Growing petunias on the balcony healed my broken heart

Growing petunias on the balcony healed my broken heart: Journalist takes solace in plants when her long-term relationship fails

  • Alice Vincent has written about finding peace in her plants after a breakup
  • Rootbound: Rewilding A Life described the moment she found herself single
  • Her former long-term boyfriend asked for a break as they shared breakfast
  • She tended plants on her 13 ft long and 3 ft wide balcony as she recovered

MEMOIR 

ROOTBOUND: REWILDING A LIFE

by Alice Vincent (Canongate, £14.99, 368pp) 

How do you mend a broken heart? The dumped often find solace in getting drunk, gorging on ice cream or stalking their ex on Facebook.

For journalist Alice Vincent, salvation came in the form of a tiny balcony.

When this memoir begins, she is the epitome of a smug millennial, with a cool job reporting on popular culture for a national newspaper and a lovely long-term boyfriend, Josh. 

Together they have achieved that rarest of things for twentysomethings in London, and bought their own flat.

Journalist Alice Vincent looked for salvation in the form of a tiny balcony when her long-term boyfriend Josh broke up with her

The couple can hardly believe their luck and treat their property ‘like an eggshell: a precious and often preposterous casing for our nascent lives’.

One day over breakfast, Josh suddenly announces that they need a break, adding the killer line: ‘I feel like I am falling out of love with you.’

For Alice, this comes as a devastating bolt from the blue. ‘I felt as if my life had fallen off a precipice . . . I learned that I was not as loved as I thought I was,’ she writes.

She tries to put on a brave face and convinces herself the break isn’t permanent. The couple come to the bizarre decision not to sell their flat but to share it, taking turns to spend a month there. 

This not only makes the separation less final for Alice, but allows her to keep the tiny balcony that is her favourite place to escape.

Measuring just 13 ft long and 3 ft wide, her balcony is planted with a ragtag collection of herbs and flowers, grown in recycled tomato tins from a local pizzeria. 

Stepping on to the balcony: ‘I felt a gush of freedom… my lungs felt bigger; there was more room to exhale.’

Embarrassed by her growing enthusiasm for plants, she initially keeps it to herself. ‘Gardening wasn’t really the done thing. It felt like the most pathetic kind of rebellion at first: no drugs or sexual boundaries conquered, merely the ground.’

Each time she returns to her balcony after a month away and finds the lavender, sedum and petunias (file image) are flourishing, she feels a surge of satisfaction

Still, she thinks her grandfather would have approved. ‘He spent his last evening showing his closest friend around the garden . . . he contentedly concluded that he could “go now” and, a few hours later, aged 97, he did.’

For a year after the break-up, Alice spends every other month sofa surfing, staying with friends or renting a poky room. She finds no pleasure in her burgeoning career. 

‘I’d lay out each little challenge: the byline photo, the front-page story, the feature puff and the viral hit. 

When I landed them — often after months of scrabbling — no joy arrived. Instead, I’d move on to the next one for another hollow victory.’

Increasingly her contentment comes from the natural world. At a music festival — going to them is one of the perks of the job — she gets bored with the music and dancing and drags her friends off to nearby woods to see the trees and the bracken. She gets a tattoo of a maidenhair fern on her bicep. 

Each time she returns to her balcony after a month away and finds the lavender, sedum and petunias are flourishing, she feels a surge of satisfaction.

ROOTBOUND: REWILDING A LIFE by Alice Vincent (Canongate, £14.99, 368pp)

She spends time exploring London’s green spaces. She observes: ‘Berlin smothered its streets in towering trees. 

Paris wrapped its parks up in bows, encouraged them to be chic. But London made itself open, made walking and thinking and playing easy.

‘If you were patient and determined, you were rarely more than a bus ride from a bit of woodland in London.’

During one of her fleeting flat shares, she meets other young gardeners and ‘it made me realise that there were probably lots of us reaching for spades . . . to better plunge into what soil we had access to, just to feel a bit better, a bit calmer’.

After several months, Alice meets a new man and falls in love again. She realises she has learned to trust him when she lets him look after her plants while she is away. 

She and her ex agree to sell their beloved flat and she finds a place of her own, with a balcony looking out over trees and greenery. 

Moving her large assortment of pots into her new home, she realises that ‘I gardened myself better’.

Writing a memoir when you’re only a few years out of university may seem presumptuous, but Alice Vincent pulls it off.

There are riffs on everything from famous women gardeners to the history of New York’s wondrous High Line elevated linear park. 

She is on the money when writing about plants — buying one that is too big for your garden is ‘like letting a large, wet dog into an antique shop’ — and convincing on the benefit of growing things, something which lessens ‘my angst, my anxieties, my worries’.

Rootbound gives a revealing insight into Alice’s generation, their concerns, self-absorption and earnestness. 

It also radiates a youthful enthusiasm and optimism, a hunger to reconnect with nature even in the midst of a sea of concrete, and the refreshing belief that anything is possible. Millenials, in particular, will love it. 

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