Wax on, wax off: Life Lessons from a plant

When people find out I’m a gardener the response usually revolves around how lucky I am to be outside all day, and how they wish they could do something with their ‘hands in the earth’.  Words to the effect of ‘it must be so good for you to feel connected to nature…it must help you keep everything in perspective’ then ensue – and I don’t disagree.  What’s weird is that this instinctive knowledge that gardening is ‘good for your soul’ doesn’t make people do it a bit more – myself included; the fact that I adore gardening and only discovered it few years ago is not only baffling, but basically pretty irritating when I think about how much time I’ve wasted.  This, I truly regret – almost as much as I regret sending the rather effusive letter I wrote to a certain someone and which still sends shivers down my spine fifteen years later- (even writing about it now makes me feel like I’m going to be a tiny bit sick in my mouth)- so when a friend of mine the other day uttered the immortal words ‘If I had my life over I wouldn’t change a thing’, my response was to spit my coffee out and say ‘yeah, RIGHT’.  Come on, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to go back and do certain things a bit differently given half the chance?  Doubtless we all end up ‘better’ people for having made hideous mistakes when we were younger, but does all this ‘growing up and finding yourself’ have to be so yucky?  The Karate Kid had his mentor, Mr Miyagi to tell him to ‘wax on, wax off’ but there is an easier, fast-track way to grow up, and it begins with planting a seed.

Plants have a wonderful way of showing you the secrets to a contented life – you only have to have a few things growing to realise how much simpler things would be if you tried on some of their ways for size.  The first thing you notice is that your plant is not emotional.  It doesn’t get up in the morning and decide that it’s fat and that the whole world is hideous as a result.  Plants don’t have bad hair days that prevent them from going out into the world and being confident; they are fabulously devoid of whimsy, insecurities, or self-doubt.  Even if you forget to water a plant, it will still try to grow as well as it can with the little water it does have, and when you finally realise your mistake, as long as you haven’t left it too long, it will pop up again without any resentment or hard feelings.  There’s no point in feeling guilty about it either, because your plant doesn’t care how you feel – all it cares about is growing.

The next revelation is that your plant does not compare itself to others – it doesn’t feel sad or less-than because it’s not as tall or as gorgeous as its neighbours.  It will grow as well as it can, given the resources at its disposal, and have as productive a life as possible within those parameters. In the wild, if a plant can’t reach the light because its seed happens to have fallen into a less than perfect spot, then it won’t make it – poor little plant – but here’s the thing: no one will feel sorry for it and it will not feel sorry for itself.  A plant is self-reliant and has no future expectations except to grow as much as it can in this moment.

Beauty, from a plant’s point of view is refreshingly low down on the agenda where it belongs.  When you start to learn about the reasons behind those colourful or sweet-smelling flowers you very quickly realise that it is simply a means to an end.  That insects and birds are attracted to flowers serves the single purpose of reproduction for a plant and nothing more.  It is not important in itself, but solely for the next generation.  There’s no vanity here, and more importantly, there’s no flowering, no vigour and no ‘beauty’ at all without strong, well-established roots.  It’s the slow steady creep of those roots in a good soil that gives a plant its beauty.  It’s the stuff we don’t see, the consistent, steady work going on underground that ensures success; ‘Wax on, wax off’, if you like.

I came to gardening in my late twenties after I found an old packet of sweet-peas at the back of a cupboard and planted them, more for something to do than any real interest in plants.  I was working at an office, and, to be perfectly honest, hoping subconsciously that someone (preferably tall dark and handsome) would sweep me up and take me away from it all.  The pursuit of this rather sorry aim necessitated endless glamming up and boring myself senseless at meaningless parties, dinners and dates to absolutely no avail.  Should have known, shouldn’t I that the minute I got truly interested in something, like those seeds which sprouted and grew, I would be fighting them off with my bamboo canes.  Within a few weeks I had ditched the job and enrolled on a horticultural course.  I was so utterly engrossed with it all that I stopped waiting for the phone to ring, or for my in-box to ping at me.  I completely forgot about what I looked like, or what other people thought of me.  I would get up in the morning and rush downstairs to put a pair of wellies on and spend the day looking round gardens and chatting to pensioners about plants.  My life became so full that there was no time to preen; I regularly turned up to dinner still in my wellies, and still talking breathlessly about gardens.

Yes, some people must have thought I was having a bit of a quarter-life crisis but the truth is that as soon as I ‘got’ gardening I was asked out by a blush-makingly huge number of tall dark handsomes and had the amazing experience of being asked to write a book…If I hadn’t been so completely absorbed in my garden, I might have done a double-take and wondered whether a fairy godmother had flown down, bashed me with her wand and turned me into a fairytale princess because honestly, this sort of amazing stuff does NOT happen to me.  I love the idea of luck, grace, serendipity as much as the next person, but looking back it’s glaringly obvious that all the best stuff (children, marriage, my career) came along because I was a girl with a one-track mind, totally engrossed by my passion and learning more about it.  There is no fairy godmother, there’s just me, putting one foot in front of the other, behaving a bit like a plant.