Once upon a time, like most sane people, I was utterly uninterested in gardening. I wasted my time and money on reasonable things: secondhand books, dramatic spices, jackets that I hoped might transform me into the well-groomed and self-possessed novelist I still intend, one day, to become. Like opera, gardening was for the old people, posh, English. And I, youngish, the proud descendent of Mitteleuropean immigrants who had lived, like me, in dark London flats, had far better things to do than grow a cabbage. Isn’t that what shops are for?
Then something peculiar happened: I acquired a tiny garden of my own, in glorious ignorance, and, accidentally, fell in love.
When I acquired my first garden, technically a windswept, leaky roof terrace, I was expecting our second child and my second novel and had other things on my mind. Too young for horticultural friends, depressed by my dismal new gardening book (sample sentence: “Late Jan. apply sulphate of potash ¾ oz/ square yard.”), I panic-shopped lavender and clematis, and watched them die. This patch of stained white asbestos was nothing like the garden children need: bosky borders, climbable trees, grass on which to lie while contemplating the void. I imagined that, one day, for the children’s sakes or, let’s be honest, for mine, I would attain one.
Except, as it turned out, I couldn’t. Children, the selfish little beasts, require space, and in London it’s either bedrooms or a garden, not both. So, selflessly, heroically, I made the ultimate sacrifice. My second garden was still lawnless, treeless: a largely paved yard, edged with crumbling walls, rampant honeysuckle, low-maintenance shrubs. I sawed them down and resolved to grow vegetables.
I was alone and unguided, and my mistakes were tragic, the expense terrifying; when have common sense and passion ever mixed? Gardening is not innate: there is no such thing as a green thumb. Still, without a childhood spent helping Grandpa with the weeding, how are you meant to identify plants, let alone nurture them? I killed an apple tree; I butchered an olive; I planted sweet little saladings, laboriously grown from seed on my kitchen floor, and, as in the classical epic films my father adores, I watched while hordes of sex-crazed slugs, refreshed by their holidays in my crumbling walls, devoured them.
But I am both cussed and tenacious. As a musically moronic child, I tried to master the French horn; while other teen-agers were acquiring life skills like drinking and clubbing, I decided to learn ancient Greek. So while a normal young adult might have accepted that gardening was for retirement, bought a larger television, and stayed indoors, I persisted year after year.
Nearly a decade on, and still with extremely variable success, my six square metres of polluted urban soil and a few pots have become a bountiful experiment in miniature farming, a city jungle with more than a hundred different things to eat, though, sadly, nowhere to sit. There are eight or nine types of tomato; red and gold raspberries; ten kinds of lettuce and chicory; a dozen Asian mustards, from mild to ridiculous; too many beans, yellow, purple, speckled; ludicrous Italian zucchini, as long as your arm and much, much funnier; about fifty herbs. I make salads with thirty different leaves: the maroon-splashed “speckled trout” lettuce, sorrel, radicchio, bull’s-blood beetroot, and ginger mint. I harvest, by the teaspoonful, wild strawberries, blackberries, wineberries, loganberries, grapes, pink gooseberries, sour cherries, fat figs, fragrant quinces, and translucent white currants. I admire the lolling egg-yolk blaze of squashes, tangerine marigolds, magenta-pink pineapple sage, rose-scented geraniums, and bright-blue borage, which sends insects into private orgies of buzzing.
If you enjoy topiary or, frankly, sanity, my garden would horrify you; real English vegetable gardeners, loyal to turnips, would scoff at my newfangled foreign crops.
“Don’t you like flowers?” visitors ask.
“Of course. Sometimes. Why?”
“It’s just . . . people don’t usually grow vegetables in the middle of town.”
But so what if Italian bitter greens and Thai basil are far more labor-intensive than simple shrubbery? Even now, my failures are manifold, my harvests nugatory. That isn’t the point. As anyone knows who tends a windowsill chili, or thrills when they keep a supermarket herb-plant clinging perilously to life, plants are raveningly addictive. Once gardening has you in its silken grip, drawing you into a lifelong infatuation with sappy greenery, copulating earthworms, and the smell of rain, there is no rest. We recruit; we evangelize; we forge friendships based on a strangers’ reference on the bus to rhubarb. There is pleasure everywhere: trees to admire on the way to work, edible weeds at the train station, a sniff of rosemary in the car park. Gardening enhances one’s world: it is urgency and desire, passion and death, and, if you’re lucky, life.
Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.