I used to live in LA and a waitress once asked me this question in a place called Cafe Gratitude in Larchmont. I think my reply was something like ‘not as such’. They meant it along the lines of spiritually growing I believe, nothing to do with seeds. And then they returned with plates covered in bark and leaves and something that looked like tile grouting but was ‘cashew cheese’. Now we are in Hampton, Middlesex, land of corner shops, Quavers and Percy Chapman’s seed potato emporium and I am growing like billy-ho.
But back then, there were avocados hanging in front of us, skins like alligator hide. I drove, and I still go to sleep thinking of the way I undertook long journeys. The way I turned the car into the turn-left lane; I was so good at that. Sometimes I thought I would get pulled over for driving without adult supervision. I didn’t go on freeways for this reason as they were so scary – like molten lava pouring in every direction.
During my time there, I volunteered at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino every Tuesday and worked in the herb garden, which was fringed with citrus trees. Chinottos, lolling grapefruit, ponderosa lemons that lay on the ground, stem still attached to the tree. I’d sit there after lunch and meditate to the sound of the sprinklers and think: here I am. Then I’d collect all the fallen kumquats and stuff them down my trousers, to make marmalade later.
But it was the herb garden I loved. There were many different varieties of a single herb. I remember thyme mostly; coconut, lemon, spicy orange, creeping thyme, basking in its favourite clapped-out soil. I remember scented geraniums. I remember different sorrels, some with red veins, and huge waves of rosemary. There was ‘false garlic’ which we were instructed to get rid of, despite the delicate pearl at the base of each stalk which tasted of onions. There were cardoons and one of the other volunteers talked about his Italian grandmother rolling them up and cooking them in a pot. Afterwards, waiting for my friend Tristan who I gardened with and who was my kind lift there and back, I would look at my collection of things on the bench and take photographs of them. Then I’d get in the car (belonging to Tristan) to be driven howling (by him) along the freeways back to LA, where I might partake of a vegan gelato for the walk home.
The herb garden was where I got the idea that growing things was a good way to spend the day. I used to arrive back in LA feeling different. Better, having had my head freed to think random thoughts while cleaving herbs in two and talking to Kelly, the head gardener, about our families and homesickness etc. Gardening is much like driving when you are partnered with someone – you tend to be looking in the same direction with little eye contact and this, combined with the therapeutic aspects of sinking your hands into soil, can give rise to a candour that is often missing when you’re face to face.
No one, in the more than five years since our return to the UK, has once uttered the words Are you growing? Except perhaps in relation to my rhubarb, which is actually growing – little pink knobs protruding from horse manure. Along with garlic, globe artichokes, the jolly polyanthus and dependable forget-me-nots. And herbs of course, my main love. Now I am waiting for people, with the warmer days, to turn up, which is my starting pistol at the allotment. So that we can have those chats that can only happen when you are both facing the same way, eyes averted or shielded by the sun, hands in the earth, or poking about in foliage. It has been a safe and evenly spaced place to be this past year and I am forever grateful for it.
Kelly Fernandez, in the photo above, has been head gardener at the herb garden and the Shakespeare garden for 10 years. Thank you, Kelly for kind permission in using the pic.