My search for life stories of women gardeners helped me fight loneliness and make great friends | gardening tips End-shutdown

youThis year, I spent the rainy, flat days between Christmas and New Years cleaning. I felt an intangible lightness with every book, old birthday card, or outdated gadget that walked through the door and into a new home. In my late teens, I nurtured the habit of taking amateur snapshots on film, and until now it’s taken me making peace with the fact that I would never process underexposed negatives from a decade ago into anything and throw them away. But there was one contact sheet that gave me pause, not because I wanted to keep it, but because it led me to a memory too poignant to remember: my 27th birthday.

The photos, in the form of tiny thumbnails, reminded me that we had a party in the apartment where I lived at the time and I was wearing a short black dress. Friends gathered on the balcony and lined up to pick me up, sideways against their bodies. It should have been indistinguishable from every other contact sheet at checkout: people who didn’t realize how young and beautiful they were, relationships no longer intact, cans on the kitchen counter. But this sheet of paper brought with it a pervasive reminder of the loneliness I’d felt in my 20s, something I’ve since realized but rarely had to fathom.

Loneliness strikes at different times in life. he Campaign to end loneliness, which has been publishing reports for over a decade, claims that more than 3 million people in the UK would describe themselves as chronically lonely, a state in which someone feels lonely most of the time. Nearly half of British adults, of all ages, attest to loneliness at least some of the time, with the elderly and widowed being particularly affected.

On paper, my 20s looked great: a fun job, a nice place to live, a seemingly stable relationship, and enough disposable income to go on an adventurous vacation. I was lucky, and I knew it. But I also carried a cloak of loneliness for several years: while many of my friends swept Tinder or found their way home from nightclubs in the wee hours of the morning, I cultivated a quiet domestic life that left me unsatisfied. I had moved in with a boyfriend. We took out a mortgage, navigated a relationship between the slingshots and arrows of mental ill-health, and broke up 18 months later.

Caught between two types of maturity, one carefree and the other prematurely stable, I felt adrift. Pride prevented me from telling anyone about the hidden difficulties of my apparently charming life. It was only when that was shattered and I was left single and without a stable direction that the truth began to come out.

After a breakup is typical, I plan to pour all that excess love and time into your friendships. But it was several years later, and once I decided to marry someone else, whom I had been dating for quite some time, I began to make friendship a renewed priority in my life. Lockdown forced many of us to re-examine loneliness and for me it had echoes of that first break four years earlier: the normality of the social circle I had grown accustomed to was warped. Some of us moved to the suburbs, others threw off the shackles of conventionality. A whole crop of babies were conceived, along with a handful of engagements and just as many breakups.

Once again I felt unleashed in the midst of a sea of ​​change over which I had no control. Loneliness came to me in surprising ways, like anger, frustration, and apathy. Unable to go through with a big night out or throw an indulgent dinner party, I sat down and made a list of names: women I admired or intrigued with, all of whom I wanted to meet.

Sometimes we don’t fully know why we’re doing new things until we’ve done them. The list was the beginning of a search, apparently to unravel why women took up gardening, an activity that had become an increasingly important part of my life, but which I now understand was one of connection. I was more alone than I realized. I wanted more and different friends. I looked for women who did fascinating work, had interesting approaches to things, or sometimes maintained Instagram accounts that I enjoyed. I emailed them and asked if I could interview them about why they garden in a green space of their choice. A surprisingly large majority said yes. When we got together, we talked about gardening, but we also talked about the things in women’s lives: identity, motherhood, aging, grief, recovery, and creativity.

Over the course of 14 months, I spoke to 45 women, ranging in age from 22 to 82, from the depths of Somerset to the remote, salty horizons of the Danish islands. Some were single, some were married, some were widows, some were incarcerated, some were immigrants, some were artists, some never talked about their day job, some were mothers, some wanted to be. I met with them with the intent to investigate: I wanted to collect and tell the soil stories that were conspicuously absent from gardening narratives, many of which would inform a book, why do women grow. What I ended up with was not just that connection she’d been missing, but a host of new friends she didn’t know she needed.

After meeting each of these women, I felt indebted for the time, generosity, and insight they gave me. It had taken up a part of her day and her room in her inbox; a stranger who came upon a space deeply meaningful to them—a garden, a plot of land, a favorite park—and proceeded to ask them questions about her life. Bottom line, I wasn’t about to bother them with coffee anytime soon. And yet friendships blossomed between us. We would keep in touch, sending each other messages about how the big things in our lives were unfolding: the PhD thesis, the book proposal, that year’s potato crop. I would receive gracious invitations to events that some of the women were hosting, or they would come to collect cuttings or divisions of plants that I could no longer accommodate. It was as if the unconventional nature of our gathering, a non-chitchat chat about the more substantial things in life, offered an almost instant means of bonding.

When I was sure we could meet socially, or off the record, we embarked on that thing all too rare in adult life: a new friendship. There’s Diana, now 84, whom I see most weeks, cycling to her house for lunch of fancy leftovers served on green plates, often with wine. Despite our 50-year age difference, we share a penchant for astrology, inventive outerwear, and composting. After interviewing Hazel, a floral designer in her 40s, a bright pink cookie box that spelled “BRING ON THE BARBICAN” arrived at my door. Beech Gardens by Nigel Dunnett together. We ended up chatting for so long that we were late for our further plans. After several glorious dinners, meetings, and voice memos, I invited her to my wedding.

I love hearing from Carole, who grew up on the estate behind my Brixton flat in the 1970s, and has the best stories to tell. I sometimes meet her in her neighborhood while she is on one of her extensive walks in South London; sometimes she passed him equipment or plants for her community gardens. Every time, I feel like I’m part of a community I didn’t know existed before. I regularly meet up with Elaine, an artist on the cusp of her 60s, for an al fresco sandwich, after our first impromptu picnic we shared that she pulled, like Mary Poppins, out of her bag years before. She has lived a remarkable and inherently feminist life, giving space to women’s voices in her work. The last time I saw her, she gave me a flower press that she had made out of old tablecloths that belonged to her mother.

Forming new friendships has been exciting, especially with people I’d be hard pressed to meet otherwise: women from a different generation or background, who have lived different lives. Also, by making these new friends, I have learned to be a better friend to those who have been with me for much longer. Instead of taking up space that could belong to someone else, I see my friends forming connections of their own; they inform and nurture each other, a growing network of support and intimacy that I consider one of the most valuable things in my life.

Alice Vincent is the author of Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival (Canongate, £16.99), available at for £14.95

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