About a year ago, I wasn’t living my life. It was being eked out rushing between places. My day would start with piling my son into the car to race to nursery for the moment it opened, driving up to two hours to work, sitting in a windowless room, then driving back home. In the week, the only interaction I had with the little one was fighting clothes onto him in the morning, or gator-wrestling him in the bath as soon as I got home, ready for bedtime. I braced myself, each day, for tears and tantrums.
All three of us – son, wife, and myself – were unhappy. My wife and I had been talking for a time about me giving up my job to be a full-time father, but it always seemed something like a pipe dream. We would put conditions in, like how we would take the plunge as soon as we had saved up for a loft conversion, or how the timing wasn’t right. We needed to get to a better place first. We would do it, just not now. Next year would be better.
A time came, however, when it couldn’t wait until next year. One day, sat at work, I couldn’t concentrate. I just thought how I was being selfish, forcing my son’s life to fit around my work; at two years old, it was just plain unfair to him. The guilt hung around my neck, and I knew that I couldn’t let our lives continue passing us by. I just packed up my bag and left in the middle of the day.
As I was going home, I thought about what I was giving up – the comfort of a routine, the security of a salary – and I was terrified. Then, my thoughts changed. I wasn’t losing something from my life, I was gaining, because now, I finally had the time to be a present, consistent figure in the little one’s life. We wouldn’t have to rush around, fitting in to a schedule; I could be the parent he deserves, and we could do what we want.
Speaking of doing what we want, it occurred that I had to come up with activities all day, every day. What would we do? I found I could answer this by asking myself a more fundamental question. The question that had, up until recently, been the cause of my stress and guilt. The question that was the catalyst to turning my back on my career.
How do I want to live my life?
Gone were the motorways, the fluorescent lights, the rushing. I had done away with all that. What I wanted, and what I wanted my son to have, was a life that was connected to nature. I wanted to feel like I am a part of the Earth’s rhythms, and that I was taking part in nature, rather than just taking from it. I wanted to raise a boy with dirty feet and curious eyes. I wanted him to know that food didn’t just appear in a shop, it grew from soil and seeds and sunshine.
These ideas of a natural, eco-friendly, organic, earth-loving life led me to the project that we would undertake together. Our garden.
At that time, it was the most neglected part of the house. A patch of mud outside the patio door. But, with the wide-eyed belief of a novice gardener, I saw it becoming something far greater. In my mind, huge trellises of beans and tomatoes scaled the fence, standing over bushy, fragrant basil and mint, and I imagined myself drawing in lungfuls of the fresh, green scent as I bent to eat strawberries straight from the plant.
With this image rooted in my mind, I got to work. I prepared a bed, filled it with compost, and, to start, bought a packet of wildflower seeds, which I handed to my son.
“These seeds,” I explained, “Are like magic. If you throw them on the ground, they’ll grow up into big, beautiful flowers.”
He looked at the seeds in his hand, hard black dots like fine gravel, with scepticism. Still, he threw them haphazard onto the soil. He then had the job of covering them up. I wanted the first thing growing to be his and his alone, so he, very awkwardly, dragged soil over the top with a heavy spade as tall as he was.
Then came the questions. When would the flowers be here? Will they be here tomorrow? Why aren’t the flowers here? Soon, I reassured him. He ran backwards and forwards between the water butt and the flowerbed with fervour, giving his seeds more and more water in a bid to bring the baby plants to our garden. This started with him lumbering our great big green watering can across the lawn, which I soon replaced with a smaller version. He had his special toddler-sized garden set and couldn’t be happier. That is, other than when I stopped him from digging up the soil to look for the baby plants. Otherwise, he ran, tirelessly, between the water butt and the flowerbed for days, happily splashing water over the soil, until, at last, we spotted our first green shoots.
I saw his attitude change once they appeared. He’d crouch over them and coo, saying hello and asking if they were thirsty. Then, rather than rushing, he’d walk, careful not to spill anything from his can, over to the flowerbed, before gently tipping the water over the small shoots, taking care that the weight of the water wasn’t overwhelming for them. His soft calm and care over his plants was a side I’d rarely seen from this boy, who had until recently been more akin to a lightning bolt than anything else.
