"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


So many flowers grow in an English urban garden. By Town Mouse, Tom Hodgkinson

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | Jul 09, 2024

Robert Thompson, taken from the Oldie Magazine.

As spring turns to summer, a town mouse’s thoughts turn quite naturally to his garden. Rural mice spend a lot of time in their garden, digging and attempting to grow vegetables. When I lived in North Devon and wrote books full-time, I was inspired by George Orwell, Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall and the Epicureans of ancient Athens to try out a little self- sufficiency. A bit of food-producing gardening seemed like a natural partner to literary endeavour.

I managed a few seasons of growing potatoes, broad beans, cabbages, beetroots and so on. When it worked, it was very satisfying, and when it didn’t, it was painful, but there was always a pleasant sense of working within a tradition stretching back thousands of years.

O fortunatos nimium sua si bona norint, agricolas (How happy are the farmers, if only they knew it!) So wrote Virgil, who himself lived in an Epicurean commune.

Farmers today also seem to be completely unaware of their own happiness and consider their lot to be rather an unlucky one.

Anyway, running a smallholding is a lot of work; and when we moved to an inner-city terraced house with only a tiny backyard, I actually relished not having to do a single thing in the garden and instead spent my leisure time staring out of the window doing nothing.

This disappointed Mrs Mouse. ‘You used to enjoy gardening. You even wrote a book about how everyone should grow their own vegetables. Now you have lost interest and buy potatoes at Tesco. What happened?’

With three school-going children and a magazine to produce, which entailed full-time work in the office, something had to give.

However, over the past few weeks, buoyed by the sun, I have found myself frequenting plant sales and nurseries. And I have started to enjoy gardening in the city. It has many advantages over its rural counterpart.

The main one is that there is far less work involved due to the smaller space. And London gardens tend to be minimal rather than cluttered.

I suggested filling up the front with pots of geraniums and herbs and so on, but my great-aunt came up with the deliciously snobbish comment: ‘Oh no. It will look like a railwayman’s cottage.’ So we left it virtually empty. Far less work for me, and a classy non-proletarian look. Win, win.

It’s easier to achieve your ideas in town. My first notion for the backyard was to turn it into a Shoreditch pop-up. We would have fairy lights, blackboards, craft beers, creative, seafood-based burgers and a central fire pit.

We did get a sort of outdoor furnace thing, but the neighbours were not keen on the smoke it produces.

So I moved on to an earlier fantasy, the medieval herber. This is an extremely mannered and stylised garden designed for an aristocratic lady to recline in (while elegant young men with parti-coloured garments play the lute), eat sweetmeats and read poetry. There is a medieval illustration of the ‘Garden of Idleness’ which I took as my cue.

The features of the medieval herber are simple. It should be small and enclosed. It should feature a trellis with white and red roses. And there should be a bench made of bricks and topped with chamomile or periwinkle. Sweet- smelling herbs should abound – and strictly no pots.

As luck would have it, our backyard already had two planters made of bricks, each about one foot deep and three foot across, which would serve as the turf-topped benches loved by 13th-century queens.

I cut back a horrible old, rambling wisteria which was climbing over the trellis at the back and, to my surprise and delight, uncovered a white climbing rose with lovely small flowers. There was also a honeysuckle and an ivy hiding there.

We planted parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and Vinca minor, or periwinkle, in the beds, and hauled a giant green man carving a friend gave us years ago up on to the back wall. I have also mounted my Green Man pub sign which my friend Pete Loveday, the hippy cartoonist, made for me.

These give the garden a Glastonbury vibe which Mrs Mouse does not approve of. As do the ornamental snails I have placed crawling along the wall – Mrs Mouse doesn’t like these either, but I point out that snails were a common feature on the margins of medieval manuscripts.

She is lucky that I have managed to resist dreamcatchers, wind chimes, fairies and cannabis plants.

Thankfully, the yard is covered in York stone and not grass; so, instead of the immense headache of lawnmowing, we just give it a quick sweep. We put a metal table out there with a pot of daisies on the top et voilà, all done.

So, rather than a utilitarian food garden, this time round we have a formal pleasure garden. I took my ukulele outside and started strumming what I considered to be sweet airs, fancying myself as a medieval youth. My sixteen- year-old daughter saw me, heard the noise I was making and remarked, ‘I just feel so sorry for the neighbours.’