IT’S THAT TIME of year when we look both ways. Not left and right, like we’re crossing the road, but back and forward at the year just wound down, and ahead at the one coming into view. It’s a moment of reflection, and perhaps resolutions, for our gardens and our lives.
I could think of no one I’d rather ponder that intersection with than Marc Hamer, a British writer and gardener whose work I greatly admire.
Like many people, I came to know of English-born Marc Hamer in 2019 upon the publication of his first book, “How to Catch a Mole.”
Marc has lived in Wales for more than 30 years, and worked at various things, including a long stint as a professional gardener that forms the backdrop of that first book, and of a more recent second one called “Seed to Dust.” His third book, called “Spring Rain” (affiliate links), is due early in 2023. I’m so pleased he’s here today from his home in Cardiff to mark the cusp of the new and old years together.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “How to Catch a Mole” (affiliate link) by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the January 2, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
a garden life, with marc hamer
Marc Hamer: Hi, Margaret. How lovely to be speaking with you.
Margaret Roach: Yes, all the way from Wales. I haven’t been there in a very, very long time, but I still remember Bodnant Garden, and of course Powis Castle, which I guess are at the other end of the country from you.
Marc: They are at the other end, but I do know them well.
Margaret: Yes, they made a very strong impression, especially Powis. I will never forget my visit there decades ago. For context, I mentioned in the introduction that you worked as a professional gardener. How long did you plant and tend the garden of the client you refer to in your books as “Miss Cashmere” [laughter]?
Marc: Miss Cashmere’s garden, yes. I worked on that garden for a very long time, from planting saplings up until seeing them bear fruit. So, I dread to think how many years it was. I don’t know I can even answer that, to be honest [laughter].
Marc: Oh yeah.
Margaret: And now are you retired from that—are you no longer doing that now that you’ve become such a prolific writer, my goodness, the last few years?
Marc: [Laughter.] I can’t physically do it anymore. I’m getting on in years now, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if there was the work there for me. So now I’m writing, and just taking life easy, to be honest, and having a nice time.
Margaret: As the title of your first much-praised book indicates, you were also a mole catcher for hire, too [laughter].
Marc: That’s right.
Margaret: I don’t think we have those here. I think that’s one of the things that we don’t have. Although I will confess that in the beginning when I first got my rural place, I thought moles were the enemy, and I tried to harm them, and I ceased doing that as you came to cease doing it, too. Yeah?
Marc: Oh, many people do see them as the enemy. Many people get very, very angry and very frustrated. I think over here particularly, people are so proud of their wide, flat, green lawns, and suddenly a little mound of soil appears in the middle of it, and they become furious and they try anything to get rid of them.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah. We’ll talk a little bit more about that book later. And you’re also a meditator. So I’ll just say, I identify with so many of the things that you’ve shared in your writing. So you’re also a meditator, and I think of gardening as kind of a moving meditation, really. [Above, Marc’s mat and cushion.]
Marc: Oh, absolutely. When you’re working, especially in a larger garden, where you’ve got several different areas to work on, and you’re moving, you kind of flow through the garden, and it’s so easy to lose yourself. Even doing simple jobs, like going through the garden deadheading and things like that, you get so close to the thing that it is that you’re working with, that you kind of easily slip into quite a meditative state quite easily.
Margaret: Yeah, there’s that … I guess it’s Buddhist probably text or whatever, that sort of “chop wood, carry water” kind of thing. And I think of weeding as that: kind of repetitive, and it takes you into that contemplative state, and there’s so much kneeling, it’s just …
Marc: Oh yeah [laughter]. So much kneeling.
Margaret: Right? It’s that there’s something about it that brings you to …
Marc: It brings you to your knees.
Margaret: Yeah, it brings you to the ground. It brings you to our knees, literally.
Marc: Absolutely. Especially when you’re in autumn, and you’re planting hundreds and hundreds of daffodils or tulips or something like that, and you’re on your knees all day long, digging little holes and planting bulbs [laughter].
Margaret: So, no wonder at our age we’re a little beat up, hey?
Marc: Oh, I’m well beat-up. Yeah, absolutely.
Margaret: Yeah. So, you don’t reveal, much that I can recall, at least in the first two books, the two that are already out … You don’t reveal much about your home garden, but I know you have one. So, maybe just tell us a little. Give us a little peek into it.
Marc: Well, I live in a house in a little village which is right on the edge of the city. So it’s a town garden, basically. It’s a very small garden, and it was abandoned for many years. I had kids, and the kids were in the garden, and they’d kind of chew it up and leave their bikes. And then it became a different thing again where I stored all my lawn mowers, and had the big shed on it, and had all my tools in it.
But since I’ve stopped working for other people, I was able to go back to it and kind of repair the damage that I’d done to it, really. It is a very small garden, but I like to think of it as I’ve actually made a little space where the garden can be what it wants to be, rather than me imposing myself on it, which is what you do as a working gardener. I’m allowing it to be itself. I cleared the soil, and planted a few things that seemed naturally to grow there, and things just thrive now and it’s absolutely lovely. It’s a little crazy plot of paradise.
Margaret: [Laughter.] I think it was maybe on, maybe it was on your blog, or maybe it was in an email to me … I’m not sure. You said, “It’s very ordinary,” you wrote to me, or said. “I wanted it to be ordinary every day, simple and self-sustaining. Because of this, I love it. It asks nothing of me and I ask nothing of it. And so we share the space as equals.”
Marc: We do, yes.
Margaret: And I just thought, “Right, exactly.” Right?
Marc: [Laughter.] Well, that’s a lovely thing, isn’t it? You can just go into your space, and you’ll see a few little jobs that you need to do, and there’s a few little weeds here, or there’s something growing up in the path. But it doesn’t take an enormous amount of work to look after it.
You hear people trying to build low-maintenance gardens, and they’re covering them over with concrete and all kinds of things, and that takes as much maintenance as anything else. It’s much nicer to go and sit out with a glass of wine and pull a few weeds up and go back to your chair.
Margaret: Yeah. So, it’s quite a different place from Miss Cashmere’s, yeah?
Marc: Oh, absolutely. There was a lake there with a boat on it, and a summer house, and there was a meadow with, I can’t remember, 3 acres now of meadow, and a woodland at the bottom and all that kind of stuff. And mine is a little town garden with a path going down the middle, the garden shed at one end, and the line to hang the washing out.
Margaret: Good. Sounds just about right [laughter]. So, our conversation today actually sort of began as an email I sent you a while back, after I saw a recent Instagram post that you made. In that post, you showed a photo [top of page] of a small wall fountain hanging, I believe, at your house in Cardiff. You had made it from stone, and on it you had carved the word “forget” on the base of this little fountain.
Seeing that, I reached out and I said, “What if we did an alt version of the traditional resolutions of this time of year?” Like things to let go and forget, inspired by your fountain, and how important the ability to do so is for a gardener and in the bigger picture of life, of course.
And in that forgetting post, you confessed … I mean the Instagram post. You confessed that sometimes you’d look at a plant and you don’t remember the name of it. I’m there, by the way with you, Marc.
And it’s funny, I’m like, “What? What?” And you confess that, but then you also say: “Forgetting is my most treasured skill. I’ve honed it to perfection.” So tell us why forgetting sometimes—letting go—is so important.
Marc: I think living this life in the society that we live in, there are so many pressures on us all. There are so much oppressions in various different places, there’s a lot of arguing and disagreement, and we’re all split and separated from each other. I like the idea of just forgetting any opinions I might hold about anything at all, and just being the person who is just quiet and calm, and forgetting any arguments I might have had, forgetting any disagreements that I might have had, and just leaving everything behind and just being a quiet and kind of empty person, who’s ready there like an empty jug to take what’s around.
I think we carry things with us. We carry our anxieties with us, and our fears with us, all the time. And I like the idea of just dropping those. So, that little fountain is on the outside of my house, and I see it every time I come in, and it reminds me to just say, “O.K., whatever’s happened, just go, ‘Aaah,’ and start this moment again as a new moment.”
Margaret: Let it go, let it go, let it go, to be the empty vessel.
Marc: Yes, absolutely. It’s a bit of a cliche, but it does work.
Margaret: And I have found, I’ll confess, these last few years of such epic change in the world, I have found that it’s harder to get to that place. There’s a lot flying around inside the head, so that can be hard. So …
Marc: Well, there’s also things like social media. We have so many demands in our attention these days, and it never, ever, ever stops for a second. It doesn’t stop. And you see, you go out for a walk and you’ll see people sitting on benches looking at their phones, checking their Twitter accounts and things like that. People are opening themselves up to an invasion of information, and we’re not designed to handle that amount of information. We need to just let it go.
Margaret: No, any other animal in nature, it would take many, many, many, many, many, many generations for the adaptation to happen biologically to adjust to such a cataclysmic change in behavior. Do you know what I mean?
Margaret: For a particular insect to learn to live on a different schedule in some way, change its life cycle in some way like we have in a way. So yeah, it’s crazy.
Marc: A lot of these things are very addictive, as well. I for a time became addicted to Twitter. I remember I would wake up in the morning and the first thing I would do, the very first thing, was look at my phone. What a waste of attention that was. I obviously don’t do it anymore, but I realized what I was doing, and then kind of weaned myself off.
I should be talking to my wife first thing in the morning, not looking at Twitter [laughter].
Margaret: Exactly. So many aspects of your work, as I said, speak to me. The gardening, of course, and writing, and meditating, and also that we’re both self-taught gardeners. And in “Seed to Dust,” you tell this anecdote, almost like a parable, really, that stuck with me, about a woman who always cut up her Christmas turkey before putting it into the oven. Can you recall that? Do you recall that? And she was asked why, why did she cut it up.
Marc: I can, yes. It was a story that I was told. Or, did I read it … I can’t remember this. But what happened was that there was this woman who was cutting up her Christmas turkey to put it in the oven, and she was newly married, and her husband said, “Well, why are you doing this? Why are you cutting the turkey up? Just surely put it in the tray.” And she said, “I don’t know. It’s the way my mom always did it.”
So they asked her mom, “Why do you cut the turkey up before you put it in the oven?” And she said, “Because when you were little, our oven was so small that we couldn’t put it in whole.” [Laughter.]
So she’d learnt this thing thinking this was the right way to do it, and it was completely irrelevant to her life as it was at that point. I just thought that was a really interesting story, and how we can easily take information on without questioning it. I think we should really question every single thing that we’re told, or read, and find out for ourselves.
Margaret: And yet you confess in that passage, I think, that some of the things that you do in gardening, some of the ways that you approach tasks in gardening, are maybe not …
Marc: [Laughter.] Exactly.
Margaret: Right. Right? It’s like we learned it, and I’m the same way. It’s like, “Well, I do it because I always did it that way.” You know what I mean? I learned it that way.
Margaret: And that’s O.K., too. [Laughter.]
Marc: I think that’s O.K., too. I think you ask the questions if you can ask the questions. I think it’s important to ask questions. But sometimes you do something, and actually because you do it that way and you always do it that way, that’s the easy way to do it, because that’s the way you’ve always done it.
And gardeners, you talk to a hundred gardeners, and each one will have a different viewpoint of what it is that you should be doing with that particular thing at that time. We’re an argumentative lot. We disagree quite a lot.
Margaret: Well, and sometimes when I do have help in the garden, I find myself watching from a distance, and bristling at the way the other person is doing it. Like edging, for instance. I’m obsessed with the way … I don’t want big clods of soil removed when the edge is cut. I don’t want to make a trench around the edge, and that’s my craziness.
Marc: It’s horrible, though, isn’t it? Because that fills it with water as well, with it running … [laughter].
Margaret: Right, and then all the mulch washes away at the next rainstorm and so forth. So I’m always watching from a distance judgmentally-
Marc: I agree with you, though.
Margaret: … And yet the person is making a clean job, and it’s not messy or anything, and that’s how they learn to do it. So it’s tricky, it’s tricky. So, I learned-
Marc: Different people’s ideas of what is neat and what looks good varies as well.
Margaret: Yeah. So I learned also from … I think this was where I read on your blog, on your website, and maybe actually in one of the books, that we share an early influence. That, as you say, you’re a self-taught gardener, but also Vita Sackville-West, her writing. She had that longtime column in the Sunday “Observer,” the newspaper. Yes?
Marc: That’s right, yeah. I had a book of hers called “In Your Garden,” and it was a very old, tatty copy, but it had such a lovely feel about it. You look at a lot of modern gardening books, and they’re kind of quite prescriptive. But I think her work, it was very poetic. Her writing was beautiful as well, so it was actually just a lovely thing to look at.
We love to look at gardening books, and we love to look at other people’s gardens. But I think this one, the book itself was like a little garden. It was actually enjoyable to go through, and I dipped into it for practical ideas as well. “Oh, should I be doing this now? I’m not quite sure,” and I would dip into it and see.
Margaret: So, she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, they made the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, which of course still go on today. So, they were some pretty serious gardeners.
Marc: Absolutely, yeah.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah, and she had lots to teach. But I love that you point out that she didn’t have the provenance of a fancy education at the leading university; she didn’t study horticulture or anything.
Marc: No, no, and she just did what she enjoyed to do. She made the famous White Garden, which I don’t think anybody famous had actually done that before that point, and it’s still famous. To this day, people still talk about Vita’s White Garden.
Margaret: Yes, yes. So, let’s spend some time, what are we forgetting … Letting go of, let it go, let it go. What are we from 2022, besides all the hellacious headlines of the world. Let’s not take that on. And what are we seeking in 2023? Do you have some of those thoughts yourself, especially as it pertains to the garden?
Marc: I do, yes. I think no garden is ever finished. But I think as far as the garden is concerned, I actually want to walk away from it for a little while now, and see what it does over the next few years, and just let it do its thing. Keep it tidy and see what happens, see if the foxgloves come up again. Because foxgloves are dodgy things at the best of times; sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t [laughter].
So, as far as that’s concerned, I just want to leave that be.
I’m nowadays getting more involved just in my meditation practice, to be honest, and I’m reading lots of poetry, and I’m just taking things a little bit easy. We just had a lovely Christmas, and my kids came over from France, which is very nice, and they’ve all gone away again, so it’s very quiet. So, it’s a nice contemplative time at the moment to kind of think, “What might I be letting go of?” And I think one of the things I might let go of actually is working so hard.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Marc: I think I’m going to spend less time working in my garden, less time working at my desk, and more time just getting out and walking, I think, because I love to walk. So, more time walking and just looking at the world. [Above, Marc at rest. in nature.]
Margaret: That’s not a bad resolution. When I thought about this in anticipation of our conversation, I was thinking about how in a garden … I’ve been here maybe 35 years or something. You have the images of what it looked like at different points in time, and sometimes you wish, “Oh, that path has gotten so narrow,” or, “That line’s gotten wobbly,” right? Because guess what, Margaret? Stuff grows [laughter].
So, we have to either let go of those older images of when the lines were different, the proportions were different, or we have to make corrections: make a bed smaller to let the path adjacent to it be wider or whatever. And that’s work. I have some of that to really face up to, and I’m just going to say that out loud, because it helps me sometimes to ask someone to bear witness to my confessions [laughter]. That’s one thing for me that I definitely want to do.
Where did you find the strength to stop bashing your head against the wall of some of this stuff? To let this garden that you have, your town garden, just be itself? How did you do that?
Marc: I think because I spent so much time working in very formal gardens that need you to stay on top of them constantly, mowing twice a week. One lawn I used to mow with a walk-behind mower because it needed stripes, it used to take me nearly a full day to mow. So, staying on top of things like that constantly became work.
I loved my work. It’s the most loveliest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But I think staying on top of that, and that management and control of things … Actually, the nicest bits in that garden were the bits where I didn’t do that down at the bottom end, behind where all the standard trees were, where the brambles were growing and the blackbirds were nesting and things like that. I think I’m starting to embrace the bramble and the nettle and things like that [laughter].
Margaret: Yeah. No, it’s good. Well, and what I love about gardening, and what drives me completely mad about gardening in a bad way, is the reality that we’re not in control of anything. Do you know what I mean? So I love that, it draws me, because it makes me face the lack of control: we’re powerless, and that we’re small, and we’re not the big forces of nature or anything. Also, however, I want to make it look pretty. Do you know what I mean? I want to have a good harvest of this thing, or I want that to be beautiful. So it’s this control/no control.
Marc: Absolutely, that whole thing. Like this time of year, all the gardeners are looking at what needs to be done next year now, and they’re remembering the little patches that had nothing growing in them, or where whatever it was planted didn’t work. And they’re starting to think about seed catalogs, and thinking about what they’re going to do.
We do this, and in our imaginations we’ve got this fabulous swathe of flowers. And then you plant it, and the weather changes, and the seedlings die [laughter], and you’re battling things constantly, and you’re not in control. You have this fantasy that pulls you forward of what it could be like, and inevitably it always turns out to be something slightly different that you weren’t expecting.
I think that is one of the great joys of gardening, really. You plant things, and you may try to make one thing, and it always turns out to be something slightly different, and I like that. You’re kind of working in harmony with the things, and with the weather, and with everything that really is in control of this garden.
Margaret: So, speaking of things that you’ve let go of, you let go of catching moles [laughter]. Even though the first book was called “How to Catch a Mole,” you stopped doing it because you began to identify with them, or …?
Marc: I think that whole thing about catching the moles, I think it was a personal development thing in a strange way, because I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a little boy.
Margaret: Me too, yeah.
Marc: And I hate the thought of killing things. But actually as a vegetarian, as a young man in a working-class society, you’re constantly mocked for it. “You’re a weakling. You can’t do this. You’re not a real man,” kind of nonsense.
So the time came when somebody was actually catching the moles in this garden, and I watched them doing it, and I thought it was quite a brutal thing. I thought, “You know what? I could probably do it better than that, because I’ll do it sensitively and figure out the best way of doing this.”
And then the question came, “Can I actually do it? Am I capable of doing this? Am I capable of taking this life?” I kind of needed to know the answer to that, and I found out that I was.
And then after doing it for a little while, I thought, “O.K., I know I can do it.”
And I caught a mole. My very last mole I caught, and it was still alive in the trap. Normally you pull the trap out and they’re dead, and it was still alive. So I had to release it onto the ground and kill it. That was my last mole.
Then I thought, “O.K., I’ve been hiding behind these traps as if it’s not me doing it, as if the trap is doing it,” and the kind of double-think about it. But I learned something about myself, and I stopped from there, and that was that part of my career over.
It did give me a wonderful life. I was out in the winter in the frost, in the farmer’s fields all alone from the early hours, and had … because I am quite a solitary person, and I enjoyed that life. But I think it was not something that I wanted to continue doing. I realized that I could do it if I wanted to, so I didn’t need to.
Margaret: Yeah, and it gave you also a wonderful book. So, thank you; thank you for both the books, and I’m looking forward to the third one. I’m just so glad to speak to you and so grateful for your writing. It’s really kept me company; your books have kept me company, and as I said, I’ve shared them with friends whom they’ve done the same for. So, thank you, and it’s great to get to speak to you finally.
Marc: Thank you, Margaret. It’s lovely to speak to you as well.
Margaret: Take good care.
Marc: Very kind words.
Margaret: And happy new year.
Marc: Happy new year to you, too.
(Photos from Marc Hamer’s Instagram.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 2, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).