We talk to poet and gardener Jackie Wills about the holy trinity of writing, gardening and sewing
TFP: You’ve run an allotment for, what, nearly 25 years?
JW: I had an allotment in my 20s in Guildford when I was working as a local reporter but I didn’t have the time to devote to it and gave it up. I was invited to share the one I now work in Brighton by a woman I met through my children – hers are the same ages as mine and were at the same nursery school, then primary school. Eventually she gave the allotment up and I kept a half plot, but over the years the other half changed hands and was neglected, so I took it over. This space at the top of the hill I live on accounts for a large part of my adult life – the plum trees witnessed my children becoming adults, my circumstances changing drastically, gatherings of friends, flowers grown for my daughter’s wedding, fruit picking bonanzas, as well as blight (potato and tomato), swathes of slug damage, some very hard years, some very wet years. In that time I’ve grown an elder tree from a cutting, installed a polytunnel (or rather, two artist friends did because their spacial awareness is better than mine), established a dry lavender patch, two patches of currant bushes and four patches of raspberries, as well as a blackberry hedge running nearly the whole length of the allotment. In the Quran, I’m told, the garden is a symbol of paradise. Growing food, knowing the properties of plants, making gardens unites every culture in the world. I think that’s incredible.
TFP: How did you get into gardening?
JW: My mother’s always been a keen gardener, but of flowers and shrubs. Her gardens have always been beautiful, varied and well cared for. I’ve very recently discovered on her side of the family, there are generations of agricultural labourers and gardeners, so I guess soil and hard work are in my genes. I remember picking raspberries in my grandfather’s garden in Wembley as a very small child. When I moved to the house where I live now I was a freelance writer supporting the family and, while the house does have a garden, I worked from home and needed to get away at times. Sharing the allotment with Emma was a brilliant opportunity. I’ve always been into herbs – I’ve owned a copy of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal since I was a teenager – and the allotment allowed me the space to plant a large herb garden. I feel as if I didn’t have a choice really; gardening was one of those activities essential to my health, physically and mentally. Mum now tells me she never thought I’d be a gardener, she thought I’d act!
TFP: What are you growing at the moment?
JW: I’m writing this at the end of August and am about to go up the hill to pick raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes and cucumbers from the polytunnel, plus courgettes and ragged jack. Squash plants are doing well – I have a clump of butternut squash at the top of the plot, more winter squash and a pumpkin further down. I need to pick the lavender, and when it’s sunny I’ll harvest the marjoram / oregano flowers and dry them off more for storing. In the ground I have jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, beetroot, plots of chard and spinach beet, a couple of plots of kale, purple sprouting broccoli. I’ve just picked summer mini cauliflowers (a great success), lettuces are now going to seed and the seedling lettuces I put in have all been eaten by slugs. But the runner and purple beans are doing well – I’m picking bagfuls at the moment. I’m growing a greek butter bean for drying, plus a bean called Lazy Housewife, which I bought for the name. What a shocker!
Gardening frees me from words, from the business of writing, from fears that squat on the periphery of publishing – the vanity, vying for position, the nonsense about winning stuff, you name it, which most of us suffer from, even if we won’t admit it
I have chicory in but it’s quite high maintenance, different varieties of sunflowers for their elegance, masses of other flowers for the honey and bumble bees (there are a hives on top of the hill on other allotments). Calendula has self seeded from last year. I have a couple of sage hedges and two bay trees. I neglected the currant bushes this year – the pigeons got in through a hole in the netting, and bindweed went rampant. So this winter I have to make proper fruit cages. It’s hard to grow leeks and onions here now because of alium leaf miner, a fly and its larvae which wreck the plants and have become endemic. I used to love pulling leeks. It’s possible to grow them under very fine netting, so I may still try – I have seedlings in a pot in the greenhouse.
