Gardening: A Foot in the Future

I think all of us like to make a mark on the world, however small. A footprint in the sand, a tidied kitchen, a facebook post – small and transient signs of ourselves and our existence. Some people make indelible marks on history, and others can make millions with a signature. There are days when, as I artist, I am able to make lasting marks on paper or canvas, but thanks chronic Lyme Disease, more often I feel completely ineffectual. I wake up and put various plans past my body, and find it’s not quite up to any of them. I downright shove my body in one direction, only to find it more vocal than ever about its limitations. Sometimes it feels like I could scream at the top of my voice and it would make not the slightest impression upon the universe.

It is easy to take something as invisible as self-determination for granted. Schopenhauer, in his jolly essay On the Suffering of the World, likens human nature to a stream: we don’t take much notice when we can flow along without obstruction. What we notice is frustration, resistance and opposition. So we make no remark on the days when we get up with a plan, assume that our body will get in line, and proceed unhindered. What we notice, and what most people find deeply distressing, is when we seem powerless to improve and affect our situation.

That sense of powerlessness is by no means limited to sufferers of Lyme Disease. It might come from having to manage a difficult ongoing relationship, it might be from dealing with a mental illness such as depression, it might the stresses of work and paying the bills, it might even be the frustration of being 12 and feeling like your whole life is determined by others! When we feel powerless, when we have no reason to believe that tomorrow will be any better than today, when the future seems dark and foreboding it can, quite frankly, be hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

On days like these, my garden is my foot in the future:

Remembering how only two weeks ago the pear tree was bare of blossom, the tulips had no buds showing and the Dicentra (or ‘Bleeding Heart’) was hardly peeking from the soil, I look now at the flowers and emerging perennials and absorb this tangible evidence of change and growth and hope. Rather than only noticing whether the stream of nature hits an obstacle, I study my little patch of soil for the subtlest signs of progress. There is always something in the garden I am looking forward to. Indeed, during spring there seems an almost bewildering array of delights just around the corner. We have two clematis soon to come into flower, and I study their buds daily (literally, daily); we have three types of tulip in our ‘jewel’ bed and I’m dying to see if the colour combination works; in our central ‘formal’ bed we planted a congregation of globe alliums and I’m on the look-out for the first flower-stalk; and we have a Geum and a wisteria which didn’t flower last year, that I regularly inspect with hope. Just last week we planted up our new raised veg bed, and oh boy do I have aspirations for that little space.

Sometimes, I think of my garden as a personal emotional trainer. As in life, there is loss and frustration to contend with. Last year we planted an awesome pure white Hosta, which emerged from our shady ‘white’ bed like the ghost of a candle. Unfortunately, it lived up to its ghostly appearance and has not returned this year. Then there are frustrations, which mainly revolve around a perpetual battle with slugs. We had a beautiful sedum last year which was completely shredded by the blighters, so that – above ground at least – not a stump remained. To our amazement, in February this little soldier burst forth again from its grave and so far seems to be winning in its mortal contest with the gastropods!

I find it hard to take these lessons of hope to heart and am all too quick to accuse my garden of death and failure. I used to hang my hat on a poem called Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. I still stand by it as an immortal passage of heart-felt wisdom. But, since catching Lyme in 2010, I have found it much harder to have faith in lines like ‘no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should’. Last autumn we planted some dogwoods, with their brightly coloured red and orange stems, in our front garden, and around their bases sunk about 15 Puschkinia bulbs which we had bought on the internet. These should produce little ice-blue spears of star-like flowers in March and April. Well, by the beginning of February there was no trace of them, so I declared that the whole lot had been duds, and we went out to replace them with a dozen Scilla – similar idea, but not quite the right pale blue for my design. Of course, I had merely been spectacularly impatient and pessimistic, as usual. My assumption these days is generally that, unless I have hard evidence to the contrary, stuff usually turns sour. My garden is usually a vital corrective to this attitude. Sometimes, even though something looks as dead as a door-nail, underground the universe really is unfolding as it should. Not always, but sometimes.

So, some of the time my garden is teaching me hope, patience, acceptance (no, we can’t grow rhubarb, our garden is just too small, and no, we can’t grow Brunnera in full sun, however much it might fit with my colour-theme…) and fortitude in the face of the occasional loss and the frequent pests and diseases. For the rest of the time, it is simply a sanctuary. It is a place where I can be surrounded by air and life, even when I feel like the antithesis of vitality. Unlike the countryside, which urges you to go for long walks and sprawls forever beyond your grasp, a teeny-tiny garden is circumscribed and invites you to simply be in it. We have a bench carefully positioned in the middle of our south-facing fence (maximum sun) and it’s amazing how, when I’m sat there, the stiller I sit the more a part of the world I become. How different from the rest of life, where being still is to be at odds with the world, to be irrelevant and useless, left behind. In my garden, it is only by keeping still and really looking that I can keep up with all the micro-changes evolving by my side. In fact, as an artist I can feel overwhelmed by the wealth of visual inspiration available to me in just a few square metres. I could easily paint nothing but what I find in my garden, and never run out of inspiration. Indeed, it is a painting of a rose from my parent’s garden which has become my trademark image:

Of course, by now you might be deeply frustrated with me. Having a garden, even a tiny one, is a huge luxury, and even more so is having a husband who enjoys being the brawn and bringing my ideas to life. I’m very aware that this not available for everyone. If you’re physically able, but do not have your own garden, then an allotment can be an option, or visiting nearby gardens and parks. My husband and I effectively hijacked my parents’ garden, until we were able to move out of our flat and into our first house.

