There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners: A Hobby Best Enjoyed Alone?

“I am strongly of the opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection.”
Gertrude Jekyll

Gardening is the background activity that claps events in the foreground. It’s the thing underneath, behind, outside, apart. It’s a space we enter and leave. And yet, like tilling layers of soil, we mix it with our daily, non-gardening life.

One of my favorite gardeners is Robin Lane Fox, a Classics scholar and (a scholar-friend informs me) the leading expert on Alexander the Great. Lane Fox also manages the gardens at Oxford University’s New College.

I cannot fully express what gardening has added to my life, ever-present in my mind and increasingly in my muscles, and always adding more to what I notice in the daily course of living.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Catmint and tulips growing in the springtime garden of New College, Oxford. Robin Lane Fox is the head gardener. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

For the last forty years, Lane Fox has written a gardening column in the Financial Times. He is – as one might expect of a Classics scholar cum gardener – erudite, informed, relentless, tidy, specific and occasionally susceptible to the beauty that results from the human endeavor of gardening.

Most of all, Lane Fox is a crusader for “thoughtful gardening” which essentially means: care, notice, learn, fail, improve – be immersed in that which you do and from that focus will come knowledge, even insight.

Winters respond to thoughtful gardening. They have their short, cold spells, which limit choices for gardens outside warmer cities, and there are also those days of dark rain and gale warnings, some of which come true. Their boundaries, however, are advancing with the warmer average temperatures of the past twenty years.

Such thick detail. To be immersed in his writing and the image proffered is deeply rewarding. And yet, isolating, no?

By isolating I mean gardening – like reading and writing – is often best enjoyed alone. Not the physical work but the contemplation, the thoughtfulness, the deliberation.

Gardeners have odd propinquity. There is no collective noun for gardeners. Between the butterscotch earth and ceramic sky there is us and plants and insects and water and it eventually rounds back to us. We are the keystone of the project nature never requested.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Allium bloom in New College Garden. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, we gardeners are quite an interlinked bunch.

We have celebrities. Legend. Annual events. Magazines. We move with the environmental movement and when we hear that “gardeners have reduced CO2 levels” we all pat ourselves on the back for being “part of this great something.” A muddy paw on the back.

I’ve attended the Chelsea Flower Show, my husband received tickets for work. We spent the evening in the insufferable company of people who weren’t gardeners. (Who are lovely people except for this fact). It made me realize, gardeners are indeed a group. An unnamed group. One that has boundaries but also pokes its tendrils throughout time.

The tranquil walks of domestic life are now unfolding to my view: and promise a rich harvest of pleasing contemplation.

U. S. President, John Adams, an avid gardener, wrote to his wife Abigail that he longed to return to the flowered aisles of his Massachusetts homestead. Instead, he was cloistered in Philadelphia, forming the Nation.

I feel connected to Adams. And yet, his words steep in detachment. Another gardener who must step away to enter the garden.

Maybe it has to do with property, the only place I can really garden without permission. My space.

Is that what makes gardening a thing apart? Property? Should there be public spaces to garden? Gardening cafes? Want to meet up and plant a few bulbs? Perhaps iris dividing after work?

If we’re with others, would we still feel the deep, devoted thoughtfulness of gardening? If one cannot feel the deep, devoted thoughtfulness of gardening, is that still gardening?

From Denise Levertov’s “The Tulips:”

Red tulips
living into their death
flushed with a wild blue

becoming wings
ears of the wind
jackrabbits rolling their eyes

west wind
shaking the loose pane

some petals fall
with that sound one
listens for

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Oxford’s New College Garden in springtime. The far wall is part of the original city walls dating from the 12th century. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We might not garden together but we can be gardeners together.

Gertrude Jekyll had a profound effect thousands of gardeners. Jekyll’s use of color, texture, and harmony furthered the garden as a place that draws one in – both visually and physically. Jekyll’s garden was a defined and deliberate place, not just a collection of plants next to a wall.

Jekyll was influenced by William Robinson, a late-Victorian gardener responsible for what we think of as the English garden: a great, natural flowery mess that is deceptively evolved and deliberate. Waving his trowel at formality and horrid bedding, Robinson opted for natural, gentle, subtle plants.

In 1931, a few years before he died, Robinson gave Jekyll a copy of his influential The Wild Garden. It was inscribed thus:

Inscription from William Robinson to Gertrude Jekyll featured in Gertrude Jekyll's "Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden" in The Examined Life Library.
William Robinson’s inscription to Gertrude Jekyll in his gifted copy of “The Wild Garden.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

His gardens were more flowery than his prose. Or, perhaps, the closer people are the less they have to say. Regardless, it nods to a bond. Two who are gardeners together.1

Photos of New College garden, Oxford featured in "Thoughtful Gardening" book entry.
Gardens at New College, Oxford University. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

British novelist Penelope Lively collects gardeners.

She moves them around like spring bulbs and cobbles a book from the effort, Life in the Garden. Lively discusses literature, style, trends, and those who would be gardeners, like Prince Charles who talks to his plants.

Lively pinpoints the exact benefits of gardening:

In gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backwards, and forwards, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next. And for me, there is this abiding astonishment at the fury for growth, the tenacity of plant life, at the unstoppable dictation of the seasons.

There is a concept known as runners flow and equally, writers flow. Is there gardening flow? Untethered movement within time, space, ideas, hope?

Lively thinks so. She also, however, uses the familiar language of the detached. She calls gardening an “intimate paradise, intensely personal, with private hiding places.” There is something in her that covets this space, this garden, and despite writing about it to us, won’t invite us in.

Obviously, gardening is and will always be a social activity. As much as it is a solitary activity. I don’t mind either, it’s that I just wonder; is there a way to bring more of the benefits of solitude – of that gardening flow – into a life that comes at us with its busyness and often won’t let us be alone? (Or doesn’t allow us to afford property?)

Does gardening have to be apart? Do all soul-enriching things?

I don’t know. Perhaps it will come to me as I cogitate amongst the crocosmia.