I have two apple trees but this isn’t a great year – last year they were laden. This summer I planted a second herb patch and put in creeping thyme, angelica, fennel, another rosemary bush, parsley and more mints. The angelica will flower next year and smell so sweet. I have herbs all over the allotment, not just on the two herb patches, and two massive lovage plants that also smell gorgeous in a medicinal way. Behind the polytunnel is a strange no-woman’s land where the rhubarb is thriving. It’s impossible to grow sweetcorn because the badgers get it, peas too and broad beans – all my favourites, but they get bashed down and that’s fair enough, I generally feel the badgers and foxes have more right to be here than us.
TFP: How has this changed over the years, and have you seen the effects of climate change on your allotment?
JW: My allotment is on chalk – there’s very little top soil so it drains quickly. I’m on the edge of the South Downs. Over the years I’ve learned what I can grow and what not to bother with. Leafy greens, especially chard are always a good bet if I can keep them alive early on, lettuce too. Potatoes will be okay, especially first earlies, fruit is always shared with the squirrels and birds. The big root veg like swede don’t do well, carrots split, I’ve never successfully grown a parsnip. But I know beans will do well again, if I can keep them from the slugs early in their lives, beetroot too. I’ve learned to use the greenhouse and polytunnel to start everything off, to harden new plants outside and put them in the ground when they’re strong. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and wasted money on seed in the past but feel I’m getting to grips with it now after more than two decades.
I’ve noticed a marked change in the climate through the raspberries. I always used to have raspberries in June for my son’s birthday and September for my daughter’s. The fruit decorated chocolate cakes of various shapes, even up to the big 18th birthdays. Now June’s raspberries are utterly unreliable and last year September’s were very scarce, whereas in the past I’ve given tubs away. This has to be down to climate change and because of the link to birthdays I feel a deep sense of loss.
When I go to the garden centre and see shelves of chemicals aimed at killing plants and insects, I understand that all I have influence over is the land I grow things on, like the words I put on a page
And the rhubarb – there’s a patch at the top of my allotment, which is always hotter and drier, but is where an early rhubarb grows. This year and last that patch has been pathetic and it’s because it’s been so dry. I’ve noticed far fewer butterflies and insects generally, even though I plant with a whole range of pollinators in mind – I have an old friend who’s a bumble bee expert, so she comes along and does a bit of spotting on summer days. I’ve seen a hummingbird hawk moth, which comes to the UK from north Africa, although apparently is now overwintering. This year because of the cold that followed our warm spring, everything’s been late. I haven’t kept a diary, so I’d say the raspberries linked to the kids’ birthdays are my biggest indicator of change. This is how we notice isn’t it, when it changes our lives?
TFP: What is it about gardening that you love, and how do you feel this relates to poetry?
Gardening frees me from words, from the business of writing, from fears that squat on the periphery of publishing – the vanity, vying for position, the nonsense about winning stuff, you name it, which most of us suffer from, even if we won’t admit it. It works on my irrational self. I can come to the allotment really stressed and leave re-set. In winter sometimes I sit in the shed watching the rain.
We have a cult of personality in every aspect of life, originating from reality TV, and publishing’s not exempt. Everything is monetised. I loathe the feeling of helplessness this generates in me, so gardening gives me tangible achievement. What I gain from the work I put in on the allotment is bags of produce from July onwards, and that’s enough to calm me down and take me into winter, when I write more. I make jam, fruit cordials, raspberry and blackberry vodka. I dry apples. As well as the produce, I value the exercise – stretching, lifting, steps, hours of meditation – and the friendship of other plot holders. There’s not always silence because of strimming (I won’t bore you). But I have birdsong – the small birds: wrens, robins, bluetits, sparrows, goldfinches, and sometimes above, the mewing of a buzzard. There are always cats. The badgers dig their latrines, and there’s often a fox about in the early evening.
Growing what I eat with awareness, organically, without doing harm, matters to me. When I go to the garden centre and see shelves of chemicals aimed at killing plants and insects, I understand that all I have influence over is the land I grow things on, like the words I put on a page. I loathe the capitalist system I live within, the hedge funds owning everything, the power of corporates to stop me using cash, destroying the health service.
