Gardening as Therapy: A moving memoir

Image by Howard Sooley
Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn - who said he'd never give up his allotment, whatever the outcome of the recent UK elections - knows it and so do the millions of gardeners, growers and allotmenteers who've found a deeper relationship with their own patch of land. HARRIET GRIFFEY discovers the healing power of that relationship as described in a beautifully written new memoir
Jenkins gardens not only Plot 29 but also his own difficult past, to affect some internal reconciliation

When asked by Channel 4 News whether he would give up his allotment if he became prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn said no, because it gives him ‘time to think'. For Allen Jenkins, author of the newly published Plot 29, it gave him that and a whole lot more.

The current leader of the Labour party has had an allotment in North London for years, where he grows maize, beans and pumpkins and also fruit with which he makes jam. He went on to tell Channel 4 News that, ‘It's possible to do both because if you grow plants and look after your garden, it gives you time to think, it gives you a connection with the natural world and it makes you stronger in everything else you do.'

As a young boy growing up in Plymouth in the 1960s, Allan Jenkins and his brother were rescued from their care home by elderly foster parents and it was here, in the garden, that he first learnt the solace that comes from sowing seeds, tending the ground, nurturing life and reaping the fruits of those labours. For Jenkins, though, alongside those pastoral memories of childhood lay other, darker ones, more difficult to excavate or lay to rest. And it is these with which he is engaged as he works the soil of Plot 29.

There is ample research-based and scientific evidence of the restorative power of our interaction with the natural world, whether it's the mood-enhancing effect of daylight, to the sight of trees, plants and open space, the mental engagement and concentration that takes our minds off troubled thoughts, to the stress-relieving benefits of physical activity, it's all there to be accessed. Its efficacy is embodied in the work of the charity Thrive, which promotes gardening activities to bring about positive changes in the lives of those living with mental or physical ill health, or those who are isolated, disadvantage or emotionally vulnerable in some way. Horticultural, green or eco-therapy is now a recognised contributor to positive mental health, and in 2007 the mental health charity Mind published Ecotherapy, a green agenda for mental health and between 2009 and 2013 funded 130 Ecomind projects across England.

‘When I am disturbed, even angry, gardening is a therapy,' writes Jenkins. ‘When I don't want to talk, I turn to Plot 29... There among seeds and trees my breathing slows, my heart rate too. My anxieties slip away.'

His moving memoir, entitled Plot 29, documents the months from June to the following December, fuelled by the quotidian minutiae of gardening life; the dawn-breaking pleasures of tending plants as the sun rises and the heavy earth is dug to the accompaniment of an urban fox or gentle rain and the back-breaking wrestling with bindweed or mulching manure. Here, the attachment is both sentimental and pragmatic, thoughts and feelings processed along with the tender shoots and bullying snails.

Jenkins gardens not only Plot 29 but also his own difficult past, to affect some internal reconciliation

It's testament to Jenkins' sometimes sparse but always emotionally specific writing, whether it's about his love for nasturtiums, the Proustian effect of the taste of newly podded peas or his adolescent pining for a pair of Levis, that the heart-piercing reflections ring so true. ‘I have stupidly forgotten the lesson about always earning conditional love' he writes and, in that one bleak statement, we glimpse a particular cross to be borne by ‘cared for' children: they can never, ever, take unconditional love for granted as children should. They can always be ‘sent back' and this knowledge becomes ingrained like the dirt on a gardener's hand.

Jenkins' personal story is a complicated one, at odds with his professional, successful adult life as happily married father and editor of a national newspaper food supplement. A childhood full of purse-lipped love, withheld information and mysterious unknowns to which the body reacts in fear while the mind is amnesic: a story of abandonment, rejection, neglect and abuse and all those words made hard to swallow by association. But running alongside his exploration of truths and half-truths and the curious space that lies between - the stories we tell ourselves in order to live and those we are compelled to revisit - is the life-affirming continuum of an allotment he has tended for 10 years, with its constancy and demands and relationships successfully forged.

There is much that is beautiful, elegiac even, in his gardening descriptions and always this sense of forging connections between past and present. ‘I fork up a few potatoes, blushing Red Duke of York. As a child, I loved to dig the potatoes for weekend lunch, lifting them in the hour before eating. They were always King Edward's, boiled with apple mint when new, diligently scraped and served with salty butter. We grew peas, runner beans, strawberries... but it was from the potatoes that I learned the joy of growing food for the table, taking as much as you need for the meal and now more.'

Similar to those visceral griefs explored in memoirs like Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk and Katherine Norbury's The Fish Ladder, the former for the loss of her father and the latter for a second rejection by her birth mother, is the realisation that forgiveness - for self and others - also means giving up the hope of a different past. Among those heritage seeds and the solace of gardening are universal truths and the urgent requirement to understand who we are now through what we were then.

It is with this same hope for redemption that we choose to take our literal or metaphorical ‘magic beans' from our pocket and sow the seeds that enable us to confront, integrate and transcend past experience. Jenkins gardens not only Plot 29 but also his own, difficult past to affect some internal reconciliation, but there's nothing facile about his story: it's a beautiful, difficult but ultimately reassuring read.

Plot 29: A Memoir by Allan Jenkins is published by 4th Estate, price £14.99

This Author

Harriet Griffey is Cultural Editor at the Ecologist and also editorial consultant to One Hand Clapping magazine.




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