But, for me, the act of designing a garden is the most powerful element of all. Before we had a garden, I used to make dozens of garden designs, some of which were simply experiments in colour and form, some the kind of gardens I would actually want myself, and some followed a conceptual idea. As anyone familiar with the Chelsea show gardens will know, as an art form the garden is rich in symbolic possibilities. It’s like the original art installation – more than a painting in its three dimensions, more than a sculpture in its seasonal changes, sound and movement. You can communicate ideas through the planting – is it soft and serene, luxurious and overflowing, spiky and inhospitable? The plants themselves can often bring with them symbolic associations: roses with romance, daisies with innocence, herbs with medicine and healing, the nightshade family with death. Then there’s the structure of the garden and imagining how the visitor would interact with the space – for example, if you provide no path and nowhere to sit, your visitor would feel disorientated and lost. If you create a journey through a narrow gap in a tall hedge, opening out into a joyous riot of flower and foliage, you create a sense of epiphany and arrival. Then there are structural elements which can be important – maybe a sheltered trellis, or raised beds creating a feeling of being cossetted by nature. And finally we consider finishing touches and accessories, such as sculptures, water-features, lighting.

When Lyme Disease entirely dammed up the stream of my ordinary life in 2013, I created a series of garden designs to symbolise the various stages of my illness. Stage 1 expressed my increasing separation from my old life, with a seating area separated from the main garden by a still pool, and stepping stones petering out before reaching the colourful far borders, which are raised up and out of reach. Stage 2 was a winter garden, a time of hibernation, with a central circular patio to symbolise my lack of direction and diagnosis, and off-shooting paths, most of which are dead-ends.  Stage 3 reflected the restrictions of my illness with a formal, geometric garden in which the plants are tightly controlled, such as clipped box and espalier fruit trees, contrasting with the imagined freedom of health on the other side of a high wall, where curvaceous paths and abundant planting convey agency and vitality.

Finally, stage 4 was simply a place of refuge and relaxation, with a sense of serene order as an antidote to my chaotic health, and soothing, radiant planting in pale blues and primrose-yellow.

This may sound like a pointless and morbid thing to do, but the processes of creating beauty and meaning out of an apparently ugly and meaningless situation, was enormously cathartic. As you can see from my designs above, no matter how miserable the message of my garden design might be, it still had to be a garden and a garden, in essence, is a beautiful thing. Of course, it would have been amazing to see these designs realised on main avenue of Chelsea Flower Show, but that therapeutic act of creation is all there in these little designs. When feeling so powerless to design my own life, or control the workings of my body, I could play at being God over an imaginary plot and plan a little Eden where my struggles became meaningful. My tears would be transformed into pendulous pussy willows, my ill health into the complex contortions of corkscrew hazel, my isolation into repeated spheres of box and bay, my vulnerability articulated by bare stems, my supressed abilities evoked by inconspicuous but fragrant flowers like Sarcocca and winter honeysuckle. Art is like alchemy which can transform sadness into beauty, while still expressing the sadness powerfully and honestly. Most of all, even though I don’t know how I will feel tomorrow, or next week, and even though I can’t be sure whether ahead of me lies a future of regained health or permanent disability, I can have relative confidence that if I plant a daffodil bulb in the autumn, it will come up in spring, and if I plant a rose now it will flower over summer. These are things I can look forward to, regardless of what else life throws at me.

So, in conclusion, I commend the garden to you: as a physical space of sanctuary and joy; as a tangible connection with the vitality of nature; as an emotional journey of highs and lows, patience and hope; as a conceptual playground, where the darkest feelings can be expressed in the loveliest of mediums; as a foot in the future, tying you into the passing of time with anticipation of joy, rather than fear or trepidation; and finally, as a place which says ‘This is my mark on the universe, and it is good’.


Rachel Alban is an artist and writer living in Yorkshire with her husband and a tiny garden. While at university in 2010, she was bitten by a tick in her college gardens, but the following rash and flu-like illness went undiagnosed until 2014. Unfortunately, after four years of untreated Lyme Disease, Rachel was left virtually bed-bound, and confined to a wheelchair. After three years of treatment she has made huge improvements, but continues with the slow process of recovery. During this time both art and gardening have been indispensable sources of spiritual nourishment. Since 2013, Rachel has been working as a professional artist (health permitting), painting portraits, flowers, animals and still life on a miniature scale. Her love of gardens and nature is evident from her online gallery.

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