Over a lifetime—with Bina Shah | Issue 21 | 2022
"It’s beginning to happen now. These little green shoots and peonies bursting through the soil. It’s fabulous to see."
Noni Shannon and Bina Shah
with an introduction by Nicola Liu
I wish I were more of a gardener. I don’t know why I am not. My mother always had green fingers; and when she was training to be a teacher she would take us to the Hothfield bog and square off sphagnum moss to study. I loved all the books with the botanical drawings that she collected. And when I lived in a council flat in the East End of London I loved the old Butler sink I found on the balcony and grew nasturtiums in it. In my time I have been a community gardener, growing beans and the like. I think I am more properly a wildflower gardener. Or a rock-garden gardener. I like plants to spill out over their edges and appear and disappear mysteriously through the seasons.
August in the English summer is the time of defeat, strangled, exhausted, monotone in the dull heat. Spring and autumn are magical. So much hope and so many surprises. And colour. But very little actual planning, despite all the books I have assembled over the years.
I have been reading a book by a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who is married to an English garden designer; together, they have created ‘the wonderful Barn Garden in Hertfordshire’ which, one day, I may visit. They are taking advance bookings for 2022, and the photographs on the website look beautiful, particularly the black-and-white ones taking you through its history. The book is called The Well Gardened Mind: rediscovering Nature in the modern world. This is not a book about how to garden. I suppose it is about why to garden. The garden as a liminal space. A refuge. Sue Stuart-Smith starts by writing about grief going underground; feelings hiding other feelings; the pairing of attachment and loss. “At some point the question arises: can we bring ourselves alive again? ...When we cannot mourn, it is as if a perpetual winter takes hold of us.’’ And so on and so on. I recommend her to you.
Bina Shah told me about The Well Gardened Mind when we spoke during lockdown, and her enthusiasm sent me to the local bookshop; and, later, as life began to come back to Scotland, to the garden centre by the oyster place by the side of the loch to buy sweetpea seedlings. Anything to put me in a better frame of mind after the winter of 2020.
As I write, there are blue skies over Scotland, the sweetpeas have suddenly grown and are flopping around showing their colours, and all sorts of flowering plants have come alive, even roses. The green-laden trees, the bushes, the moss, the lichen are all sheltering the midges. It is summer.
Not so in Australia, where Noni Shannon lives. It is winter in Australia. There is snow in Canberra, possibly (there certainly is in Tasmania) and cold, damp rain in Melbourne and blistering heat at noon in the Central Desert of the Northern Territory. And in Sydney, in New South Wales, where Noni gardens, it is a mild, Mediterranean winter’s day.
Time to meet Noni and Bina. If you have friends or family who seem to live in the garden at certain times of the year, then you will already know them.
Both my father's parents are long since passed away but all the stories were of the constant fights between them about where the water went. They had big bores, they had dams, but when it was really dry it was always, ‘I have to keep the garden going, otherwise I’ll never get it back’—even though water was so scarce and they were so worried about it. We are very aware in Australia of how precious water is. A garden can seem a luxury.
Both my parents were born to farming families. I grew up in the country. My father worked the farm with his two brothers. It was pretty much wheat and wool. My mother’s father, he’s pretty much just sheep. There’s a saying in Australia—‘they lived off the sheep’s back’—that was my mum’s dad. Fattening them up, selling them off, and then shearing them, thousands. Those days are long gone.
Now I live in Sydney, quite close to Balmain and the harbour. As the crow flies, I’m three kilometres out from the city. Not many people have big gardens, so there’s a real community feel to the area.
Gardening for me is a quiet space. Or it’s usually quiet—sometimes there are chainsaws involved. It can be exhausting. And cathartic—you‘ve turned soil and planted things and pruned things, and the plants respond to that. And it can be quite soothing, quite rhythmic, if you’re pruning or you’re weeding. You can think about lots of things or you can think about nothing.
The reward is very real. Someone gives you a random cutting and you put baby powder on its bottom and stick it in the ground and it grows. It grows into something larger and stronger and more beautiful.
I find it very grounding, in every sense.
I have gardened ever since I was nineteen. A lifetime. I love gardening.
I have a tiny London garden and I have an allotment.
I waited eight long years for my allotment. When I finally got it, I was completely on my own. I had come out of an unhappy marriage and there was still this sense of grief; and of failure. My children were away at university, I’d sold my little property, everything was in storage. So it was wonderful to have something to care for, and then to create beauty.
It wasn’t linear. It wasn’t as though I got the allotment and the next minute I was happy again. But it grounds you. It provides structure.
Doing the watering on a summer evening is wonderful. We’ve got these big wrought-iron gates and I turn my key in them and I walk down there and I leave the day behind me. Honestly, it’s like walking into the country. It’s a huge, huge patch of land. There are about a hundred allotments, more than that, about a hundred and fifty. Everybody is there, watering their little plot. It’s very peaceful.
At the time I didn’t think of it as a healing period. It just added to the sense of richness, what there was to look forward to.
I have progressed.
