I often feel as if I am endlessly trying to make space. Portioning out my days and weeks in chunks in my diary, sometimes with little empty rectangles or circles in coloured pen, around the commitments that fill it up. Clearing the kitchen table of the daily detritus that piles up there. Sorting out cupboards where things have been put in disgrace and forgotten about. Putting the laundry away. Uprooting plants that should be in the compost. Answering emails. Making a to-do list, then ticking it off, then shuffling towards a holiday where none of the above exists.
I’m sure much of this sounds familiar: these are the small, repetitive tasks of life. We generate things and then we rid ourselves of them. I am fortunate to have a home large enough to accommodate the life that I live and hours enough in the day to largely do what I need to get done. Still, I feel the tug of it – this desire for more space – both mentally and physically.
A couple of years ago I set out on an endeavour that was born, I now realise, of too much space. It was during that hot, listless, locked-down summer. I felt creatively stumped, our horizons shrunk to those within walking distance of our home – at the time, a one-bed flat in the woods in south London. I was grasping for something I didn’t yet know the shape of. But I started with a question – why do we garden – and tentatively allowed my curiosity to go and chase it.
I had been gardening for several years by this point, mostly on the small balconies of the flats I’d lived in, and I had some hunches as to why women grew: because they wanted to nurture something, because they wanted to make something beautiful, because they wanted to make a difference. I had no idea how small those expectations were. After a year of travelling around the country and even to other places in Europe to speak with 45 women in gardens and green spaces of their choosing, I realise that the answer to that question – why do women grow? – is far more complex and interesting than that.
It perhaps sounds obvious that gardens give us space. But I’d not understood the depth and potency of what outdoor space held, especially for women, until I’d spoken to them about it. I sat in plots women had adopted as their own, from allotments to public gardens that had taken on a very personal significance in their life. There, I heard these women’s stories. They told me, for instance, about their conflicted feelings in transforming the land where their children played to a garden planted purely for their own gratification. They told me about how these spaces had enabled other changes in their lives.
Many of the gardens were spaces that women had created themselves. Some had been fought for, tooth-and-nail – battles with the council in the face of rising tower blocks and construction industry money, persistence and holding power to account all for the gain of better public planting, or communal spaces for their neighbours to go to. I visited balconies on the 39th floor bursting with vegetables raised from seed. I met a radiographer who, between working on the frontline during a health epidemic, meticulously created a sun-bathed sunken patio from an overlooked strip of land behind her back door. She dug and levelled for six weeks, removing any stones that could be used as hardcore, found patio slabs being given away online and planted it up with cuttings from friends. “I had some space,” she told me, a year later. “I kind of felt morally obligated to do something with it.”
These are physical spaces, but gardens and the places we ground ourselves outdoors offer us far more beyond their literal borders. I needed someone to tell me that, as a single mother with a tiny baby, hundreds of miles away from her family, her rented garden was the only place she didn’t feel alone. I gained understanding when women told me that outside, sometimes by stealth, they could take up space they weren’t afforded elsewhere in society. So often women are expected to manage the domestic spaces they inhabit: to decorate and clean, to organise and manage them. In our gardens our efforts can be less visible to others – and that’s exactly why they can be capable of granting us the space we seek elsewhere.
We moved in the midst of that locked-down summer. Suddenly, I got a space that was both mine and not: a flat that was shared with my partner for the first time, and the first proper garden of my own. While we spent months making a home together inside, the garden was always carved out as my space. It was here that I dug and plotted and took myself out, simply to look at the plants and listen to the sounds beyond the house. I was making myself a space.
My understanding of that space, of the garden, changes all the time. For much of the last year I left it alone, after two feverish years of growing. I had reached a point where I wanted to see what unfolded: it had become a space I was happy to release control of, knowing that I could return to it. This year, though, I am returning to it. I have made new plans and dug new beds. I am changing the colours of the flowers I grow there and making new spaces within the garden, ones to share with friends, ones to work in, more than either, somewhere to sit and be. As women, we are afforded so little space to exist on our own terms. Here, I think I may have found some.
Alice Vincent is the author of Why Women Grow, published by Canongate.
Photographs by Camilla Greenwell.
Alice wears our Cotton Merino Marl Sweater.