My search for women gardeners’ life stories helped me combat loneliness – and make great friends

This year, I dedicated the drizzly, flat little days between Christmas and New Year to having a clearout. I felt an intangible lightness with each book, old birthday card or defunct gadget that passed out of the door and into a new home. In my late teens I nurtured a habit of taking amateur snapshots on film –and it’s taken me until now to make peace with the fact that I would never actually process decade-old, under-exposed negatives into anything, and throw them away. But there was one contact sheet that made me pause – not because I wanted to preserve it, but because it directed me to a memory too poignant to remember: my 27th birthday.

The photos, in tiny thumbnail form, reminded me that we threw a party at the flat I was living in at the time and I wore a short black dress. Friends gathered on the balcony and stood in a line up to lift me up, sideways against their bodies. It should have been indistinguishable from any other contact sheet in the box – people who didn’t realise how young and beautiful they were, relationships that were no longer intact, cans on kitchen worktops. But this slip of paper brought with it a reminder of the piercing loneliness I’d felt in my 20s, something I’ve since come to realise but have rarely had to probe.

Loneliness strikes at different times in life. The Campaign to End Loneliness, which has been publishing reports for over a decade, claims that more than 3 million people in the UK would describe themselves as chronically lonely, a state in which someone feels lonely most of the time. Nearly half of British adults, of all ages, attest to loneliness at least some of the time, with older and widowed people particularly affected.

On paper, my 20s looked great: a fun job, a nice place to live, a seemingly stable relationship and enough disposable income to go on adventurous holidays. I was fortunate, and I knew it. But I also carried a shroud of loneliness around for several years: while many of my friends were rampaging through Tinder or finding their way home from nightclubs in the small hours, I was cultivating a quiet domestic life that left me unsatisfied. I’d moved in with a boyfriend. We took out a mortgage, navigated a relationship among the slings and arrows of mental ill-health and broke up 18 months later.

Caught between two kinds of adulthoods – one freewheeling, the other prematurely steady – I felt adrift. Pride stopped me from telling anyone about the hidden difficulties of my apparently charming life. It was only when that shattered and I was left single and without a stable address that the truth began to come out.

After a breakup it’s typical, I think, to pour all that excess love and time into your friendships. But it was several years later – and once I’d decided to marry someone else, who I’d been seeing for a good while – that I started to make friendship a renewed priority in my life. Lockdown forced many of us to examine loneliness afresh and for me it held echoes of that first rift four years earlier – the social circle normality I had grown used to warped. Some of us moved to the suburbs, others shrugged off tethers of conventionality. A whole crop of babies were conceived, along with a handful of engagements, and as many break-ups.

Once again I felt unmoored amid a sea of change I had no control over. Loneliness came at me in surprising ways – as anger and frustration and listlessness. Unable to forge ahead with a big night out or arrange an indulgent dinner party, I sat down and made a list of names: women whom I admired or was intrigued by, all of whom I wanted to meet.

Sometimes we don’t entirely know why we’re doing new things until we’ve done them. The list was a beginning of a quest, ostensibly to unravel why women gardened – an activity that had become an increasingly large part of my life – but which I now understand to have been one of connection. I was lonelier than I realised. I wanted more friends and different ones. I sought out women who did fascinating work, had interesting approaches to things or, sometimes, maintained Instagram accounts I enjoyed. I emailed them and asked if I could interview them about why they gardened in a green space of their choice. A surprisingly large majority said yes. When we met, we would talk about gardening but we would also talk about the stuff of women’s lives: identity, motherhood, ageing, grief, reclamation and creativity.

Over the course of 14 months I spoke with 45 women, ranging in age from 22 to 82, from the depths of Somerset to the remote, salty horizons of Danish islands. Some were single, some were married, some were widowed, some were imprisoned, some were immigrants, some were artists, some never spoke about their day job, some were mothers, some wanted to be. I met with them with the intention of research: I wanted to glean and tell the stories of the soil that were conspicuously absent from gardening narrative, many of which would inform a book, Why Women Grow. What I ended up with was not only that connection I’d been missing, but a host of new friends I didn’t know I needed.

After meeting each one of these women, I felt indebted for the time, generosity and insight they’d given me. I’d taken up a chunk of their day and room in their inbox; a stranger who arrived at a deeply meaningful space for them – a garden, an allotment plot, a favourite park – and proceeded to ask them questions about their life. In short, I wasn’t about to pester them for coffee any time soon. And yet friendships blossomed between us. We would keep in touch, messaging one another about how the big things in our lives were unfolding – the PhD thesis, the book proposal, that year’s potato crop. I’d receive kind invitations to events some of the women were organising, or they would pop over to pick up cuttings or divisions of plants I could no longer accommodate. It was as if the unconventional nature of our meeting – a chitchat-free talk about the meatier things of life – offered an almost instant means of bonding.

When I was confident we could meet socially, or off-the-record, we embarked on that all-too-rare thing in adult life – a new friendship. There’s Diana, now 84, whom I see most weeks, cycling to her house for lunches of posh leftovers served on green plates, often with wine. Despite the 50-year age gap we share a predilection for astrology, inventive outerwear and composting. After interviewing Hazel, a floral designer in her 40s, a box of bright pink biscuits spelling out “BRING ON THE BARBICAN” arrived on my doorstep – we’d spoken about our mutual love of the brutalist estate and hatched a plan to sit in Nigel Dunnett’s Beech Gardens together. We ended up chatting for so long we made ourselves late for our subsequent plans. Several glorious dinners, catch-ups and voice notes later, I invited her to my wedding.

I love hearing from Carole, who grew up on the estate behind my Brixton flat in the 70s, and has the best stories to tell. Sometimes I bump into her in the neighbourhood while she’s on one of her sprawling south London walks; sometimes I pass her equipment or plants for her community gardens. Every time, it feels like I’m part of a community I didn’t previously know existed. I regularly meet Elaine, an artist on the cusp of her 60s, for an outdoor sandwich, following the first spontaneous picnic we shared that she pulled, Mary Poppins-like, from her bag years before. She’s lived a remarkable and inherently feminist life, giving women’s voices space in her work. The last time I saw her, she gave me a flower press she’d made from old table mats that belonged to her mother.

Forming new friendships has been exhilarating, especially with people I would struggle to encounter otherwise – women from a different generation or background, who have lived different lives. Furthermore, in making these new friends I have learned to be a better friend to those who have stuck with me for far longer. Rather than taking up space that might belong to someone else, I see my friendships forming connections of their own; they inform and nurture one another, a growing web of support and intimacy that I consider one of the most valuable things in my life.

Alice Vincent is the author of Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival (Canongate, £16.99), available from for £14.95


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