An American ex-pat in an English garden
Hello and welcome to my website! My name is Lydia and I hope to be able to share my gardening experiences – all the good and the bad and everything between – as I grow my own on an allotment.
Although born in the lush humidity of Southeast Texas, I moved to the mild green of Northeast England and have never looked back. I arrived in Durham in September of 2012 to study for an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. What was originally supposed to be a one-year course turned into an three-year PhD in Medieval History. My doctoral work focused on a few of my passions: women’s history, medicine, and botany. This resulted in a thesis on the history of contraception and abortion in the high medieval west, allowing me to delve into the work of medical horticulture and explore the vast array of plants native both to continental Europe and the green and pleasant lands of the British Isles.
Before moving to Britain, my love of all things green started in the most unusual of places: New York City. I had moved to this concrete metropolis shortly after finishing high school to study conservatory theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After completing this course, I soon realised that acting – while an amazing pastime and therapeutic escape – was not the life I wanted. I quickly became enrolled at Hunter College of the City University of New York where I did a triple major in History, Classical Studies, and an Interdisciplinary Honors Colloquia on Women’s History.
At the time, I was living in my own little studio in Inwood, the most northerly neighbourhood on Manhattan Island where I was fortunate to be surrounded by green spaces. The solitary window in my apartment overlooked a large enclosed (and mainly lawned) garden, but the real treat lay just across the road. My apartment building was directly opposite Fort Tryon Park and the spectacular historical gardens of the Cloisters Medieval Museum, one of the branches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was here that I found an escape from the bustle of the city and was able relish in the lush herbaceous borders, winding woodland paths, and breathtaking views of the Hudson River. I felt far more at home in this garden, surrounded by the beauties of nature, than I ever did anywhere else in New York and I decided to take this as a hint that the bustling city wasn’t for me.
To foster this growing interest, I began to experiment with the occasional houseplant or rooftop pot of tomatoes. It wasn’t much, but it was exhilarating and I instinctively knew that it was part of something much bigger for me on the horizon.
When I was deeply engrossed in my PhD, I decided to try my hand at gardening a bit more. There was a small courtyard behind my rented house and the landlady was kind enough to let me experiment with all sorts of potted plants. As I had absolutely no idea what I was doing – and barely any money, to boot – it was not the most successful endeavour I’ve ever undertaken. But it allowed me to start dreaming and that was the key moment for me.
It was around this time that, unfortunately, my depression was at its worst. I had always suffered in one way or another from mental ill health. When I was 12 I was diagnosed as clinically depressed – it was based on a combination of life factors and a chemical imbalance which made it very difficult to overcome. However, I was so ashamed of this and rarely revealed this condition to anyone, nor did I stick to any set medication or therapy routine out of an ingrained belief that it was a weakness. As a result, it worsened. When I was living in New York the stresses of my hectic routine set in – I was working full time to send myself to university and paying out of pocket for all expenses. I would go weeks without a day off and was suffering from horrible insomnia. Some nights I would only receive one or two hours of sleep and this would last for days on end.
By the time I moved to England, I had slipped even further into my illness, but I was still so unable to say or do anything about it. When I was in the second year of my PhD, I tried to kill myself. There, I said it… It was only after trying for 10 minutes to slice through my veins with a dull knife that I finally gave up. I was really at rock bottom.
I continued to push these feelings further and further away from me and I was physically suffering for it. While one method to cope with my depression in New York was anorexia, it England it was to binge eat and I began to put on a lot of weight. I was not only filled with mental self-loathing but also physical disgust as well. Everything became so overwhelming that my work suffered, I would be incapacitated for days, and thoughts of suicide or self harm became the expected norm.
In the spring of 2017, I moved in with my then boyfriend (and now husband) who owned a house with a decent sized back garden that was mostly lawn. It was there that he said those magical words to me, ones which I had been longing to hear and which would bring me unimaginable happiness – ‘Would you like to redo the garden?’
Soon after this happy moment, we began to plan a garden. I had never really done anything like this before and the fear of failure – combined with my need to hide away – kept me inside while Alex slaved away outside digging through the mounds of builder’s rubbish and poor topsoil. He convinced me to come down and, nervously wielding a hand trowel, I began to help him dig. And that’s when it happened – I hit a wall.
I remember that as such a defining moment for me – mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. There, in that hole in the ground that would become a beautiful flower bed, I sobbed. I was weeping about everything – about all the injustices I had received through the years, at the futility of my passionless pursuits of perfection, and from the time wasted in self-loathing. I just cried about everything and nothing – and boy, did it feel amazing.
While I sat there crying, the earth just took it all in, breathed its usual sign of calming relief, and nature carried on. It was amazing to sit there, literally and figuratively at rock bottom, and to watch the world carry on as always. After a hard winter, I was able to see mother nature shake off the deadening frosts and begin again – and dammit, so could I.
It was through a combination of the right prescription and cognitive behavioural therapy that I began to make a positive change in my life. I finished my PhD, married a wonderful man, and began to plant an allotment garden. It would be a lie to say that all is healed and whole again – I still have my bad moments and the occasional dark day – but it has been through my garden and allotment that I have found solace, peace, and inspiration. Tending to the earth has taken my focus away from myself and my own demons and instead focused it on something productive, healthy, and vibrant. No longer do I feel the need to ‘control’ – be it through obsessive exercise, restrictive dieting, or self-harm. My garden has taught me that it is better to nurture and encourage to see the best results – something I have found true for the plants as much as for myself.
It is this journey of cultivation – both of my garden and my self – that I would like to share with you in these pages. Everyday I learn more from my garden and I have begun to enjoy my mistakes, instead of being ruled by them. I hope you may use these pages as a source of inspiration and education for your own green spaces, allowing your garden to feed you both physically and mentally.