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A Growing Concern: Nigel Slater on finding quietude in chaos

His north London garden has been through many different phases but, Nigel Slater says, he now feels its lush, leafy and lawnless “rooms” are settled, providing the writer and cook with the solitude and susurrating splendour he craves. Plus, he never has to mow…

A Growing Concern: Nigel Slater on finding quietude in chaos

Nigel Slater’s shortbread is crumbly. So crumbly that half falls on the floor when we take a bite, though the writer and cook is unfussed. In fact, he’s rather happy. “Oh good! It’s got enough butter in, then.”

We’re standing in his north London kitchen. Taking in the simplicity of the Georgian flagstones underfoot, the few choice photographs on the walls and the shallow shelves dotted with ceramics in shades of stone and dun, it seems unfussiness is a defining feature of Nigel’s life. It extends to the food he makes – “It should look comfortable when you put it on the table” – and it reaches out to the garden too. “Mine mostly looks after itself,” he says, gesturing to an enthusiastic tree fern sprouting, pineapple-like, outside the window.

That garden of his is the reason we’re here. It’s a week since the Flower Show finished – “Oh, isn’t it a spectacular place?” – and Nigel’s beech hedges, just the right side of scruffy, are due their annual “Chelsea Chop”. Actually, “we’re a bit late this year,” he says, “but it means they’re lovely to look at. I’m always a bit saddened by the trim. I know they’ll grow too big and too wild without it, but I like a tangle. It’s nice when the garden feels slightly abandoned. I’m happier when things are woolly than when they’ve just been clipped.” Nigel will work out here when the conditions are perfect, sitting at the zinc-topped table in its central section. It’s ideal when the crowding greenery shades his laptop screen, but otherwise, there’s always pen and ink. “I love writing by hand. I was taught copperplate.” He’s only ever owned three fountain pens.

Out here, there’s less noise than one might expect for a garden in Zone 2. It helps that there are so many tall trees overhead, a blanket against the sounds of the nearby road. Instead, Nigel says, the distractions are all too close to home: “Does that rose need deadheading? Is that a weed? Are the medlars nearly ready?” That said, this part of his domestic sphere is perhaps his most peaceful. “It’s secret. A place to hide. A place for solitude.”

“I had no idea a garden this wild needed maintenance,” Nigel laughs. When he moved in, in 1999, it was similarly uncultivated, but in all the wrong ways. An arid and “utterly dispiriting” lawn ran the entire length – and that was it. In the years since, he has coaxed the garden through various phases, which he walked us through on our visit. This one, he feels, might be its last. “And while I’d love to say that this is all curated chaos, really, it’s just chaos.” That’s just the way he likes it.

“I moved into this house at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, not out of any particularly significance, but because the fireworks had set the alarm off. I thought I might as well stay. I remember waking up the following morning, on the first day of a new millennium, opening the curtains and feeling… depressed. It was, top to bottom, lawn – and badly kept lawn at that – with just a lonely fig tree. I know it was mid-winter, but there was a bleakness about it that extended beyond the season. Winter gardens can be beautiful; this one was not.

“I thought I had to learn to love the lawn. I borrowed a friend’s mower, mowed it once – my dad would have been proud! – and thought: ‘This is not for me.’ I must admit, I felt a bit lost at that point. I like to think I’ve got fairly good vision. I was a very imaginative kid and I use my creative faculties a lot. When I look at a house, I usually know what I’d like to do with it. With this garden? I had not a single clue.

“I mentioned this to my editor at The Observer, Allan Jenkins, who suggested I ask Monty Don to come and look at it. Monty came to lunch and, over soup, he said: ‘What are you going to do with the garden?’ He whipped out an envelope and scribbled the roughest of plans on it, to show me at least what potential it had. He meant it only as a sketch, but I thought it was fabulous. I treated it like a magical blueprint. I followed it almost exactly.

“Monty came up with a brilliant way to make the garden feel bigger, by dividing it into a series of rooms, separated by high beech or box hedges. It feels crazy, because you take up a good few feet doing so, but it works. There are four distinct areas in the main part of this garden, and the tall hedges trap scent incredibly beautifully, particularly in the evening. It’s heavenly. It was quite funny though; when I was planting the garden, I ordered the plants and thought, naively, they’d be good to go. I was shocked when they arrived: they were only 30cm high! I thought they’d never grow, but look at them now. They’ve done me proud – and they’ve given the garden some great bones.

“Monty’s plan gave me eight beds for vegetables and fruit. He’d astutely noticed that the garden has a cooler, damper side, good for raspberries and potatoes, while the other half gets very parched, making it ideal for beans and suchlike. I didn’t know any of this at the time. Soon I had the lot: raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, blueberries, potatoes, peas… By the way, if you need a lot of peas for a recipe, a word of advice: don’t grow your own. I had a go at cauliflowers and broccoli too, but they didn’t like my soil, which is like chocolate cake. The carrots, meanwhile, were amazing.

“I had ten years of that perfect thing, which is to be able to cook within a few feet of the produce you’ve grown. I’m not obsessive about cooking or about food; having something nice to eat is just a part of the joy of life. But there is something wonderful about digging something up and cooking it there and then. It’s a lovely thing to do.

“But then the foxes moved in, with their rubbish and their fighting. There are only so many times you can shoo them off your rhubarb before you give up. One year I didn’t get a single strawberry. It was crushing. I thought about fencing the garden, but I knew that ultimately they’d find a way in. Dan Pearson was writing for The Observer at the time; I knew he didn’t normally do domestic gardens, but he kindly came over with his partner, Huw, and together they devised a wilder woodland garden for me – with nothing edible for the foxes.

“I wanted lots of greenery – and lots of privacy. The important thing to remember with a terraced garden is that you’ve got 20 windows overlooking you. I wanted to mitigate that; I wanted somewhere nobody could see me, where I could see no one too – a secret garden. I already had lots of ivy and a medlar, which gives beautiful shadow, but Dan, who is brilliant on texture and shade, suggested planting a Robinia ‘frisia’, which gives lots of cover, but is deciduous, so it has a wonderful lightness of leaf.

“For all the woodland greenery in here, there are certain flowers I will not be without. Roses, in particular, for their softness and perfume. There’s one here that never fails – it comes every year, just in time for Chelsea Flower Show, and it’s utterly stunning, producing huge flowers like great pink pavlovas. Thinking about it, my uncles were great rose-growers. There’s a family history of it, it seems.

“I grew up with flowers. My father was an enthusiastic gardener who cultivated brilliant azealias. He gave me a small, rather pebbly patch of my own and I painted a little sign saying ‘Nigel’s garden’; I still have a soft spot for the things I grew there – marigolds and cosmos, for instance, and candytuft, which sadly doesn’t like my soil. But every garden I’ve ever had has had roses.

“I’m never happier than when I’m sitting and writing here, just a short walk from my kitchen. When I’m wrestling with a knot of a sentence or an idea, the greenery somehow helps loosen it. It helps that it feels so sheltered in here. It doesn’t feel too much like a London garden, which is something I strive for. It’s wonderfully wild. There are times when I let it get perhaps too wild and some bright spark on Instagram tells me I need to give it a trim, but I like it. Every jasmine tangles with every rose, the fig with the wisteria. Nature takes over and says: ‘This is my time’. It’s so relaxed. That’s what I want – a garden that feels comfortable in its own skin, rather than one that looks like it’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”

Further reading

Nigel Slater

Nigel Slater on Instagram

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