It’s that time of year when the days are longer and brighter, and the spring flowers and sunshine are inviting us to shake off the winter blues and get outside. Recently, many of us have been appreciating more fully the time we spend outdoors, especially in our gardens. Gardening has become a source of unexpected satisfaction for me personally; there is just so much beauty. But gardens can teach us valuable life lessons too; both practical and spiritual. And across the centuries, the garden has inspired art in a wide variety of forms. Gardens come in all shapes and sizes, and each one, whether large or small, tells out a unique story of creation. Gardens play an important role in Scripture too, from the very beginning to the end.
Spending time in my own garden has helped me to reflect and find respite and recuperation. I’m by no means an expert, but I have found working in my garden to be rewarding, therapeutic, and a source of creative inspiration. So, I was really quite excited to discover that the Bible Society created the Psalm 23 Garden, a Gold Medal-winner at the Chelsea Flower Show last year. I was keen to find out more about this inspiring creative project, and so am just delighted that Hazel Southam, the Bible Society Psalm 23 Garden project manager, very kindly agreed to answer my questions. Hazel is a committed gardener in her own right, as well as a writer. Her most recent book, This Blessed Plot: What I learned from my allotment, was published in October 2021 by Canterbury Press.
Writing Home: Hazel, can you tell us about your personal journey into gardening?
Hazel Southam: I grew up in the countryside and we had quite a bit of land, so my father and grandmother had a large vegetable plot that produced most of what we ate. This was the norm in our village. It was only much later that I realised other people’s lives hadn’t been like that. So gardening was a way of life. But it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and bought my house that I could start gardening myself. I wasn’t very confident, but friends and family were encouraging. Today I have a garden (for relaxing) and an allotment (to produce my food).
WH: What are your earliest garden memories? Are they significant?
HS: I lived in a village renowned for its cherry orchards. We had a big range of cherry trees too. So, my earliest memories are of protecting them against the birds, picking them, eating them fresh from the tree, and then sitting for hours with my mother and grandmother bottling them for the winter. This gave me a passion for orchards and fruit trees that was to lead, decades later to getting an allotment in a bid to plant my own orchard. More than 90 per cent of Britain’s orchards have been grubbed up and the land built on. It really is appalling, and I wanted to do what I could to change this.
WH: These days, is there one specific type of gardening that you prefer?
HS: I have come to really love growing my own food. It is fraught with problems: unpredictable weather, pests and diseases; but you always have lots to eat, and more to give away. It is intensely satisfying, and, of course, delicious! I’ve put on weight as a result.
WH: Do you enjoy admiring other peoples’ gardens? Have you visited any gardens that are particularly inspiring?
HS: You can learn from anyone’s garden, or allotment, and pick up ideas wherever you go. Of course, I haven’t been anywhere for a couple of years because of the pandemic. However I hope to visit RHS Bridgewater in Salford later this year. Wherever you live, local places are the ones that teach you the most, because they will have similar soil and prevailing conditions. I particularly love the Sir Harold Hillier Arboretum in Hampshire. It combines a wonderful arboretum with glorious herbaceous borders. If only I could create something so beautiful!
WH: Do you find gardening to be therapeutic?
HS: Gardening is immensely therapeutic, despite its frustrations. It slows you down, and gives you tangible tasks. So, when you have weeded, or mulched, or dug, and so on, you can see what you have achieved. When life feels overwhelming, that can be really helpful. Also, being outside, with your hands in the soil, in touch with the seasons and the weather is very grounding. A life in front of multiple screens isn’t natural, but gardening is. I’m sure that is partly why it is so therapeutic.
Gardening also takes you beyond yourself. So, for me, it is a spiritual activity too: great for the soul, as well as the body, mind, and, (if you grow fruit and vegetables), the stomach.
WH: Lots of people enjoyed gardening during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Why do you think that was the case?
HS: Suddenly, people had more time. I had three hours each day which previously would have been spent commuting. No-one could go anywhere. So, the natural thing was to garden. I have colleagues and neighbours who had barely been outside their back door before the pandemic, but who discovered their outdoor space during the pandemic and are now getting into gardening. It is wonderful.
WH: Do you think horticulture could be a good thing for more children and young people to focus on in the school curriculum?
HS: I’m heartened by the increasing popularity of outdoor lessons, which is a good start in getting children used to being outdoors and enjoying it. Bible Society, for whom I work, sponsored a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show last year and we are really excited to see schools start to create Psalm 23 Gardens in their grounds as a result.
An education should set you up for the basics in life (cooking a meal, managing a budget, wiring a plug, and growing your own food), so I would love to see that on the curriculum alongside more academic subjects. As well as producing our next generation of horticulturalists and farmers, it could set many people up for life with the confidence to grow some of their own food, which would reduce food insecurity.