From flowers, we expanded our garden. Other beds materialised and they were filled with potato eyes, celery ends, garlic cloves, leek trimmings… any kitchen scraps the internet suggested may grow. And grow they did. Too well, at times, as I had to hard-heartedly hack branches and leaves away from overzealous celery and potato plants to give everything else enough of a chance to grow. The little one was involved in this with me, every step of the way. He dug the holes with gusto, put the plants in, watered them, carried the trimmings away, and at each step, I’d narrate what we were doing, and why. While at first I felt like I was droning over his fun, I could see I was actually enhancing it. He started parroting back to me what happens in our garden. We water them because the plants are thirsty and need to grow; we cut them because they need to see the Sun to make their food; we put the trimmings in the compost to make new soil; and, as we look after them, they will eventually grow food for us.
He actually found our first bit of food by accident – a potato, discovered in a hole dug for fun. Full of excitement, we both unearthed a healthy crop of potatoes which he paraded proudly around the garden in his tiny wheelbarrow. We ate them that night, and he beamed with pride that he had grown them by looking after our garden so well.
More vegetables came, and were harvested, but none would be as important to him as his flowers. He still looked after them with the same care and attention as before, and now they had grown from tiny green pinpricks in the black earth to a knotted, leafy mass. While he couldn’t be happier, I was slightly disappointed. They had grown spectacularly in all but one detail. There were no flowers.
A lesson in patience
Deciding to change this uniformly-green corner of the garden, I nipped out to a local garden centre and bought a blooming lavender bush. In secret, I planted it in a corner of the flowerbed before fetching my son.
“Look!” I exclaimed, pointing it out to him. “Your flowers are coming out, and they’re purple!”
He sauntered over to where I had put it and looked askance at this intruder. Through his months of careful watering, he had mapped out each leaf and stem in his mind and saw straight through my deception. This was not his flower. This was an imposter.
I admit, I was slightly deflated, as I was looking forward to seeing his excitement at the colours starting to appear. I soon realised, however, that that wasn’t right. His gratification didn’t hinge on the flowers actually blooming. It was from looking after them, making them his own through his care and dedication. He knew the flowers were coming. He could wait for them. Why couldn’t I?
As it happens, I didn’t have to wait long. The first buds appeared atop the tallest stalks, and we watched them, daily, waiting. Then, as though by magic, overnight they all opened in a synchronised display of colour, and with them our garden soon gathered its own mini ecosystem. Bees and bugs, hoverflies and butterflies, spiders and more – all came to live in our flowerbed. It was firmly into summer, and ever-present in the garden was the gentle buzz and drone of insects. Whenever we were outside, he would point out his flowers and tell me, with great pleasure, the many colours he could see. He would also explain, wisely, that he grew the flowers from tiny seeds, that he watered them until they were big and now the bees and butterflies in our garden were licking the flowers for their lunch.
Summer cooled (disregarding thatheatwave), days shortened, and flowers wilted. I was expecting sadness from my son, but he took it far more pragmatically than I expected. Flowers come, flowers go. He had become attuned to that cycle. What came next, though, was something completely unexpected.
The sweetpeas went first, forming fluffy pods at the tip of each stalk. Then, other flowers receded and formed hard, brown, rattling balls. I plucked one and opened it to reveal the seeds inside. He looked in awe.
A year ago, he had strewn a handful of seeds onto a bare patch of soil, and from them had burst a garden of flowers. These flowers, now, were giving back. They didn’t give us food; instead, they had made more seeds for us to plant. The cycle was complete.
We spent that afternoon pulling off pods and trimming seed-filled heads from the flowers, and we filled a bucket to the brim with our bounty. I explained that it wasn’t yet time to plant the seeds, that it would soon get too cold to have new baby plants in our garden, which he accepted. We carried the bucket of seeds to the garage and placed it in a quiet corner where it wouldn’t be kicked or otherwise disturbed. It’s waiting now, ready for next year. All except for the lavender plant which, in a fit of poetic justice, died of death, having been outcompeted for sunlight and nutrients by the flowers.
His flowerbed has changed our relationship. My son, speech-delayed in nursery, is now talking incessantly, first about his flowers, then about everything he can think of. He can see how nature has its cycles and his place in them – he helps our garden to grow, and it in turn feeds him. He knows now that the lives of insects, spiders and birds are intricately intertwined with plants, and we shouldn’t be any different. He’s gone from living apart from nature to becoming a part of it. Most importantly, however, is that his flowerbed has helped him to become a more patient and caring person. For that reason, our garden is the most important room in our house.
David is an accountant, having previously worked with public bodies, universities and charities. He has given this up for the chance to be a full-time gardening dad to his son. In his rare spare time, he enjoys inventing stories and studying for a physics degree ‘for the fun of it’.