Stillness and the city
I have long been interested in the idea of the garden providing sanctuary; for when it sings, a garden will have the power to transport and to lead you to a place that is magical. It can transcend its surroundings or conversely allow you to tune into them, to draw your eye to a view or your ear to the sound of a stream.
Gardens have long been used as oases, quite literally in the case of the Moorish gardens of the Middle East, which turned their back on the deserts around them to order nature and heighten an interior world. Although I have never seen the original Persian gardens for myself, I have found the Moorish influence in southern Spain a powerful influence and the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada remain some of my favourites. Room upon room gives way to a sensuous world with a sky ceiling, the cooling influence of water and the smell of lemons, jasmine and roses as a companion.
The gardens of Japan are among the most spiritual spaces I have ever visited, offering sanctuary for thought and contemplation. In the chapel-like stillness of the gravel enclosure at Ryoanji, your mind is free to imagine the mud wall as a range of hills, the gravel an eddying sea among the rocks. The contrasting soft, mossy woodland of Saihoji will be etched on my memory forever with its stepping-stone path forcing you to walk slowly, to focus your eyes on the texture of mosses at your feet or a crimson camellia fallen and left with purpose.
These were places that grounded me and rooted me in the moment, while giving cause to explore the landscape of my imagination. Being in the here and now is a rare thing in these times of rapid communication; although we might move too fast, we can depend upon our gardens not having to.
An oasis or a sanctuary need not be a perfect composition, and some of my favourite places have been thrown-together gardens, built from love and passion. The need to nurture can create a world in a window box, and inspire guerrilla gardens in unlikely places. The empty lots in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, converted in the 1970s, proved that you need little more than willpower to make an oasis in hostile surroundings. Chainlink fences were lifted and rubble cleared to make plots large enough to garden and a whole new culture of improvisation grew as fast as the beans through the scaffolding. Many of these plots have since been made into official gardens and will remain there against the odds.
Our allotments are probably our closest parallel in this country. Look out from the window on any train ride through the suburbs and you will see a patchwork of little worlds and sheds, like a shantytown for growing things. It is no surprise that these egalitarian spaces have never been in such demand with waiting lists decades long in some boroughs.
It was the idea of sanctuary that spurred my Peckham plot. It was a place that produced and provided in response to the hours I put in to nurture it, and it offered a still eye in the city. I discovered a lot there, too: how the evening primroses marked the longest day of the year, and how the rustle in the bamboo baffled the hubbub of the Peckham Road.
The garden was also a magnet for wildlife: the nectar-rich eryngium attracting five or six types of bee, my copper water bowl with its solitary water lily, the dragonflies. The garden offered a still contrast to the city for friends and family, too. You could argue that it was the reason that exhibitions came and went without me seeing them and that I had my head in the earth when I should have been more engaged with urban life. But the payback of tending a garden is profound and restorative. It is an oasis for the creation, available to anyone with a little space and the compunction to get their hands dirty.