Gardening Chat with Alice Vincent
Alice Vincent (aka @noughticulture) is a writer, broadcaster and multi-platform storyteller who writes about nature, gardening and life in London. Alice is a columnist for Gardens Illustrated and The Guardian, and has published 4 books, including Wainwright Prize longlisted Rootbound, Rewilding a Life and her new release, Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival. She is also the host of the Why Women Grow podcast and writes a bi-weekly newsletter entitled Savour.
We caught up with Alice to ask her gardening tips and advice for early summer and to see what’s going on in her own garden.
Your new book is titled ‘Why Women Grow’ – why do you grow? What first gave you your passion for gardening?
Good question! One of the reasons why I started the research that would become the book was a desire to better understand my own motivation for gardening. Nearly three years on and I still find it difficult to pinpoint, largely because I think gardening offers us many different things depending on what we need. I started growing things on a tiny balcony in South London because I wanted to grow herbs, like my mother had when I was growing up. But I continued gardening – and entwining my life more meaningfully with plants – because it grounded me and gave me a sense of perspective when other things in my life were falling apart. That was very much the subject of my previous book, Rootbound, Rewilding a Life. In Why Women Grow, my life has stabilised but I garden more ferociously than ever. That, I think, was about a desire to control things I didn’t know how to navigate properly – primarily the implications of marrying someone and whether I wanted to be a mother or not – and also for space. We moved during lockdown, and the world felt very small. Those two motivations – control and space – united nearly every woman I spoke to for the book.
Could you share your advice for anyone who isn’t particularly green fingered but wants a beautiful garden?
Look at your space and be really honest about the life you want to live in it. I spent the past two years growing all manner of flowers in my garden in Brixton only to realise that what I really wanted to do there was sit, think, and enjoy the life it could usher in, human and non-human. It’s important to acknowledge where the light falls, as this will dictate what kind of plants (shade-tolerant, drought-tolerant, etc) you can grow there. Do you want to grow vegetables, is it more important for you to spend your weekends doing something other than gardening, or do you want to try and do something to benefit the planet? These will help steer you towards what to grow. I’d also say put down the photos of wildly aspirational gardens on social media; every growing space holds its own beauty if you start to relish how it changes with the seasons. Arbours of roses and pots of immaculate dahlias aren’t necessarily everyone’s real life!
How can you attract more wildlife such as bees, butterflies and birds to your garden?
First things first: put down the pesticide. Any bug sprays / slug pellets etc, even if they’re supposedly bug-specific, are deleteriously bad for the environment. You can sign this petition to ban the sale of them, instead. Plants with single, rather than double, flowers are better for pollinators as they don’t obscure the crucial part of the plant; those with purple flowers are particularly good for butterflies and buying from an organic nursery will mean they’re not covered in pesticides before they leave the shelves. Put up a bird box and bird feeders, and if you can create a body of water – even a micropond in a bucket – you can encourage wildlife there, too.
What seeds should we be sowing or plants should we be planting out now?
Ah May! Gloriously positive time in the garden. The ground is warming up so you can start to sow direct into the earth if, like me, you haven’t got around to sowing into seedling pots earlier in the spring. Once the last frost passes – any second now, if it hasn’t already – you can plant out most of this summer’s crops to make the most of the lengthening days. In terms of what I would usually be sowing: calendula, or marigolds; dill – homegrown tastes so much better and has incredible yellow flowers – sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos and scabious.
What are your personal favourite plants to grow in your garden?
I love the season-spanning ritual of growing sweet peas, which I sow under cover in September to bloom the following May. It’s a labour of love, which is why i’ve not done it this year (book and baby rather got in the way). I’m more of a perennials person: ferns, fennel, poppies, roses; all good reliable friends I enjoy seeing the cycles of.
What plans do you have for your own garden this year?
Big ones! We landscaped the garden earlier this Spring and I’ve now got three new beds to plant up and a whole new, more environmentally conscious way of gardening to explore. I am ditching a lot of the containers, will be growing drought-tolerant varieties in a gravel garden and working to a more cohesive planting palette for a wilder, lower maintenance garden that encourages greater ecology and more time to enjoy it.
Are you attending the Chelsea flower show this year? Is there anything you’re excited to see?
Yes indeed! Chelsea’s a real love-hate thing for me for all manner of reasons, but the best years offer moments of truly ingenious beauty and new ways of doing things. I like to get in early when it’s deserted and have the place to myself, soak up all of the show gardens and then try and make my mind up on my favourites before the judging happens – although it’s always fun to try and guess Best in Show before it’s announced.
What are your favourite gardens to explore in London?
London’s best gardens, for me, are where the surroundings and the architecture are set off by the planting. The Beech Garden at the Barbican is always amazing. Nigel Dunnet’s planting scheme is massively inspirational in every season. St Dunstan in the East isn’t particularly extraordinary in terms of planting but it’s a ruin reclaimed by nature hidden in the city – we got married there. The Mediterranean-inspired planting at Burgess Park in Peckham is a wonderland every summer. The Horniman Museum gardens, which have never been watered, are an oasis of hope in the heat. But I find domestic front gardens all over the city more interesting than any of the formally planted parks, in all honesty.
Alice is wearing our Laide Brushed Wool Knitted Vest in charcoal.
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