There’s an old Chinese proverb … “Life begins when you start a garden.” We’ve certainly been privileged to have and cultivate one to find solace and comfort in over the last year when the Earth came to standstill. It seems we’re not alone. While airline tickets may have seen a dip, online plant sales soared. During the lockdown in the UK, it is estimated that over three million people took up gardening, revelling in its therapeutic powers. To show our green-fingered gratitude to horticultural holistic health, we are joining the celebrations of Garden Day on Sunday, 9th May this year and donning a flower crown, its icon. To find out more, we catch up with a Garden Day ambassador, the OutThere Arthur Parkinson, who speaks to us frankly about his crown, Chatsworth and love of cocks (that’s chickens, in case you were wondering).
It’s a popular marketing trend to pick a day and call it something ridiculous, like “National Crouton Day” (8th June) and “Nut Grabbing Day” (sorry fondlers, 10th August is all about seeds and kernels)! So when we heard about Candide Gardening’s “Garden Day” we (rightly) assumed that it was a clever ploy to catch the Experientialist’s eye. But there was something quite sweet and interactive about this one, that has us giving it the (green) thumbs-up.
Garden Day asks people to celebrate their own gardens in whatever form they come in (we spotted a window box at last year’s event) and the joy they bring. On the 9th of May, we’re encouraged to down our garden tools and take an opportunity to reconnect with each other by creating and wearing a flower crown and share a post on social media. The idea being, to celebrate the life-enhancing power of garden spaces with a flower-filled day and appreciate the power of gardening, particularly after this year in lockdown. A number of ambassadors have rallied to the call, including the likes of Lisa Snowdon, Rachel de Thame, Laura Bailey and Dr. Alex George. We speak to the most OutThere of these growers and show-ers, the prince and poster-boy of the small-scale gardening movement, Arthur Parkinson.
Tell us about your involvement with Garden Day and why you feel OutThere travellers should take part?
I think we need to be honest now about the state of the Earth. We have gone beyond the brink on so many environmental levels but it’s important to not despair and think that all hope is lost. I think anything to help us rediscover our green fingers, no matter how big or small our gardens might be, is going to help. Gardens can be the new habitats good for the planet and our souls, so anything that makes gardens come to the forefront of our minds, I’m all for. Please let’s ditch the AstroTurf, fence panels and double begonias! We need hedges full of scented honeysuckle for birds, long meadows instead of lawns and pots full of nectar-rich buddleias and borage for pollinators.
How does your garden grow during the pandemic? How has it affected or helped your wellbeing over the last year?
I moved in with my Nan Min in the first lockdown (in 2020). At 95, she had the onset of vascular dementia and badly needed company and proper care. I did too, so we cared for one another. It was an odd time, but lovely, I kept my hens in her long garden that was up the road from Mill Yard, my mother’s front garden that my new book, The Flower Yard is all about. I used the allowed daily exercise to go there and water the pots. I am naturally reclusive and my anxiety reigned supreme, it still does. Managing it is hard and I have some awful days, part of me is dreading things going back to whatever normal life is.
I can’t imagine being on and off busy trains weekly and back on the fast track of modern life. Now, I’m with my partner James in the Cotswolds. He’s a bit of a social butterfly, so my life now is quite a contrast, but I love him so that doesn’t matter. You make compromises and it’s good for me not to become a crazy person on a remote farm with just chickens and a flower garden for company … at least not yet anyway!
I find myself sometimes quite scared about what has happened to the world in the pandemic, but we have to nurture what’s left. It’s one of the reasons I am totally behind our good modern zoos, like the ones in London and Chester, and also places like Kew and the Eden project – they are like our Noah’s arks.
I am sad that despite what caused the pandemic – too much human pressure on nature – that it’s not been the wake-up call we need … to eat less meat at large. Garden and eat less meat, that should be a government message now, but you listen to the radio and it’s just mostly rubbish news that does annoy me hugely.
I crossed the road yesterday and a man openly threw litter out of his car window, so I shouted at him like a crazy person with a few F’ words chucked in. I was so angry that his eyes met mine as he did it, but he still did it with such a horrid grin. The people on the pavement then gave me a dirty look, probably for swearing!!
What advice do you have for people that may be feeling a little low after this strange time? What positive vibes can you send up to the universe?
