Gardens knit us into the cycles of life: every winter is a preparation for more permanent losses, every spring a reminder of the possibility for renewal ahead. Lulah Ellender began writing Grounding after her mother’s death; sorting through the family home, she found a diary that her mother kept recording the rhythms of her gardening year and this becomes a guide for her own engagement with her garden. Ellender realises that her garden – as a physical space and as a way of being – represents a point of communion with her mother, a way of keeping in touch with her via the mediums of plants and flowers. “Her tasks are my tasks now,” she writes.
The book begins with Ellender and her family – a husband and four children, all of them unnamed – at a turning point in their lives. They rent a house in a Sussex town (also unnamed, but probably Lewes) and their landlord has just died. There is a legal wrangle over the property: one party wishes to evict the tenants, the other wants them to stay. At first, Ellender feels defeated. The house is where she and her husband have raised their children. The large garden is a place of beauty and refuge (even if, as she says later, “to tend this garden is to engage in a constant struggle not to be overwhelmed”). The possibility of losing their home calls up an earlier loss – of the West Country farmhouse in which Ellender grew up and from which she was exiled when “my parents split up, my father went bust and we had to move out”.
Grounding is the record of a summer tending the garden with a fervency that is a “modest and quiet act of defiance”, making the place beautiful even though it may no longer be hers to enjoy when the cosmos seeds she has planted burst into flower. The book moves from the spring to the autumn equinox, recording both the specifics of Ellender’s battles with rambling roses and a garden that is divided too distinctly between sun and shade and a broader consideration of why so many of us spend such a large portion of our lives tending our gardens. “In creating a garden, part of us is trying to recapture something of the dreamlike quality of being a child outdoors,” she writes at one point in a glorious chapter on childhood and gardens.
I’ve read a lot of gardening books – if my summers are spent in the garden, my winters are all about gardening books and seed catalogues – but I’ve read very few as moving and literary as Grounding. Ellender lives close to a host of wonderful gardens and writes beautifully about Charleston and Monk’s House (she notes that the Bloomsbury set were also renters of their country properties), about Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. We find here many of the great garden writers – Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West, Sue Stuart-Smith and Mirabel Osler – but there’s also Tove Ditlevsen and Jorge Luis Borges, Helen Simpson and Katherine Mansfield. We understand that these writers are part of the garden for Ellender, shaping the way she sees it. As the end of the summer – and Ellender’s potential eviction – approaches, we join her in marvelling at the beauty of the garden despite – or perhaps because of – its transitory nature. We leave Ellender hopeful and the garden has helped bulwark that hope. As Alice Oswald says: “If anyone knows how to bet on the future, it must be gardeners.”