In my first garden I tried to plant more of an English style of garden—in Sydney. I had azaleas that flowered once a year. They were beautiful when they flowered; and I spent the other eleven months of the year spraying them with insecticide so they could actually flower properly.
I love that you can see callouses on your hands and dirt under your fingernails. I love that side of it. It’s not just pruning the roses, it’s digging holes for trees. And you see the fruits of your labour.
When I first saw the allotment, it was the size of one and a half tennis courts and there were pumpkins everywhere. And raspberries. But backbreaking labour is very satisfying. You wheel away a wheelbarrow of stones, you dig over a bed, and you think, ‘Ah, it’s mine to do what I want with.’
I built two compost bins. I’m fanatical about composting.
I do a lot of things that my mother taught me and my grandfather taught me. I like following patterns that they have followed. The ‘no-dig’ style of gardening is ecologically more sustainable, because we’re not disturbing the soil, we don’t need so much fertiliser—but I don’t actually practise it. I like the process of digging over my bed vigorously. I feel I’ve done something!
I grow nasturtiums next to my cabbages. I grow dill near the carrots to deter whitefly. The fennel is interspersed with all the vegetables. I like this rich mess.
I have just planted a damson tree and I’ve ordered a quince tree for next year because I want to make my own quince jelly. I’ve got raspberries, strawberries, blackberries—I planted two blackberries yesterday—lots of redcurrants, stuff you can’t easily buy in the shops.
I had buckets and buckets of strawberries last year, fat, red, luscious strawberries. This year I’ve grown these little strawberries, they’re Italian, fragola di bosca, they’re woodland strawberries, tiny, and the taste is even more intense.
We always have lots of herbs. Parsley, rosemary and thyme, oregano, basil, coriander, sage, mint. Sometimes lemon grass. Chillis. Fruits would normally be citrus, so oranges, lemons and limes. And strawberries.
I grow whatever comes easy, lots of leafy greens, the bok choi, Chinese greens. No potatoes—because of the space more than anything. Lots of lettuces. And tomatoes, we grow them up the trellises, in large pots; they’re great to pick straight from the sunshine. We’re in a rental house at the moment (we’re renovating), so we’ve got lots of pots.
Space is the biggest issue when it comes to growing vegetables. People have small gardens in Sydney. My last house was a little terrace, so my front yard was a metre by three metres; I probably spent more time in that garden (spraying the azaleas...) than I did doing housework.
There’s always such pleasure in designing the space, however small—lots of succulents, lots of green, lots of shapes and textures. The ugliest cactus grows the most beautiful flower—they may be thorny things that you can’t touch, but they have these exquisite blooms that come up for a very short period of time.
When we go back to our house, I’m keen to get a passionfruit vine on the fence; it’s got this exquisite flower.
Flowers are such a source of joy. They’re so fleeting in their beauty. There are dahlias in my cutting garden that my mother gave me, that I remember from her garden when she was little. I post my dahlias on Instagram and I give them away to friends—and I watch flower arrangement videos obsessively! I’ve got lots of roses, I’ve got cosmos, I’ve got nasturtiums, I’ve got cornflowers and poppies and fennel and dill, and I make these huge extravagant arrangements. During lockdown, I had buckets and buckets of flowers that I could bring into the house.
I’ve got roses called Natasha Richardson and Darcy Bussell, they’re stunning. I love the scent of roses; I can’t see the point of growing roses without scent. And I love the smell of tomatoes. And the fennel, and the herbs.
My mother has hundreds of roses in her garden. She has roses that were in her grandmother’s garden. There’s a whole history of shared plants over the generations in my mother’s side of the family.
The Cecile Brunner rose is tiny. The rose is beautiful, a dusty pink, and the scent is beautiful. My mother’s great grandmother had a Cecile Brunner, her mother had one, and my mum has one—and she had them in her bouquet when she got married. The scent of it alone reminds me of my grandmother, because it used to be by the gate when you walked into her garden.
I have a rosemary bush which is about sixty years old that I inherited from the previous allotment-holder, and that’s very evocative.
It’s really heightened on a hot summer’s day. When you walk in, you’re just hit by the scents of these flowers and herbs. You crush a sprig of lemon balm as you’re weeding a strawberry patch. It’s wonderful. I have pineapple mint and apple mint and I like crushing it and smelling it. But there is nothing really like the smell of a tomato that you’ve just picked, is there? It’s the essence of tomato.
The smell of summer fruits with the warmth on them, when you pick them straight out of the garden, it’s wonderful. And then there’s the smell of damp earth; and of herbs. There is nothing like the smell of rain on dry, hot soil. The rain is joyous—because you are aware of the life it gives. But I like it to rain at night, not in the daytime.
If you’ve got plants in pots, you can’t water them when the pots are hot because you’ll boil the roots. So it comes down to six a.m. gardening, when it might be 30 degrees. Succulents and cacti respond well to heat: they won’t die off no matter how many 40-degree days burn at them.
The green is cooling and soothing. I quite regularly garden in the heat.
