A Little Light Weeding

Richard Briers

This book is a combination of Richard Briers’ attitude to life, which is always cheerful, and pieces of writing about gardening, which are usually wise. This mix is bound to be worth reading. I sometimes take it down when I have done no gardening and need to be reminded of it. I never read it after a hard day’s work hedging, digging or weeding the flower border. With an aching back, all I want is to do is sit in the armchair with a beer and a good western where the hero gets the girl, and the villains get their just deserts, or a film from the 1930s when life seemed so much simpler.

Texts about gardening form an important part of our heritage, and they could fill a bookshelf of their own. Here is Richard Briers’ selection.

For those too young to remember ‘The Good Life’, here is a quick reminder. It was a very popular comedy on BBC TV from 1975 to 1978. Richard Briers plays Tom Good. He and his wife decide to give up their normal jobs with all their stress and pressure. Together they use their suburban garden to grow vegetables, rear hens and become self-sufficient. Their neighbours, on the other hand, are horrified. There were many clashes, surprises and disagreements though the two couples remain firm friends. Briers’ fame as a convert to horticulture makes him the right person for choosing texts about gardens. To the writings of experts, he adds his own thoughts, and these are always sensible. He favours the garden which give you pleasure and contentment. This is the true test. It doesn’t really matter if your dahlias win first prize at the local show or not. ‘Don’t worry. Be happy’ as a recent song has it. Enjoyment is what your garden is for.

This book of ‘Evergreen Reading for the Perennial Gardener’ quotes texts from over the last 400 years. Here is Francis Bacon.

“God Almighty first planted a Garden; and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures.”

But there is the story of the old gardener who was showing a group of people around a garden he had created from nothing after much work. Everyone praised the results.

The vicar said, “Glory be to the works of God.”

“True,” said the gardener, “but you should have seen it when he looked after it by himself.”   

“The garden that is finished is dead” says H.E.Bates. How true. But then no true garden is ever finished. There is always something to do.

When I was young, I did not realize this. I remember that at the age of 7 or 8, I knew nothing, and I thought I knew everything. I was in the garden with my father, who had an instinctive feeling for gardening. He would quietly go around from one part to another staking a plant here and weeding a patch there. I said, “Nothing needs doing now. It’s all fine.”

“There are many things that need doing if you look,” said my father. He was right but I couldn’t see it. I have learned since.

Even now I don’t know much, but I know more than I did.

Let us go back to H.E.Bates. Have you noticed how some writers only give their initials? T.S.Eliot, J.K.Rowling. J.R.R.Tolkein. Imagine C.Dickens in place of Charles Dickens. Or R.J.Kipling, J.Austen or G.Chaucer.  Names with initials are remote. I have a theory that using just initials is a sign of shyness on the part of the author. Well, perhaps it is.  Anyway, could writers please give us fewer initials and more names. They are much more friendly.

The happiness in gardening is not found in the results you achieve but in the work you put in. If you have a fine harvest of potatoes, you enjoy looking at them gathered and ready, but this does not match the satisfaction of chitting them, planting them, earthing them up and finally digging them.  There are two rules with digging potatoes. The first is that you will always spear at least one with your fork. The second is that you will always leave at least one in the ground. You will see it next year when its green leaves begin to sprout! The two rules always apply, however careful you try to be.

I remember seeing a lovely garden in Somerset. It was near Brent Knoll, which is a hill which seems to have sprung up from nowhere. I commented on this to a bricklayer who was working nearby.

“Yes,” he answered in a serious tone. “It was made when the navvies cleaned the mud off their boots after building the A38.”

Anyway, in this garden near Brent Knoll, the lady of the house was on her knees widening a long curving border by about a foot. It was a lovely border already, full of the flowers of May. There was no real need to do anything to it, but she just wanted the pleasure of creating even more beauty. She simply enjoyed the work.  

To finish, let’s go back to our book. Here is the first verse of the poem ‘The Wish’ by the 17th century poet, Abraham Cowley. Not A. Cowley, by the way!  

“Ah, yet, ere I descend to the grave,

May I a small house and a large garden have;

And a few friends, and many books, both true,

Both wise, and both delightful too!”

I hope Cowley had his small house and large garden, and his friends and books as well!


The Book:

Briers, R. (1996). A Little Light Weeding. Oxford: Past Times.