The little gardener

Once upon a time, wrote Oscar Wilde, there lived little Hans the miller’s friend. Hans lived in a tiny cottage all by himself and worked in his garden every day—like the heroine of this story

Once upon a time there lived a little gardener in a little house with one too many cats. It seemed possible, thought the neighbourhood children, that she might be a witch. There certainly were a lot of cats, and a lovingly-tended herb garden. No one would have been surprised to find rampion growing in it.

The little house was sad, and looked surprised. It had been loved once, it thought, but that was a long time ago; it could no longer really remember. Perhaps that’s why the little gardener liked it.

The rain pummelled in the winter time, the wind buffeted in spring, and the summer sun beat down. Autumn was supposed to be the season of mellow fruitfulness, but nothing was left in the garden that would fruit. The little house stood patiently, as it had for a hundred years, each one a bit more weathered. Around it weeds grew thicker, rose taller, until the rubbish disappeared beneath them.

Through it all, the little gardener toiled. She bent and muttered over the weeds. She dug out piles of rubbish. She cleaned the little house, and began to buy it presents. She worked until her wallet was empty and her back ached and she was too tired to walk straight, and then she got up the next day and did it all again. She thought there would be daffodils in the spring time, but there weren’t.

Who knows what she was thinking; lots of days she did not know herself. She kept putting one foot in front of another, while the rain pummelled and the wind buffeted and the sun beat down.

Sad that there was nothing in the garden to bear fruit, the little gardener decided to grow food. She planted heirloom fruit trees, old roses, and great clumps of daffodils. She found that she hated mowing the lawn but she liked eating vegetables, so she dug quite a lot of the lawn and planted veges instead.

It seemed selfish not to share the garden. The little gardener looked thoughtfully at the neighbourhood children and was relieved to see them preoccupied with a variety of motor sports. They had not, she thought, read Wilde. She dreamed of birds and bees and butterflies, and at night a hedgehog snuffling.

While she waited for life to arrive, the little gardener steeped fish bones and horse poo in a bucket. If the neighbourhood children had smelt it, their fears would have been confirmed. The little gardener fed it to the flowers when the odour became rank, and buried the bones beneath the asparagus.

Sometimes, standing amidst piles of weeds, fingers rimed with dirt, words shaped themselves in her head.

Now, in spring, the trees were decked in bridal lace and filmy pink lingerie. In summer, sweet peas, roses and daylilies made splashes of prettiness. The little gardener chose richly coloured flowers that glowed like jewels and shimmered like velvet. The trees were still too small for fruit, but they raised leafy arms high above the little gardener’s head, and beckoned to the sun, and laughed in the face of the cruel Nor’West wind that they had not yet learned to fear.

When there were plagues of aphids, the little gardener left them, and six different kinds of ladybird came. When weeds grew on the driveway, she sprinkled them with salt. She planted milkweed for monarch butterflies and nettles for the admirals. Hedgehogs danced slow circles on the lawn in spring by the pearl light of the moon and by autumn they’d made a baby.

The little gardener still toiled until her back ached and she was too tired to walk straight, but now in the spring time she ate buttery asparagus and fresh eggs from her own hens, in summer greedy bowls of strawberries and potato salad and crisp sweet apples with cheese, and in autumn pumpkin soup. The little house was no longer sad; it wore peach and wine-coloured roses, and wisteria like twilight.

Every now and again the little gardener stopped putting one foot in front of the other, and paused to look about. She had found her way to a food forest, by what instinct or magic she did not know. It was not a well-trodden path, but a few had been before her. So she took the words that were forming and scattered them like breadcrumbs, in case anyone else might follow.