Take walks, listen to classical music at full blast and perhaps don’t be hard on yourself. Make the bed when you get up, wash your face clean your teeth! Face the world. I know that it’s hard when you have depression. I personally listen a lot to Ruby Wax, she is fabulous as are her books.
Nurture plants, it helps make things beautiful. I like to wake up to a vase of flowers in clean water, even if it’s a single stem of a hyacinth or a sprig of honeysuckle, the visual go a long way as does scent. Stay busy when you can, ring your loved ones up, email or best write letters. People don’t last forever, so appreciate them too.
What first attracted you to gardening, and more so writing about gardening? Tell us a little about the journey of Arthur Parkinson.
Well, I ended up applying for a Kew traineeship because I fell for a hunky scaffolder called Darren, who I met in London … truth be told! But before that, I had done a college RHS course on gardening and I was quite taken with it despite not being able to learn any Latin. London was tough though. I was fresh out of the egg from leaving my mum in Nottingham, so it was a year of hard work and feeling lonely. Drugs and bad habits took hold, so I had to get out and I did as soon as I finished my training. I had always admired Sarah Raven’s garden full of Venetian colours. I found her book, The Bold and Brilliant Garden in the library when I was 12 and I got really lucky the day I met her, and her husband Adam. They practically adopted me and I did rehab there gardening for her that summer. We have worked together ever since. Now I help her do the arrangements for her catalogues of cut flowers and we do a podcast together: Grow Cook Eat Arrange.
There are quite a lot of cock pics (well, chicken sketches) on your social media. Tell us a little about that, seems you’re all about flora and fowl…
I love my hens … they are my version of dogs. They’re such charming and beautiful birds. I’m writing a book about how to look after chickens well, so it’s going to be illustrated with the drawings you’ll see on my Instagram plus photos. I’m trying to visit lots of different hen houses at the moment!
Take us travelling for a bit… where does Arthur Parkinson like to travel to, when he can? Where are your favourite gardens in the world and what do you like about them?
Derbyshire. I’m a home bird really. That’s where we went on holiday from Nottingham when we were little. We stayed on a working farm, which is why farmyards are a nostalgic love of mine. I love the English countryside, a summers day, a picnic … scones and cobs and gin and tonic in a flower meadow on a blanket. I’d go for that over the beach almost always! I really want to see the sea though so this summer, so I’ll be heading to Cornwall and Dorset as well as back to Derbyshire. I love Chatsworth, it’s so beautiful, not just grand. There is a part called the exotic beds that are full of dahlias and foliage, it’s jungle-like at the foot of a great yew hedged maze. Very Alice in Wonderland.
What are some of the UK’s best gardens to visit? With domestic holidays in the air, what are your top tips?
Sissinghurst (The National Trust’s Sissinghurst Castle and Garden, near Cranbrook, Kent) remains unbeaten in beauty and romance. Get there as early as you can. In fact it’s the same rule for all gardens really, be there early! Chatsworth as mentioned, Powis Castle and Garden (Wales) looks beautiful, but I haven’t been! The David Austin Rose Gardens (nestled in the Shropshire countryside) look as you’d expect, like the David Austin rose catalogue. And, they have peacocks too!
What are your tips for the ultimate OutThere garden? What has inspired you most recently? And where can OutThere travellers seek inspiration for their gardens?
Let plants dominate – look at a jungle, look at how lavish it all is. Don’t be afraid to let things spill, creep and be at large. You can always cut things back. Have a go at gardening. Don’t be afraid. Why not start with sowing some borage seeds – it’s the easiest seed and loved by bees.
Visiting real gardens is always good for inspiration. Look at pot combinations. Look at how foliage is used to help connect the flowers and create density and form.
Gardening is so important and for me, it should be a trend because I really believe that mentally it can save us. And importantly as well, if done with thought, it might just save the planet too, or what’s left of it.
Instagram is a fantastic tool … you can see so much of what people are doing in their gardens. Pinterest is also great. My favourite account for good gardening habits though is the pesticide action network, PAN, it’s so important we are educated and learn about the harm these chemicals do.
What’s going to be in the Arthur Parkinson flower crown, come 9th May?
The great thing about flower crowns is that they can be as elaborate or as humble as you want. For me, cow parsley picked and foraged like a big white cloud, because it’s all over the roadsides and my partner James’ favourite flower.