Whether it’s a window box or the majestic grounds of a stately home, gardening is about taming – and shaping – nature. Small wonder, then, that gardens are such rich fodder for poets, novelists and playwrights – nor that gardening is the perfect pursuit for a writer.

Rachel Hancox, The Shadow Child

Rachel Hancox, The Shadow Child

I came late to gardening. In our twenties, we lived next door to an elderly couple whose little garden had evolved over five decades from an efficient wartime food source to a decorative space so perfect it looked, from our back window, as though it had been coloured in with felt tip pens. Next to it, ours was a miniature wilderness of broken paving and nettles and brambles, and I’m sure they despaired. But they were very nice about it. ‘You’ll come to it in time, dear,’ they said.

I doubted it. But I did. Eventually. And like many late converts, I’m a zealot. I have trays of seeds on my windowsills long before winter is over, and every time the sun shines (or even when it doesn’t) I stare wistfully out of the window above my desk and think about all the weeding and pruning and planting and mulching I could be doing. And my writing room is full of pots – geraniums and succulents and overwintering fuschsias – so that I can be surrounded by flowers and foliage even inside. Having things growing around me is, it seems, an essential condition for my writing.

The link between writing and gardening goes back a long way. Penelope Lively wrote a beautiful book about writers and their gardens which will make you sigh for the glories of Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst or Virginia Woolf’s at Monk’s House – and once you start looking for gardens in novels, you’ll find them everywhere, even in children’s books. Perhaps you, too, grew up with Mr McGregor’s garden in Peter Rabbit – full of tempting food for a growing family of bunnies, but with the ever-present risk of being caught and put in a pie – or The Secret Garden, with its charming story of the recovering of a long-abandoned garden, and the recovering of a family’s health and happiness along the way.

Fictional gardens – wild or formal, big or small – are more than just settings, evocative as a rose bower or an apple orchard might be. They reveal their owners to us, or shift the tone of the narrative with a horticultural equivalent of the pathetic fallacy. They act as metaphors or plot devices, sometimes even as characters in themselves. Jane Austen is the supreme mistress of this art. Who could forget the way Charlotte Collins encourages her tiresome husband to spend time in his garden in Pride and Prejudice, or the social intricacies of the strawberry-picking party in the gardens of Donwell Abbey in Emma? Austen reinforces the defects of the newly-inheriting Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility by revealing that they have hacked down a grove of walnut trees to build a garish new greenhouse, and the virtues of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park when she deplores the idea of cutting down an avenue of oak trees to follow the new fashion in garden design. Austen’s heroines are forever wandering in winding shrubberies, and the straying of characters from the safety of walled gardens into the unkempt wilderness areas beyond tells us all we need to know about their morals and intentions.

But gardens aren’t just a useful resource for developing plot and character. They are wonderful sources of inspiration, too. Who hasn’t felt moved to pen a line or two by the sight of the first snowdrops? Who hasn’t felt a story stirring as they wander round the herb garden of a National Trust house? Even the smallest garden has its secrets and surprises, and a history that goes back much further than its current custodians. Who owned the teapot whose fragments appear in your flowerbed – and how did it get broken? And even if you’re not looking for inspiration – even if you’re desperate to wrangle a half-formed plot into submission, rather than letting other ideas in to distract you – gardens are good places to think. When I give in to the lure of the greenhouse or the vegetable patch, I often find the dilemma I’ve been agonising over resolves itself while I’m shovelling compost into pots or rooting out weeds. Ah, so that’s how she knew, I think – or actually, what if she didn’t know after all?

But what pleases me the most – what perhaps explains why so many of the writers I know are also gardeners – is the way that gardening provides a running metaphor for so many stages of the writing process. When people ask me if I’ve got another novel in mind yet, my standard answer is that I have a little row of saplings in my mental nursery. And that’s exactly how I think of them, these half-formed ideas waiting in the background while I’m busy with something else, and which often surprise me by growing into something more substantial by the time I next check in on them. Stories start, of course, as little idea seeds, which often have to be left for a long time in the dark before they put up their first green shoots. And later on, there are times when you need to weed out unnecessary subplots that are stealing the light from the thing you’re trying to cultivate; there are times when you need to leave a dormant project over the winter until it’s ready to grow again; there’s the painful but critical stage when a brutal pruning of superfluous words is necessary for your novel to flourish.

I find it helps to think of writing a novel in these terms. After all, anyone who’s grown anything knows how great the rewards are for a diligent gardener, and that cutting corners is rarely worth it. And they know, too, that while there’s always a risk that a lovingly tended plant will succumb to blight, you can – indeed you must – try again next year.

Rachel Hancox is the author of The Shadow Child published by Century on 14th April