A thing of beauty, a place of sanctuary or contemplation, a space for entertaining, a much-needed connection with nature - and, above all, somewhere to cultivate the plants that make a garden all of those things.
How strange, then, that gardens seem to polarise opinion: on the one hand, it's merely outdoor space, a place to pass through on your way indoors, at best irrelevant and at worst a nuisance (all that dust, those fallen leaves…). On the other hand, it is the ultimate Object of Desire, a source of endless pleasure.
Every garden, whether a half-hectare spread or a grouping of pots on a balcony, consists of two elements: the shape and design of the space, and the things that grow in it. Neither is more important than the other; they are different. Combined, they add immeasurably to the aesthetic pleasure of our outdoors. The former, like good architecture and interior design, makes the garden more practical and appealing - never more so than in this age of "outdoor living", and especially in this climate (for the half of the year we spend time in it and the other half, when we look at it from our air-conditioned interiors).
The plants, though, provide the real magic of a garden - and never more so than when you cultivate them yourself. To succeed in growing plants, especially when arranged in pleasing groups that mix form, texture and colour (not to mention when they yield edible fruit or vegetables) is deeply satisfying. (Perversely, even the frustration of plants that don't thrive is part of the experimenting that makes up much of the gardener's joyful lot.)
While anyone who has never grown a thing may be baffled, those who do garden - even on the smallest scale - will understand that it's almost a primeval urge. The first thing people have done throughout history when they ceased to be nomadic hunter-gatherers was to start cultivating crops (archaeologists have found evidence of 10,000-year-old cultivation in what was then Nubia). The French painter Jacques Majorelle knew this. After settling in Marrakech in 1919 he expended as much energy on his garden as on his art. Perhaps the garden is his greatest work of art.
I'm lucky to have had a childhood learning from my father how to grow vegetables in a way that's now known as "organic" and accompanying my mother to Garden Club meetings and (as a no doubt irritatingly precocious eight-year-old) reciting the names of every plant we saw. Putting that knowledge into practice in many climates and countries since then has been life-affirming. While I am passionate about design and beauty, it's the cultivation of plants that, literally, puts me in touch with life itself. I garden, therefore I am.
And, if you haven't started, it's never too late.