Plants flowers in the garden, by Colin Stewart
It is one of the honours of running Radicle that people get in touch and entrust this newsletter with their personal gardening stories. I am forever humbled and moved by the openness and generosity with which gardeners share their writing, experiences, thoughts and feelings and I don’t take it for granted. When Colin first approached me with this piece he said he wasn’t sure whether his article was appropriate for Radicle. As he said, he never really considered that it could be until he read Carmen’s piece on gardening at Prospect Cottage and thought it might be a nice follow up on a related theme (which shows me the importance of having a wide range of stories, perspectives and voices. It is one small way in which it is possible to demonstrate that everyone is welcome and to contribute). He had originally written this piece for something else and it never got published. I’m happy to say, and to reiterate, that everyone’s gardening story is welcome. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to give a home to Colin’s memoir essay here, as it was to provide the space for ones before and will be for the ones to come. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Plants flowers in the garden, by Colin Stewart
Plants flowers in the garden.
It was a Social Education lesson, the kind you could tell even the teacher couldn’t be arsed with. The object of the exercise was to arrange an imaginary pupil’s list of extracurricular activities into a timetable, to teach us time management ahead of exams that actually mattered.
Plants flowers in the garden, read Mr Muir from the textbook. It’s Kieran James, someone called out instantaneously. Everyone laughed, Mr Muir laughed. I probably laughed too.
I was thirteen that spring, the year of my obsession with the solar-powered water feature. It came from one of the catalogues that proliferated in the weekend papers; microwave egg poachers, discreet incontinence pants. A plastic circle in a blue glazed bowl, it bravely spurted six inches into the air when the Glasgow sun shone directly on it, stopping the moment a cloud passed over. I’d elevated it on a plinth of precariously stacked yellow bricks, planting an ivy at its base to hide their brashness in time.
The fountain was the focal point of the narrow strip of garden alongside our end-of-terrace, shielded from the main road by a thinning privet hedge. I’d contrived this vista around a picture in one of my grandmother’s old gardening books. In a stone-walled garden, climbing roses tumbled over arches and Alchemilla mollis seeded itself between York stone, framing a heavily lichened sundial of some antiquity. I used artistic licence for my version, paving it myself in precast Cotswold Buff from B&Q, laid wonkily on sand. Balance and dignity were brought by a pair of marguerites flanking the path in bright new terracotta pots; they’d soon age with a bit of milk splashed on, though the sticky rectangles left by the £6.99 stickers remained to compromise their patina. The lady’s mantle was just the same.
I’d beg my mum to drive out to the retail park (‘Where are your friends?’), try convincing her we needed pre-formed topiary or a tree fern, knew it was futile. I policed the colour schemes of bedding plants; the thrill of a White Garden six pack of pelargonium, petunia and lobelia, just like Sissinghurst.
I wanted to plant a rose to scramble up the gable end, 'Albéric Barbier' or ‘Mme. Alfred Carrière’, but a cracked grey concrete path hugged the wall and I was banned from drilling the pointing. Instead a selection of out-of-scale shrubs were squashed into a 3 foot wide border – a brash, quick-growing golden elder, sharp against the blue bowl, a sad spiraea kept only for its maturity – to section off this inferior path from my flagged one, separating my space completely. I was obsessed with the idea of enclosure, a kind of hortus conclusus in which I would remove myself from the world. I’d take a chair and the weekend supplements, nicked from under my dad’s nose before he disappeared to the bathroom with them, into this confined corridor, as close to the fountain as I could get without overshadowing its solar panel, smugly acknowledging the relaxing tinkle even as it barely registered over the traffic.
Christopher Lloyd in the Guardian magazine on a Saturday; the thrill of dahlias and cannas clashing in his ripped-up-rose garden, the hints of worlds I’d yet to fathom, far removed from the Calvinism of BBC Scotland’s Beechgrove Garden. House and garden saturated the media then and I lapped it up, the era of chucking out your chintz, Home Front, Ground Force, and Changing Rooms; names weirdly redolent of stiff upper lips and cold showers. A garden shed makeover competition for kids. I remember the winning design so clearly, a 6x4 shiplap transformed into a bijou post-Bloomsbury Versailles, all cobalt and burnt orange paint with gilded stick-on mouldings, the rococo panelling framing bright yellow plastic sunflowers. Its creator was a boy my age. I can still feel how I recoiled from the recognition.
wavy lime green vases
the Spice Girls
the underwear in the Next Directory.
Real sanctuary was the school holidays. We spent them in Nairn. Grannie’s garden was vast compared with ours, a real walled garden, albeit behind a 1930s bungalow and bounded by breezeblocks. But at the end was the lovely pink sandstone wall of the big house beyond, a relic from the town’s Brighton of the North heyday. This was the backdrop to a proper herbaceous border of campanulas, delphiniums and great flourishing lavenders. In the far corner was the veg patch, given over to potatoes, peas, gooseberries and a glorious row of raspberry canes, still my favourite fruit but never quite so good as straight from the bush on a quiet July afternoon by yourself.
The veg abutted the hidey hole, a secret place parents were banned from, where Grannie and I sat just the two of us at a picnic table, eating tablet and shelling peas. Her funny turns of phrase: my wee loon, gey queer. She taught me to say Primula denticulata. Grannie’s boy. There’s a photo of me at three, with an auburn fringe and a Stork margarine tub of Michaelmas daisies and sweet Williams on my lap, our entry to a competition in the Seamen’s Hall. With Grannie I sowed my first nasturtiums, still going strong when I returned in October for the tattie holidays, a miracle.
Years later, the two of us in her kitchen and Emmerdale’s on.
He’s one of them.
One of what? I knew though.
You heard about Brighton
The Admiral Duncan
Queer as Folk
on the 70s fake wood-veneered TV set of a dead great aunt in the shared bedroom, index finger poised over the off button.
Plants flowers in the garden.
Spring, the present, the east of England. Rainbows in sash windows. The garden I’m working in, a big institution, is closed, down to critical care only. I’m at a loose end. I zoom my friends, draw up timetables I never stick to, finally finish Modern Nature. I’m losing sleep. I give up on HIIT workouts with Instagram personal trainers and think about messaging an ex.
The order arrives at last. Even now you hope for the best when sowing seeds, never quite believe it’ll work. First through are the zinnias, tentatively pushing up, coat still attached. Soon enough green pin pricks pepper most of the trays; promises of bronze fennel, purple kale, Salvia patens, Rhodochiton atrosanguineas and, in palest lemon now, sunflowers.
I’m making a garden for me again, in a narrow border outside the tied cottage door. I make obelisks from pea sticks, place pebbles like Derek while I wait for my charges to grow. Plant a dahlia called ‘Tartan’; flirt with kitsch but try to dodge irony. Still evenings alone in the polytunnel with chaffinches and the scent of lilac, pricking out, potting on, seeing the whole thing through. It hasn’t felt like this for years.
Colin Stewart is a gardener, illustrator and writer, born and bred in Glasgow. He is currently nearing the end of eighteen months as the Ruth Borun Scholar, working and learning at Great Dixter, East Sussex. Colin wrote this during the lockdown spring of 2020, while a trainee at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. He can be found on Instagram @colindavidstewart.
Colin is being paid for this article.
Photo credit: Colin Stewart
Radicle is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and to support the work put into this newsletter, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.