When we bought our current house in 1990 we were mostly attracted by the garden. It is on two levels and had been carefully laid out 20 years before when the magnolias, below, were planted and the steps constructed. The then owner was no gardener (leaving aside he was wanted for financial fraud and a tad distracted). Consequently the once proud garden was a tangle of shrubs and mated herbaceous borders.
One feature I couldn’t really warm to were the beds full of hybrid tea roses. The garden had over 120 roses – as well as hybrid teas there were standards and climbers. I spent a couple of years extracting thorns from my hands as I carried out a campaign of scrubing out the ones we didn’t want. Some still survive today.
In our previous garden, a labour of love which we created from scratch, we had two, very young climbers. So I was rather daunted by what I needed to do with these prickily jungles. My mother has always been the horticultural expert in my family so it was to her I turned. I needed lessons on pruning.
With my mother, I learnt young: you don’t just turn up and say ‘how do I…?’ No. ‘Have you looked in a book, darling?’ was invariably her first question. She expected as much self education as possible.
So I already knew the very traditional way of pruning: cutting back to just above a bud that points outwards. You also make sure the stems do not cross. It is fiddly and inevitably painful.
When I told mum she nodded, but then said, ‘what about the other two ways?’ I was stumped. The text books didn’t suggest alternatives.
Mum had read and listened and watched. And she had gleaned that, while the ‘correct’ way gets you a desired result: a disease free bush as likely to overflow with blossom as not – it is not the only way.
She taught me random clipping and the no. 4. It was like haircuts. You could go to a barber and have your hair cut neatly with scissors, all layered and just so, or you could clip away at a fringe yourself, getting the shape right but leaving the interior alone or you could go at it with clippers, just cutting to a shape, the same length all over and devil take the interior.
All three worked. We experimented and the best blossom for two years was on the bushes we cut randomly. After two years, some needed a little extra work, to take out some of the crossovers. But really, you could choose.
Down the years I’ve made countless friends; some have lasted an age. In my early years I fluctuated between an intense need to spend time with friends and a shyness that might have looked like indifference. All or nothing. I received lot advice around the right way to nurture friendships and to me it seemed I was doing everything wrong.
I received and absorbed even more advice about children. The ‘English’ disease as I heard it called just today has us agonise about our children’ schools because in a lot of ways we can have a choice, especially for those who can afford to contemplate a private education. Which has the best rep, the best results, the most nurturing culture? And you know what? I had about as much clue trying to choose schools for my two children as I did a car or a food processor. Or pruning a rose. How do you decide which is the right one for your precious?
Back then there wasn’t the flood of information we have today courtesy of the internet but does that make it any easier? The heck it does. Why? Experts. The people who remove instinct and gut from the equation. Who in effect encourage you to ignore the experience of the actual front line users.
My mother taught me to look at the rose – really look. Were its leaves healthy? The buds? If so then do what you like. But if it was looking leggy, forlorn, diseased then try another tack. Don’t just slavishly follow a mantra.
With friends I’ve learnt some thrive with a constant contact and others are better with the occasional weekend full on. Just see how things pan out. And I had to remember those friends will decide, as much as me how that friendship is to work.
And schools? What did I think of the head? The head of lower school? Did I know other parents and their children who went there. And what did the children, in those off-guarded moments at playtime, and to and from the school, look and sound like. Happy? downbeat? The thing is there isn’t a ‘right’ one. Most will probably be ‘right’. Just be sensible about it.
Exam results? State of the art facilities? Extensive playing fields? Nah, none of that really matters. Education is all in the people.
If you want to nurture anything first and foremost let your own senses tell you what is likely to work, of which the sixth sense – common sense – is by far the most important. Form a view and then if that view is contradicted, well, by all means wonder why but don’t change just because of someone else’s views, however expert and well-meaning. When it comes to nurturing people, or plants there’s no one way. There’s no right way.
And sometimes, as my mother also taught me in the garden, the plants thrive with apparent neglect.
We live in London. It is what you expect of any multi-million-inhabitant city. Busy, bustling and a nightmare of worries when it comes to growing children. London has a comprehensive and generally fabulous bus service as well as overground and underground trains. It is pretty well lit and whatever the Daily Scare might tell you it is still pretty safe to walk the streets and travel around. So despite the diet of woes on the news we had to let go. That severing of control is perhaps the most difficult part of nurture. Because we say it is common sense that we should protect them, drive them here and there. Well the common sense is actually telling us something else. That we protect them by ensuring they understand danger signs, be it busy junctions or dodgy people, but they do have to go off on their own to put those lessons into practice. Otherwise all we do is drive them to distraction.
It is important we nurture our gardens as much as our friends and our children. But we do no one any favours when we mistake a nurturing environment for a controlling one.
This post is part of the 1000 voices speak for compassion series and the April 20th topic of ‘Nurture’.