WH: You have written a book called This Blessed Plot: what I learned from my allotment, published by Canterbury Press. I’m sure Creative Conversation readers will want to get hold of a copy, but if you had to pick just one lesson that you have learned from gardening to share with us, which would it be?
HS: The key thing that I have learned is to trust that there will be enough to eat. No matter how many of your seeds are eaten by birds, your plants by slugs or caterpillars, or seedlings scorched by frost, you will end up with enough food to eat, and likely enough to give away. It’s a great lesson in trust and not worrying too much about the immediate situation, but looking forward to an unseen horizon. Gardening is a hopeful act.
WH: The Bible Society’s Psalm 23 Garden Project was a brilliant idea. Can you tell us more about the thinking behind it and about your own role in its development?
HS: At Bible Society we want people to be able to experience the Bible, and what could be more experiential than a beautiful garden? We are a nation of garden lovers (30 million of us garden regularly), and so when we see a garden, we understand it. Sarah Eberle’s beautiful Psalm 23 Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show absolutely embodied the psalm.
We had hoped to take the garden to the Show in 2020, but were overtaken by the pandemic. In the end, it seemed to speak into people’s experiences during Covid. Every day we had people in tears as they stood and looked at the garden.
It was the privilege of my life to project manage it. Now, we are working with communities, churches and schools to see them create Psalm 23-inspired community gardens across the country. When people do this, they will experience the Psalm by getting their hands dirty. And they will create restorative places of reflection, where everyone can encounter the Psalm quietly for years to come.
WH: As a project, the Psalm 23 Garden must have involved lots of collaboration. For you, how important is working creatively with other people?
HS: Working with brilliant people is inspiring and energising, isn’t it? I loved working with designer Sarah Eberle and landscaper Mark Gregory. They are the best in the business. Sarah understood the vision for the garden and was able to turn that into something profoundly moving.
Even as Mark’s team from Landform were building it at the Show, it had incredible emotional heft. It stopped you in your tracks when it was a hole in the ground, a mound and some rocks. When it was complete, it was awesome. Everyone wanted to be in it, or to own it. I can understand that!
WH: For you personally, what was the most enjoyable or worthwhile aspect of being part of the Psalm 23 Garden Project?
HS: People’s reactions have been the most compelling thing. That began with the media. I’m a journalist by trade, and I thought that my fellow hacks would like the garden and its story. They did. We had so much coverage. Press day was completely mad and thrilling.
After that, I loved seeing and hearing the reactions of the public. People would stop a distance away and say, ‘Wow’. They would pause and gaze. Then they would come over and chat. Many would cry, not knowing why. They would talk about bereavements. We had conversations about God that were really relaxed and profound, because we were ostensibly talking about plants.
Now, the garden is at its final home at Winchester Hospice. I’ve had some amazing conversations with patients about the garden, which very quickly became their reflections on ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ and God’s presence with them.
A garden is forever. It isn’t a flash in the pan. So, though we were at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for a week, the garden itself will live forever. It will outlive me. And I find that very encouraging.
WH: Do you find special resonances between gardening and our spiritual lives?
HS: Gardening is spiritual to me, because you are in the natural world. You see the hand of the Creator in creation. You also find your place in the scheme of things: not in charge of the situation, but part of the seasons, the weather, the endless change of life. That can teach you all sorts of things.
One thing I have learned is that the most important gardening is done in the winter, when you prune, mulch, enrich the soil and prepare for the future. It can’t be a sunny day in July all the time. It has to be a wet day in November and a freezing day in February sometimes, or nothing flourishes. That’s a hard lesson, but a salutary one, especially in a pandemic.
WH: You are also a writer. Do gardening and writing have much in common?
HS: Journalism and gardening don’t appear to have much in common. One is incredibly high speed, the other very slow. When people remarked on a bit of a handbrake turn in my life project managing the Psalm 23 Garden, I said, ‘It’s storytelling, but with plants.’ And it was.
WH: Finally, you work for the Bible Society. Are there any Scripture passages that you find particularly helpful or inspiring in your life and work?
HS: I lived and breathed Psalm 23 for four years, as the pandemic put the RHS Chelsea Flower Show back three times. Quite early on, I had to ask myself if I really believed it, or did it just sound nice? I did believe it. I have clung to it during all the losses and difficulties of the last two years. It will go with me wherever I go for the rest of my days. It’s an astonishing text, because it is only six verses long, but it seems to say something new every day.
I’m really grateful to Hazel and to the Bible Society for their support in bringing the story of the Psalm 23 Garden to the Writing Home community of readers.