You get in tune with the birds and which plants they are going to. And you hear bees. That’s a big problem—where are all the bees? —‘Oh, thank goodness, there’s a bee!’
It’s not just bird life; where we are, you can always hear other people talking, and the cars, and the planes overhead. It’s the city.
That’s been such an unexpected pleasure this past year, to hear the birds. You can see the wild geese flying over. It washes the day away. Ed says, ‘Oh, you’ve gone to your happy place.’ He’s right.
I’m waxing lyrical, but I make so many mistakes! I’ve been trying to do ‘the three sisters’, which is sweetcorn, Borlotti beans and pumpkins. It’s a Native American way of growing plants within a symbiotic relationship. The Borlotti beans are supposed to climb up the sweetcorn and the pumpkins are supposed to crawl along the ground and suppress the weeds. It’s been successful up to a point but not hugely. The Borlotti beans were strangling the sweetcorn. I grew masses of beetroot. I don’t know why I did that. I loathe beetroot. I grew three rows of fancy Italian spinach last year and the only person who ate it was me and the only reason I ate it was because I couldn’t bear to throw it away. It was so bitter. My beans are covered in aphids. My redcurrant bed is covered in bindweed. I plant twenty seeds—two of them germinate! Lots of things go wrong. But it doesn’t matter.
I’ve had to accept that with some plants it was never going to work. I had box hedges at one point, early on. The pruning was really hard work and they never did that well.
I had my heart set on having a daphne in my garden, by the front door. It’s not the prettiest bush but the perfume is amazing. I have over the years bought countless daphnes at exorbitant prices, and I’ve planted them and given them all the right things, even tested the soil, all of that ridiculous stuff. Never grew. Or they grew for a bit and six months later they’d just die, overnight. So I had to say, ‘No, it’s never going to happen, move on.’ That was a harsh and sad lesson.
And then—you know, the story of the azaleas. They looked beautiful all through August, this mass of white fluffy things, but the whole of the rest of the year I had to spray almost every single leaf underneath, because of leaf mite. Even the Botanic Gardens ripped out all their azaleas. Just the wrong climate.
Not like succulents. In the Sydney climate, succulents and cacti grow overnight. But then I’d get excited ordering succulents or cacti online (and some of these plants can be seriously weird) or I’d go to one of those obscure nurseries and bring some home. Six months later: ‘They look really ugly! They might be really obscure and really valuable but they’re really ugly.’ And then you have to think, who can I give them away to? Someone must want them.
Then there are the plants that die overnight. I don’t know why. I think they’re okay and then they die. That’s a bit heart-breaking.
All my cherries! I looked at them one Friday and they were fabulous and I came the next day to pick them, and the birds had stripped the lot. I didn’t realise that you have to cover them with a net.
I had a lime tree once and it never bore any fruit.
I’ve got a sweetpea wigwam that I’m going to plant up next week. I’ve been in communication with the head gardener at Easton about how to keep sweetpeas alive!
That’s the other thing about gardening—people are so generous with their knowledge. During lockdown, the allotment-holders were sharing seeds, sharing cuttings, sharing knowledge. It’s such a wonderful community. It’s a little microcosm of London. And people were passionate about contributing to the local food bank.
The houses where I live are old (or old for Australia); they were built around 1900. Outside is a verge for the street trees, and people have started putting planter boxes on the verge and planting vegetable gardens—the planter boxes are theirs, but they are also there for other people; it’s so lovely to see. Some places have little community libraries as well; they stick this cute little painted box on their front fence and you put books in it; it really took off a few years ago. The garden thing is taking off in a similar way.
Medieval gardeners used to think of the garden as a hortus conclusus, a place of enclosure. And Islamic gardens, of course, are trying to recreate Paradise on earth. So they are intimate spaces. My tiny, miniscule London garden is a very private space. It’s my sanctuary. It has five birch trees.
The garden is an enclosed space. But you are always aware of a life-force, there’s always growth and renewal—and wind and rain and light—and there’s always this sense, ‘this too shall pass’. There is something of mindfulness in it.
It is important to be aware of the passage of time, don’t you think? And to be aware of seasons, to do things at the right time. But it’s a funny, paradoxical experience of time because, while you’re there in the present, you’re also conscious of the future, you’re sowing your seeds, thinking about that beautiful patch of cosmos you’ll have in three months’ time; and you’re also thinking, ‘Oh, last year that was a bare patch and the cabbages didn’t work’. So past, present, future—gardening has a wonderful temporal quality to it.
Just the fact of tending to something that then will grow is restorative. Life—living—is uncertain and fragile, and it does take a lot of care and nurture. And sometimes it’s not in our hands to control it.
It took me a long time to realise how much peace my allotment did actually bring me. A sense of peace and a recognition of how much goodness there is in the world.
Photographs (green and yellow) by Moontashir Rahman, Toronto and (red) by Bina Shah, London
Ahead of COP26, our stringers file their reports: Noni Shannon in Sydney, Tom Luckock in Beijing, Caroline May in London | Issue 19 | 2021
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