The allotment has given me a vehicle for writing about ageing, menopause, homelessness and despair, death, mental health. Those abstract issues sound dry and dead, but are distilled into images from that patch of land I spend so much time on
I built a dry hedge and last year saw a wren come out of it. The kind of allotment gardening I do – not intensive long rows, but ramshackle and interplanted – gives me consolation and independence. Sunflowers are next to beans, lavender next to a vine. I want to get to grips with companion planting. Gardening, like sewing (which I also do a lot of), distracts me. It’s the old notion of keeping the conscious mind busy so the unconscious mind can play without fear or restraint.
I wrote in a blog post once, as long as I keep up the allotment, poetry will be safe. Jamaica Kincaid wrote that writing is life, it’s something you have to do. She too is a gardener / writer and there are so many of us. On a literal level, in my last collection, there are many poems that have come from the allotment over at least seven years. With this question in mind, then, I guess the allotment has given me a vehicle for writing about ageing, menopause, homelessness and despair, death, mental health. Those abstract issues sound dry and dead, but are distilled into images from that patch of land I spend so much time on. It’s a short walk from a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, Whitehawk Camp, and I often find flint tools that rise up through the soil, tokens of life and what matters. But it’s not conscious. I’m no academic, I’m superstitious about rationalising the process in case I destroy it.
TFP: When you say: “She too is a gardener / writer and there are so many of us” — who are the other gardener / poets you think of? Do you feel part of a community of gardener / poets, and if so, what binds you together?
JW: Yes, of gardener poets I know personally and those I don’t. I’ve mentioned some in On Poetry: legendary writers Jamaica Kincaid and Olive Senior, the late Sarah Maguire, Wang Xiaoni. Add to them Emily Dickinson of course, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Alice Oswald – there are evidently more but I’ve come to appreciate these poets at different times of my life. My local community of allotment poets includes Janet Sutherland, who lives in Lewes and David Swann who has an allotment near mine. The late Lee Harwood also lived in Brighton and had an allotment, Rob Hamberger is a very keen gardener and I was talking recently to Grace Nichols about how she got into gardening during lockdown.
Something of what binds gardener poets is identified, I think, by Olive Senior in the Margaret Laurence lecture in 2019. She calls it ‘ground truth’ a term that’s been hijacked to describe AI learning, but which describes what we learn through observation, the principle of learning I most understand and which is essential to gardening. It’s shown in the work of French autodidact, Henri Fabre, an entomologist, whose work I’ve gone back to regularly since I came across his Book of Insects in a charity shop.
I wrote in a blog post once, as long as I keep up the allotment, poetry will be safe
In this period of insect extinction everyone should read Fabre, absolutely everyone, to understand how serious our problems are. Here’s a sample: “See here is a Tailor-bee. She scrapes the cobwebby stalk of the yellow-flowered centaury, and gathers a ball of wadding which she carries off proudly with her mandibles, or jaws. She will turn it, underground, into cotton satchels to hold the store of honey and the eggs.” You can read him on the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg. Plants, the earth, bring us to insects, to looking and so to meditation, to language. Fabre’s writing makes me want to sweep my arm along the shelves of supermarkets and garden centres stacked with insecticides and so-called pest control because what he describes is so beautiful, intricate, sacred. Gardening has taught me everything is linked, and this principle applies to writing. In the lecture I mention, Senior explains: “I have been mainly using my poetry to explore ground-truth – the world of nature and history.” She refers to secrets, memories, those who came before us. I have always believed the earth is our shared history and as a gardener, I have another reason to talk to strangers, to connect, a reason to get someone to translate.
