Clodagh Finn: Gardening and DIY are the true opium of the people

Clodagh Finn marvelled this week at how the Irish can be patient and compliant in a queue in times of crisis.

Gardening and DIY are the perfect antidote to quarantine fatigue. You might even say that they are the coronavirus’s opiate of the masses to quote the oft-misquoted Karl Marx on religion.
Gardening and DIY are the perfect antidote to quarantine fatigue. You might even say that they are the coronavirus’s opiate of the masses to quote the oft-misquoted Karl Marx on religion.

It strikes me as a little odd that garden centres and hardware shops reopened this week ahead of, say, Breast Check, but the decision just goes to show that gardening and DIY, not bread and circuses, are the best way to distract and appease the masses in a pandemic.

Not that I’m complaining. I was one of those waiting in a socially distanced line, marvelling at how the Irish can be patient and compliant in a queue in times of crisis.

Gardening and DIY are the perfect antidote to quarantine fatigue. They are, at once, stimulating and numbing; the ideal combination to keep people happily employed (but docile) while staying home.

You might even say that they are the coronavirus’s opiate of the masses, offering us solace and relief and a little bit of “heart in a heartless world”, to quote the oft-misquoted Karl Marx on religion.

Then again, you don’t actually have to say, or think, about anything when you are pottering around your own bit of garden/yarden with fists of newly acquired compost in your hot little hands. If you are looking for a drop of blessed calm in a shape-shifting world, this is it.

For a few brief moments, Covid-19 and its myriad implications are far away. You can lull yourself into thinking that all is well in the present moment. Though, for this amateur gardener, the act of sowing seeds is always laced with more than a little doubt.

Last year, for example, I was warned to mark the spot where I planted the lupins because their re-emerging spring shoots are delicious to snails and slugs. Against advice, I planted one in a pot for safe-keeping and it is soaring now unlike the ones that have disappeared in the ground. Do not be fooled: there is nothing slow about snails.

The little plant markers are intact though; little yellow beacons in the brown earth pointing out my failures. I should have labelled them ‘lucky if you see a lupin’, rather than simply ‘lupin’, to lower expectations.

Then again, for every lupin that fails there is another plant that flourishes against the odds. In our family – name and address with the editor – one of us ran over the rhubarb patch with the lawnmower by mistake but the hardy plants continued not only to grow but prosper.

I love those gardening shows that talk about certain plants “thriving on neglect”, but in a gloriously non-judgemental way.

Oh, for the days when judgement wasn’t part of the gardening world. Super Garden, which returned with a new series on RTÉ this week, pits garden designers against each other in a bid to win a place at Bloom, Ireland’s largest gardening and lifestyle festival.

Now, RTÉ and Bord Bia are teaming up to bring Bloom to viewers at home this year. They are encouraging people to share images of their gardens, balconies, windowsills on social media. There will be prizes.

It is a great idea, but please spare a thought for the garden muddler in all of this. This is the worst time of year for the amateur who is beset with garden-performance anxiety from all angles. Super Garden and Bloom generate a national outbreak of green-finger envy.

Add to that the Chelsea Flower Show. The BBC is rerunning highlights featuring the ever-calm and encouraging Gardeners’ World host Monty Don who makes everything look so easy.

And what of poor Nigel, the presenter’s 11-year-old golden retriever who died earlier this month? The repeated viewings of videos showing the dog putting his tennis ball surreptitiously into plant pots around Monty Don’s garden reveals something of our deep need for distraction. Or perhaps reassurance.

Mind you, there is little reassurance in comparing the splendour of his garden, Longmeadow, in Herefordshire, with what is outside my kitchen window. The only thing our gardens have in common is that mine too has a dog and a number of chewed tennis balls.

But then, I’m missing the point because that is not at all what gardening is about. To quote Monty Don himself: “The real importance of gardening is the empowerment that it gives people, however small or seemingly insignificant their gardens might be. It is surprising how liberating it is if you can grow anything at all.”

Many of us are holding on to that thought. The world is disfigured and ailing and we have never felt more powerless. Perhaps that is why we are focused on our patch and simply relieved to be able to get down on hands and knees in an attempt to coax a French bean from a pot.

It sounds almost twee, but there is a lot to be said for going all Eckhart Tolle and practising the power of now, in the garden (or while regrouting the shower) because every analysis of the future is doom-laden.

It is simply too much for the human mind to consider the social and geopolitical reordering of the post-Covid world, although every news channel is full of it. Yes, of course we need to look ahead but let’s not fill ourselves with fear for something that might never happen.

Turn back the clock three short months. Which one among us worried about a virus that would bring the world to a halt?

The only future forecasts I’m planning right now are horticultural. Bolstered by the wonderful Grow It Yourself website (giy.ie), I might take a punt on growing late-summer chard? Other pressing questions: Have I missed the window for peas? What about ever-robust rhubarb?

All that and we still haven’t even touched on DIY. Hours more fun ahead of us there, not to mention the telling of the disasters that followed when I inherited a drill. Let’s just say, I won’t be putting myself up for The Big DIY Challenge any time soon.

I will, however, like all those who queued outside garden centres and hardware stores, be spending many happy hours anaesthetising myself in the uncertain months to come.

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