The primroses that I bored you with the other day are still there in their urns, resplendent as one of England’s most beautiful natural plants in their unexpectedly formal setting. They have been joined by those golden croci planted in error in some smaller but no less formal urns. Look at some of the previous blogs (28th Feb and 10th March) if you want to see.
The urns standing on that antique York stone that I had put in place last winter go well with the old flint walls and the space looks much better than when I moved in just over a year ago. Then there was a large and unappealing piece of decking surfaced with what looked like granules of moon stone but which were probably chippings from a demolished concrete skyscraper. There was also a ludicrously small patch of scrubby grass which broke all the rules that dictate what lawns are meant to be – large luxurious expanses of soft green where you can run, roll and frollick like a lamb.
For the less extrovert and for anyone, usually an alpha-male man, who thinks gardening is spending a welcome hour of weekend solitude in the company of a noisy petrol powered machine, then a lawn is a therapist, a marriage-saver and an alternative to real gardening.
That stripey, billiard table look, the style of mowing that makes golf courses such blots on the landscape, is the preserve of all those owners of gardens who have no interest in plants but who celebrate their freedom walking up and down in straight lines before getting on with washing the car.
When I was in China just over a year ago, two, luckily very strong, young men removed the old garden and carried all those York stones through the house, up a flight of stairs and then a flight of steps and into their new position at the back of my Georgian terraced house. It is the only way into the garden. With the under soil and grit, they reckoned that they had moved three tons of material through my house whilst I was learning Dog Boxing in Fuzhou. They said it was made easier by the frequent use of swear words and obscenities aimed in my direction.
The result is a space where there is just enough room for a constantly changing variety of plants, mostly climbers, and which is also small enough to require a minimal but interestingly seasonal amount of proper horticulture.
It is also perfect for sitting around, or even lying around in with conversation,an engaging book, coffee, wine, or whatever you fancy, in an alfresco setting in the middle of a small county town.
You can actually sit in the garden and not spend the whole time clocking how much work needs doing.
Before you accuse me of grotesque laziness, I moved here from a country house which had somewhere between a third and a quarter of an acre of garden which had terraces, precariously sloping lawns and plenty of uses for those wonderful mowing machines and bush-cutters which I have now donated elsewhere.
Even though I am more of a beta-male, I too enjoyed all that working on the grass, but definitely no stripes, as well as major pruning and weeding jobs – and of course, most joyful of all of those tasks, the all-absorbing bonfire.
I loved nothing better than being totally submerged in the shrubbery armed with a pair of stout secateurs imposing my will on a reluctantly co-operative Mother Nature.
That was then and now is now.
This new garden has plenty to occupy the eye and the secateurs whilst freeing up all that time for other things.
So, non, je ne regrette rien, as Edith Piaf reminds me, gardening in a small town garden is a rewarding experience. You have to use space ruthlessly and you can observe each plant as intimately as a new lover. What’s more, you can break off from pruning and head for one of those many pubs or restaurants that are less than two minutes walk away and have the time to indulge yourself.
So back to those primroses and croci – OK crocuses if you find the correct Latinate plural pretentious.
As Spring takes its grip, they are joined by what Wordsworth could have described as a “host” of daffodils – he wouldn’t have, of course, because he meant acres of wild ones spreading far off into the distance on rolling hills. This early highly scented garden variety is a much more urbane creature sitting in its urn snuggled under the dormant fuchsia plant. It has recovered from being sat on by a large black and white cat; its stems have sprung back and the heads now look you in the eye, impatiently, like a puppy wanting a walk, just as you step outside.
Perfume has been one of the requirements in planning the plantings, perfumed daffodils, of course, people so often over-look their zesty pungent aroma, but, more classically, this week, the sophisticated Parisian parfume of those Amsterdam-gathered blue Hyacinths has began to waft its way into my nostrils as I pass.
Now their flowers are less abundant than that first season, some years ago,when they demanded attention as forced house plants but, I prefer their more natural garb. As blue as Delft china, the Dutch like blue, the first of them is now in full bloom. Waxy, vivid, and seductive, this morning, its strong dew-inspired smell, draws me in and talks of things best left unspoken.
In my old garden, there was a bed of blue anemone blanda, which had its early moment of glory under a deciduous shrubbery. It is the Greek version of our white wood anemones which will flower in the woodlands around here just before the bluebells in April. I have begun a small colony here and these new flowers convince me that I should not live without this early reminder of the Mediterranean.
It is the blue-blooded version of that other southern anemone, the red one, anemone coronaria, named after Venus’ lost lover Adonis. The goddess, according to Ovid, was sufficiently moved by Adonis’ death on the tusks of a wild boar, that she turned his blood into the petals of the anemone, the Greek word for wind, as its petals are only lightly held by the plant and easily lost to even the gentlest of breezes.
It seems right that Adonis is celebrated in my garden at the same time as that other doomed youth from mythology. The daffodil, of narcissus, is named after the beautiful but uncaring young man who is punished for his heartlessness by Nemesis who makes him fall in love with his own image, reflected in a pool. The daffodil, with its downward turned head, reminds all of us not to look in the mirror more than is good for us.
Another plant from those parts is flowering in my highly populated troughs now. The light mauve/blue chionodoxa has won the battle against the fading purple croci and is now in its prime. This is a tough little fighter which always manages to force its way through the densely populated trough that is the home of maybe too many of these inspiring early Spring flowering bulbs.
I can’t help it, I am hooked on all those aggressive and inspiring little plants that defy the weather and the bleak surroundings, to bring a touch of southern lands to our Northern climes.
Continuing the Greek lesson, chionodoxa means glory of the snow and it is called this because, in its native Crete or Turkey, it flowers in the mountains with the last of the snows.
We had an unexpected smattering of snow last week which just lasted long enough into the morning for me to see this robust little plant in its natural environment. The delicately pale blue has never looked so vibrant.
Talking of tough little plants, the last of the new arrivals this week is a single specimen of Eranthis hyemalis, or, well I had to say this, winter aconite or Wolf’s Bane.
I am hoping it will spread because I have always liked this early flowering relative of the buttercup. It is, like the others, tough and determined. It pushes its way through the snow and the frost and unveils it waxy bright yellow flower over an almost unnaturally heraldic corona of pale green leaves.
It is called Wolf’s Bane because it is a vicious creature. Like the wolf itself, admire it, observe it but don’t touch.
Well don’t eat it because every part of it, flower, leaves and root is poisonous. This alpine version of our indigenous, red, Monkshead aconite, supposedly could identify a werewolf if placed under the accused person’s chin and, if identified, the unfortunate werewolf could be dispatched with its poison.
The poet Keats warns us about this little plant in his Ode on Melancholy:
“No, no, go not to Lethe,
Neither twist Wolf’s bane, tight rooted,
for its poisonous wine.”
I am a bad person, obviously, but I love this plant for its evil reputation. Just don’t go putting it anywhere near my chin, OK.
Good on you little Wolf Bane – fight your way through, hold your ground and go down with guns ablazing.
So there you have it, even the smallest garden can be filled with interest, even now when Spring still hasn’t decided whether it is ready to arrive or not.