Skymeadow by Charlie Hart is part autobiography, part garden how-to, and part self-help book for anyone facing bereavement or anxiety. And I loved it.
A couple of years ago, I met Charlie Hart at a cafe in Kings Cross, London, to talk about garden writing. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence—I was gardening editor at The Guardian at the time, and Charlie, a garden writer and gardener from Essex, had been writing pieces for me.
I’d first come across Charlie a few months earlier, at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2016 when he was campaign director for a pioneering show garden that highlighted the evils of modern slavery. He wanted to get into garden writing, so I agreed to have him send me a few sample pieces, with that oft-experienced editor’s combination of hope that I’d found a great new contributor, tempered by fear that he couldn’t string a sentence together. I Googled him in the hope of further intelligence and discovered his father was a flamboyant property developer and a political fixer for Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. In that annoying way journalists have of reducing everything to a snappy headline, I’d already pegged Charlie as a posh boy—a horticultural Hugh Grant, if you will: after all, he had a cut-glass English accent, floppy hair, a wife called Sybilla, and a brother called Bimbo (yes, really).
Photography courtesy of Charlie Hart.
By the time we met in that London cafe, I’d warmed to Charlie over our email conversations about ideas for articles and discussions about the exploits of our respective dogs and children. I also knew from his published work that he had the knack of conveying the very visual art of gardening into words. Over coffee he told me with barely suppressed glee about the process of transforming several acres of meadowland at his home in Essex into an ambitious garden, but also explained the rather more difficult backdrop to that narrative. While working on the garden at Peverels, he was facing up to and subsequently grieving for the deaths of his parents, weathering the storm that is being a parent to four young children, and continuing a lifelong battle against anxiety. He was negotiating a far more complex emotional and practical landscape than my initial pigeonholing exercise had suggested.
He hesitatingly floated the idea of writing a book about his experiences. I egged him on: At the time, I was full of optimism about gardening books, as my own book proposal had just received an enthusiastic reception from a potential publisher. And anyway, I had an inkling that Charlie’s storytelling would create something rather special. In the period between that meeting and the publication of Charlie’s book, my own book idea got canned, so it was with a tinge of envy and regret for the demise of my own project that I began reading an advance copy of Skymeadow sent by the publisher. This was soon forgotten, though, as I became swallowed up in the tale, carried along by Charlie’s combination of nervous energy and poetic depiction of the English landscape.
The reader learns about Charlie’s early life, first as an “outwardly defiant and inwardly nervous” schoolboy, and then a booze- and narcotics-spiked stretch at Cambridge University, up through his current existence as a married man with four children who’s panicking that the elderly central heating boiler is about to heave its last while wondering whether his wife (who has dyspraxia) will ever pass her driving test.
These more personal passages are interspersed by dollops of easily digestible horticultural know-how, from the difference between an annual, a perennial, and a biennial, to the right time to prune a rose: In fact a rose garden, that quintessentially English feature of horticulture, was the place the author literally dug his way out of grief and found new meaning to his life. Of course, no good rose garden is a monoculture: It is a carefully timed concoction of plants that act as a foil for the main business of scented summer blossom. So Hart weaves exotic foliage of cannas and a red banana among his roses, and wreaths them with cottage garden classics such as poppies, nasturtiums, cornflowers, and love-in-a-mist. His description of “richly colored tulips dancing away above clouds of violet forget-me-nots interspersed with roses holding in their healthy foliage all the promise of summer to come” made me want to dash into my garden and grab a bouquet of spring flowers.
I tore through this book in three sittings, but it did give me the same emotions as watching Monty Don working away at Berryfields, his huge Herefordshire plot on British gardening TV show Gardener’s World: a potent mix of admiration, envy, and intoxication at the glory of a beautiful garden. It’s worth noting—particularly for non-UK readers—that not all English gardeners are blessed with the twin luxuries of being able to buy a five-acre slice of the countryside, as well as the luxury of spending days, weeks and months at a time working on it. In a small crowded country, most gardeners, if we’re lucky, have a pocket handkerchief of land to tend rather than a patchwork quilt of meadowland best measured in acres. (Of course, it was ever thus: The vast majority of famous English gardens were built by the rich and the privileged.)
The thing that stops Charlie’s privilege from driving an emotional wedge between author and reader is his searing honesty. Anyone who has had anxiety will recognize the vivid description of “the chemical and biological consequence of trying to live a normal life when your biochemistry is behaving as if you are in the throes of mortal combat with a lion.” After all, bereavement and acute anxiety are no respecters of wealth.
Although not everyone has space in which to garden away the pain of loss and surrender to the vastness of creation, Charlie’s message remains valid whether you own a single houseplant or a five-acre plot: Taking care of plants is good for us, mind and body.