So everything is different. And changing daily. We have been here in isolation for just over two weeks, having set up the studio to work remotely and feeling very fortunate to be regaining balance from our perch on the hill. We know, more than ever, that we are blessed with this access to landscape and fresh air and to be able to witness spring unfurling around us. A spring that is oblivious to the change in the worldwide order. A welcome tide that carries on regardless, providing a sense of continuity and solace in its inevitability.
We have been in two minds about doing this piece today. The world is on the brink of a big change and we know that we are in a position of privilege. We are all experiencing multiple wake up calls. I have been using Instagram more than usual in the last couple of weeks trying to maintain a connection to normality. We have become acutely aware of the people who do not have access to what we have access to and, by sharing it, we have found the pleasure it gives those who are in real isolation. In flats, in cities, with no outside space and suddenly without liberty. So, in the spirit of sharing, this is the beginning of our new world.
Last weekend already feels another lifetime away. Jacky and Ian were here to try and get the mulching done before lock down. There was a palpable tension in the air, because they had ventured away from their own home sanctuary to help us, but it was a good day going about the usual tasks, despite the social distancing. We got half the mulching done. Ten of twenty tonne bags and half the garden smartened, fresh growth green against the new eiderdown of darkness. Ten tonnes remains in the drive to mark the fact that we are now on our own. For how long we do not know.
The fear of how we will look after everything has been rolling round my mind. Jacky and Ian supply an invaluable day each on Saturdays. Jacky providing detail and Ian strength and stamina in the areas beyond the garden that we keep on the wild side. When we work together we get more done as a team. Without their input, we are having to quickly re-evaluate to establish a new regime and look at how we approach this undefined period.
What we are doing here probably amounts to about five man days per week. I run a tight ship with that time too, with lists to hit targets and an eye on the near and far future to keep things moving in the right direction. There is very little slack and we are ambitious for this place; for the garden to be evolving and experimental and for the kitchen garden to provide food for us to eat. We are also steering the ecologies towards greater biodiversity and this is where we will probably have to let go of the reins and let nature really do its thing. There will be no paths mown into the lush growth of early summer. Instead, we will push our way through to make our desire lines. But as much as possible, I’d like not to go backwards. So, simply put, we will have to find two days from somewhere. Two days of our time that is currently devoted to the new challenges of running a virtual studio, finishing a book and keeping up with friends and family at distance.
I was talking about the dilemma, or indeed the opportunity, of this change with my mother who is now isolated in Hampshire and needing more regular calls. Being a practical and sensible woman she put three things forward. Firstly, that we simply won’t be able to do everything. Second, that a garden can be reclaimed from a period of wooliness. And third, that we should chart the changes in Dig Delve to communicate the impact a world in flux is having upon our ground at home and our relationship with it.
A few sleepless nights have already been eased by the prospect of having to apply ourselves differently and the garden is helping to tilt the balance of anxiety in the right direction. Without needing to travel for work I will reclaim that time to garden. Up early now and putting an hour or so in before our business-not-as-usual kicks in, I have been able to take in the spring more intimately. Seedlings are already benefitting from a daily vigil in the frames. A meditative hour pottering before breakfast is a purposeful way to greet the day and helps to clarify the mind. As the evenings lengthen there will be more time freed up to engage with day to day tasks and so we will be able to see like we’ve never had the time to do before.
Together, the two of us will make sure that over the next fortnight we get the remaining mulch onto the beds. My job list for this month (always with the caveat ‘weather dependent’) had us all doing it together. Four bodies and one day to complete the task. We will balance the hard graft over a longer period, with the detail of setting the kitchen garden up for the season. Until now, growing to eat has been a choice. To eat seasonally and organically and with the pleasure of being able to say it’s all from the garden and never fresher. Our perspective on sustaining ourselves here is suddenly heightened and the ability to grow our own food thrown into sharp relief. Choice has now become necessity. Where there is a surfeit, we will be harvesting more keenly. Bottling, freezing and learning how to ferment and pickle so that the harvest carries our efforts further. Where we struggled to keep up with successional sowing in previous years, we will apply a sharper eye to make sure that the beds are used as efficiently as possible. I am not saying it will be easy, but we will feel the difference for a life lived in real time.
So how will we all cope ? Gardens that we have been planning and building for years are suddenly without their gardeners this summer. Our project to re-imagine Delos at Sissinghurst is freshly planted and designed to feel like a wild place. The new reality of only a skeleton staff to look after it may find us returning to a wildness accelerated. At Lowther Castle, where the new Rose Garden – 10 years in the planning – is planted but not quite finished, will now have just two gardeners at a time looking after the acres of grounds in their entirety. The garden was due to be opened to the public this June, but now it seems the roses will come into their first life together as if in a secret garden, with the lawns grown long and the stillness of a garden unpeopled. These are extraordinary times. A period of rare reflection for most of us. A time to go deeper. What do we really need ? What are the real priorities ? How can we better our world and be kinder to it and each other when the dust settles differently ?
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan & Dan Pearson
Published 28 March 2020