Kincaid speaks and writes about her interest in plant hunters and the influence of conquest and colonialism on European gardens. In Among Flowers, an account of a trek to the Himalaya, she often refers to climate zones, the conditions plants need to thrive, often referring back to what would and wouldn’t grow in her garden in Vermont. That garden’s her reference point, as my allotment is, along with my back garden with its apple tree. Kincaid writing about gardening and history demonstrates how it feeds her curiosity, her insatiable drive for knowledge. Writers like her and Senior reassure me that imaginatively there are no limits. And when I discover a writer like Wang Xiaoni, I am overjoyed at the connection we have through this activity we carry out as total strangers. My delight is irrational isn’t it, but it comes from the innate value of connection. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the late Sarah Maguire trained as a gardener and was an incredible advocate for making poetry from other cultures more accessible to an English readership.
The first time I was struck by the cultural / historical significance of a garden was when I visited the Alhambra in southern Spain in my 20s. I’d been to a lot of English stately homes, but I found this palace astonishing for its engineering, design, beauty, calm, function. In English gardens, in mazes and walkways, great parklands, all I’d seen was control. I needed the southern European experience to provoke me to think differently.
I found myself calling writing, sewing and gardening a holy trinity recently so there’s a deep connection
The more I garden, despite the time I’ve put in, the more I regard myself as a newbie, and the same applies to my work as a writer and reader too. It feels better to be humble. The ground is in control and an allotment is demanding; not the place for a bandwagon, thankfully. I’ve done a few residencies in parks and gardens, including a day’s stint in Vauxhall Gardens writing poems to order for people wandering through. The best bit was writing one for a guy who’d forgotten to get his wife a Valentine’s card and flowers.
TFP: You also sew – does your enjoyment in sewing come from a similar place to gardening?
JW: As I write this I’m with my daughter, who lives in the Netherlands, where we can browse tulip paintings endlessly and people buy great bouquets of them in season. This trip I’ve been helping her learn to sew. She’s a photographer and like me needs a creative alternative to the medium she works in and teaches. Both sewing and gardening take concentration, dedication, a systematic approach to a task and both are physical, mechanical. You have to learn techniques, you are using your hands. But for me the link between the two is where they meet words.
I learned to sew at school on a treadle (pedal powered) Singer machine, and that regular rhythm went very well with the Shakespeare we learned by heart. I sometimes get the spellings of sew and sow mixed up. Sewing also links me to the past – I’m fascinated by its history, its many manifestations, that it is a domestic skill now industrially exploited. I’m also fascinated by how important it is to my view of myself, to my dexterity, sense of well-being and empowerment. All those stitches are like seeds. Sewing makes me feel whole, keeps me learning, and allows me to dream. It gives me new vocabulary, new lines of enquiry and new questions. And I have something to show for it! All these benefits are also common to gardening. I wonder if I am kinder to myself when I’m sewing and growing than when I write and feel under pressure to be someone I’m not. But I found myself calling writing, sewing and gardening a holy trinity recently so there’s a deep connection and one which needs more thought than I’ve given it so far.
TFP: In your last collection, A Friable Earth, there are many poems about your allotment – let’s end with one:
Considering I’ll become Mud
It’s time to pay attention to microbes
colonising the dark matter of humus and loam,
to the impossibility of knowing who was here before.
I’ve howked soil like Sussex cattle at a gate,
I’ve beasted it, breaking it up for years,
standing on the spade, raising broken bones,
disrupting the useful work of dandelions – so for the sake
of snegs, ammots, tap roots and Vasily Dokuchaev,
classifier of gubber and gawm, who mapped soils
in river beds and steppes, I’m done with digging.
I’ll treat my beds as beds, soft enough to lie in,
for the sake of women, men and all our children.
and in time, my two will mix me with this wormy,
friable earth, conducted by the cutty’s goistering.
Note: gubber and gawm are Sussex dialect words for mud. Howk means to dig, beasted means tired out, a sneg is a snail, ammot an ant, a cutty is a wren and goistering is loud feminine laughter. Vasily Dokuchaev was one of the first soil scientists.