Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent

This post is part of a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

Rootbound begins with the author describing the relationship she had with nature when she was younger – seeing nature’s offerings as both prosaic and powerful – ammo to be deployed in fantastical battles. Stickyweed to be balled up and tossed towards the victim so they did not know they had it on them. Getting someone to suck on the milky sap on a dandelion, or putting grass seed heads in a friends mouth promising it would make them feel they are flying. But she also talked about knowing the laws of nature – Acorns turn into oak trees, conkers become horse chestnuts, and that stinging nettles were off limits.

The book continues by intertwining the authors personal life along with her relationships with plants, this is very much a book about a relationships with plants rather than a relationship with nature. The book clearly identifies the cyclical nature of gardening, laying out a month by month programme, for example describing January as a time of admin, scrubbing pots, cleaning greenhouses, sharpening tools and pruning fruit trees.

She also chronicles her travels outside of London, to both Amsterdam and Japan. In her travel to Amsterdam she visits ‘Hortus Botanicus’, and this reminds me to ensure when we travel that we need to ensure we visit botanical gardens.

The author talks about how her own love of London wained saying that it became less of a holy grail and somewhere she had to end up in order to work. However she ends up remaining in London though changing flat.

There are also some really interesting snippets that helped improve my knowledge of botany and gardening:

  • Roots are the subterranean skeleton and stomach of a plant. They offer it stability, and they bring it water and minerals. When the plant is working they are its pantry: they keep the energy the plant has generated as its very substance. There are different kinds of root. Taproots, which burrow steadfastly down into the earth; the neatly uniform fibrous roots; and hulking hungry tuberous roots. Creeping roots are the type that you’re most likely to
  • Prepared gardeners, ones keen for movement and action, get ahead with what they can in the last weeks of winter, but by April the gardens have caught up. Buds start to bloom, seeds germinate into lengthening stems that push through the soil that has kept them incubated. After months of gathering energy below the earth the pants subject themselves to the elements beyond it; they feel the pelt of shower and the gaze of the sun, turn towards it in hunger and fascination.
  • Taking lavender branches from one of the bushes on the estate and knifing them into cuttings, carefully placing them around the edges of a pot of gritty sand, with the hope that they’d root to grow by themselves next year. (If you put those newly severed stems by the pot’s edges, right up against the plastic, the roots will hit the base when they develop – it gives them a better chance of entwining with one another, to create a supportive mass. Shove them in the middle and you can end up with roots plummeting right down the hole, too adventurous for their own good.)
  • This time-travelling of gardening – to imagine months ahead – offers a balm. It feels like a magic trick, and one that only gets better with knowledge and experience. That, if you know enough about the plants in question, you can stand in a garden and look at it in the depths of winter and see a vision of lush foliage and frothing blossom, opening flower buds and autumn-painted leaves. It’s a sober hallucination built from anticipation, science and sure-footed faith, much needed when the basic questions of life feel towering.
  • I’VE OFTEN THOUGHT OF GARDENING as being like a language. It cultivates terminologies: rootstock, cutting, grafting, perennial, hardening off, leggy. Words that are understood by those who use and need them but not by the uninitiated. Then there’s the Latin, and the codes it makes that means those who can break it will be able to work out the whole family lineage of a plant in one short sentence.

There are also some really good stories from history such as:

On 8 February, 1913, suffragettes broke into Kew’s much-loved orchid houses, broke some forty panes of glass and damaged the invaluable plants inside. Kew was as popular a tourist attraction in 1913 as it is now – luring some 3.8 million visitors between June and September that year – and the gardens’ director had received warning of an imminent attack from the movement. The women acted in the early hours of the morning and got away with it, but poetically left behind a handkerchief and an envelope inscribed ‘Votes for Women’.

I have not got any snippets of take aways from this book however one particular quote I felt was particularly relevant:

“Learning how to look is vital in gardening, especially for someone as impatient and haste-driven as me. But the balcony supplied near-endless visual satisfaction; I’d hunt out new growth, watch the light play on the leaves, catch the shadows that fell on the concrete floor. As my father did standing by our kitchen window, I’d observe and make endless mental lists of things that needed to change or growth I’d hope to see while my focus fell soft and heavy. It was near-impossible to do just the one quick job on the balcony. A bit of deadheading leads to watering, to tidying and pottering around until the five minutes initially allocated telescopes into hours and my hands – usually brushed roughly on whatever covers my lower half – are stiff with cold and my mind soothed.”