled down, my gifts-of-a-gardening-lifetime shortlist stars treasured tools, thought-changing books and cherished plants. It even includes people: the outstanding few who’ve helped shape my life’s plant-filled journey (although they don’t, I guess, strictly count as ‘gifts’ – more as inspiring guides and some dear friends).

But one enduring gift stands out above all the others. I confess I didn’t get it for Christmas (wrapping would be quite the challenge), and its roots lie in a modest, surprise inheritance that allowed me to gift it to myself (aren’t they always the best ones?).

It’s one that keeps on giving, over and over and over again. It never lets me down, frequently offers me shelter, and is the pulsing, renewably powered beating heart of so much of my growing. It’s darn chilly in there right now – it was encrusted in frost at dawn – and it is most definitely in proper winter sleep mode after our disconcerting, endless autumn.

Clues enough? Yes, my greatest gardening gift of all time is… my greenhouse, my beautiful steel and glass, hard-working, whatever-the-weather lean-to that’s brought my garden to within just feet of our living space. We have to pass through it to go in and out, so we never miss what’s happening in there as each muddled season passes.

Dahlias: flowers for sharing that never stop giving.

This is my special space. I dream, plan (entire books!), sow, sieve, pot and plant in here. I sit here and watch, hear and feel the wild world go by; I’m warmed by the sun, lulled by rain, deafened by hail and lit up by lightning. I gather fresh, forget-the-food-miles meals from here – snaffling the first ripe fruit from the potted strawberries is sheer joy. I laugh, curse the midges, raise a mug of tea with friends, and sometimes cry in here. I shoo bug-seeking wrens out of here, awed by their Houdini-like skills at ever getting in.

That’s quite some gift; its giving never stops. But what my greenhouse gives me isn’t the best bit; the sheer magic of it is the giving it allows me to do.

Bear with me for a touch of deep and meaningful. My philosophy, gleaned from a gardening lifetime, is that we should always be striving to give more than we take from the living world around us. Surely our job as gardeners, now more than ever, as everything we’re familiar with unravels, is to give, enrich and heal, not take, deplete and damage. Mindful gardening, if you like. Just by growing things we’re bringing on new life, colour, sustenance and joy; our plots can help restore not just us, but all of the stressed nature about us.

Seed-packed teasels give birds winter fuel.

We can’t hope to fix all of the natural world’s interlaced problems through gardening, but when we view it as more than a fun and fluffy pastime (which makes a few tat-floggers rich), you can feel its gentle, positive power seep into you. Growing things in our gardens and allotments makes us all eco-warriors by stealth – quiet, measured ones who grow stuff, rather than shouty ones waving placards (as increasingly important as the latter now are). In my greenhouse, that gentle power is turbo-charged; it turns me into a super-gardener who can’t stop giving. Who knew that a humble greenhouse bestowed such secret superpowers?

My greenhouse obviously took some resources and energy to make, but now it dances along with the seasons; in time, I hope I’ll have ‘paid back’ its manufacturing debt. I use no energy (bar a little electricity for lighting when darkness falls) other than clean and green sunshine; everything I grow is nurtured only by the sun, rooted in climate-friendly peat-free compost, and quenched by captured rain.

I grow flowers and food, but not just for me and other humans; some I grow for the other living things that share this precious patch of earth (disclaimer: I draw the line at strawberry-stealing squirrels). I grow simple, self-sowing, pollen- and nectar-giving flowers to give our declining insects a fighting chance; I let teasels run riot to give our depleting bird populations sustenance in winter (turning a blind eye to brave, seed-seeking voles scaling the prickly towers); I give seeds and plants to friends to spread living gifts that go on giving. Dahlia distribution time is peak gift time here.

If there were a Santa Claus just for gardeners (clad surely in green and white), my ‘all I want for Christmas’ letter would be succinct. I’d ask for the one gardening pressie that never stops giving, never wears out and lasts a lifetime (or three, if you hand it on). That one timeless, special gift where I can simply – look away now – sow sow sow!

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener