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Workers of the earth unite

Pursuits | By ​David Wheeler

Dani: those Portugal laurels will miss him

David Wheeler explains how to handle gardeners

Dani has left us.

Working one day a week for six industrious years, he helped to keep our three acres of formal garden under control. Never objecting to a task, when it came to pruning our wayward and lofty wisteria he had few equals.

He also introduced us to George, a friend of his whom we engaged on sight and who continues to work for us, except in winter’s depths. George looks after our five acres of ornamental woodland, where showy trees provide shelter for flowering shrubs, which in turn shield riotous clumps of ferns and perennials, below which lurk a confection of bright bulbs that bring colour and joy to the grassy sward from New Year to late May.

So why Dani’s departure? He’s finally realised a long-held dream. Renting premises locally, sourcing organic flour from a Milanese mill and wines from several Italian growers, he’s now the Pizza Prince of Presteigne. All that hard graft in our and other people’s gardens for a decade or more has primed his muscles, enabling his new daily workout of hand-kneading enough dough to satisfy both his sit-down and his take-away customers.

In Dani’s place comes Toby, an obliging 30-something who couldn’t stop smiling if he tried. From Hay-on-Wye he drives the best part of an hour to reach us and, although untrained in any professional sense of the word, he – like Dani before him, and George still – learnt his gardening on the hoof, making up in common sense for any lack of classroom study. They’re gardeners to the manner born – obliging, conscientious, hardworking and, above all, keen. We’re lucky.

Willing and reliable garden helpers (the word ‘staff’ is not for us) quickly become indispensable – proxy family members in whose private lives we take as much interest as they do in ours. When trying to call Toby in for a morning cuppa in his early days with us, we needed to do more than shout to be heard over his headphones. A tap on shoulder was required.

Imagining him to have been listening to some definitely lost-on-me pop, I nonetheless asked what was coming through the wires. Somewhat surprisingly came the (smiling) reply, ‘A podcast by the Economist.’ There! Next job – our financial adviser?

January is a difficult month for outdoor casual workers. There’s only so much tidying, cleaning and maintenance that can be done, and if the ground is hopelessly wet or snow-covered, then most jobs become impossible.

Flexibility is the answer. George and Toby know that if the weather is against them, they must have a few indoor jobs lined up elsewhere, for the loss of a day’s wages is not to be considered. Occasionally, the boot is on the other foot. As zero-hours-contract employers, we cannot complain when, admittedly seldom, during high season, they need to do something else and skip a day.

George is a morris dancer and, during summer months, participates in frequent, faraway gigs. His whole family is musical. His mother runs a folk choir which, on balmy evenings, sometimes wanders, minstrel-like, through our garden. His brother is a household name – folk singer, guitar-, bouzouki-, mandolin- and banjo-player – and, with their parents and other siblings, they occasionally put on a ceilidh. Best of all, George sings while he works in the garden, his melodic line soaring pleasingly above the mower’s growl.

Gardening can be a lonely pursuit. We try working alongside George and Toby for long stretches of their day; at other times, of course, we’re at it out there on our own.

A five-minute chat before they leave is crucial. A heartfelt thank-you is essential.

This story was from January 2020 issue. Subscribe Now