Treasures

Daisies are our silver, buttercups our gold: this is all the treasure we can have or hold.

Jan Struther

I started school when I was four and, given that was half a century ago now, it’s not surprising that I can’t recall too much about those earliest years. Two things, however, stand out clearly in my memory: a Nature Table stuffed with seasonal treasures brought in by proud and eager little hands to share (pussy willow, snowdrops, sticky buds, frogspawn, seashells . . . ) and singing the children’s hymn about buttercups and daises, speedwell and roses, raindrops and dew. I’m not particulary prone to reminisence but these hazy memories have drifted back this week as the simple yet exquisite beauty of spring has unfolded around us, urged on by the flood of sunshine and unusual warmth. It is blossom time, the trees bursting into an ordered floral beauty as if in a time lapse film. First, the myrobalan or cherry plum, deep pink buds opening to palest shell, their starry copper centres echoing the rich burnished hues of the new leaves. They are perfect. I am captivated.

In the orchard, several tiny over-pruned trees that we suspected were peaches have proved to be just that, their fragile branches dotted with those candy pink flowers so familiar from our garden in Asturias; I’m not convinced they will ever be persuaded to fruit here but the blossom is a joy nonetheless.

The surrounding landscape is a flurry of white, with drifts of blackthorn and wild plum blossom in the hedges making a dainty froth against the billowing pistachio foam of pussy willow, and the cherries – so typical of the area, so very beautiful – stamping their elegant authority on the landscape. As the cherries unfurl their beguiling blossoms, the myrobalan sheds its petals in a blizzard of confetti; it is so transient, this spring enchantment, so fleeting. I don’t want to miss a moment.

It’s not just about the trees, either. The verges have erupted in a blaze of colour and are carpeted with a rich tapestry of jewelled delights: primroses and pulmonaria, cowslips and celandines, bluebells and violets, wild daffodils and windflowers, dandelions and daisies, wild strawberries and orchids. Such treasures. Their scent is sweet, heady, seductive and the bees are bewitched. Well, who could blame them?

At the end of a particularly gruelling fifteen-hour journey back from Asturias last week, the task list before collapsing into bed was blissfully short: light the stove, have a bite to eat and grab only the bare essentials from the car. Everything else could wait until morning – and yet, and yet . . . The pull of the garden was too strong, I had an urgent need to explore, to see what had changed in our absence. Egged on by the mischievous moon, almost full, and accompanied by the nocturnal calls (lazy drawling croak of barn owls, muffled hoot-and-echo of tawnies, raucous frog chorus) and rustlings of secretive night creatures, we wandered. I love the magic of a moonlit garden, the way everything is dusky, shadowed and silvered, punctuated by pointillist bursts of light: here narcissi, there arabis, the stars of the midnight garden where more deeply-coloured blooms are hidden. We must plant more light flowers, silver foliage, too. I want a garden that beckons at night, a planting of constellations to mirror those wheeling overhead: Orion striding purposefully across the eastern sky, Sirius snapping brightly at his heel; the bent handle of the Plough pointing to brittle Polaris in the north; the smudged cluster of the Pleiades like a soft swarm of bees, seen more clearly when you look away. Yes, we need to plan . . . and then plant.

We’ve started, of course. New fruit trees for new blossom: a sweet Moreau cherry, a sour Morello, a buttery Conference pear. A single redcurrant and lone raspberry, three climbing roses and a hundred hedging slips. I’ve started to find new homes for the wanderers brought from Asturias, tiny roots lifted into pots that have been growing strongly and waiting patiently – mint and chives in shady places, soapwort and comfrey in sunny ones; pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder to fill a hedge bottom with blue, verbena bonariensis for starbursts of purple, madder for roots of red. There are new surprises here, too, plants that have emerged from their winter slumbers to delight me with their promise of colour and scent: a single hyacinth, a scattering of tulips, the new burgeoning growth of Michaelmas daisies, monkshoods and peonies, fat silvery buds of clematis and grape, glossy new leaves of hidden roses. It’s already a garden of delights.

Short of something to read on our Spanish trip, I pulled The Morville Hours from our bookshelf and read it for the umpteenth time. It’s a gem of a book, one of my all-time favourites which never fails to inspire me. It’s the story of how the author, Katherine Swift, created a garden for the National Trust in my native Shropshire; her rich and mesmerising prose is quite beautiful, her eye for detail completely astonishing. I recognise her restlessness in myself, the fidgety need to be outside and busy at something, even if (in my case) it’s often a rather aimless wandering about. I, too, have a wonderfully patient husband, happy to finish for the day and start cooking dinner while I indulge my stubborn reluctance to stop: is it really that time already? Wait . . . there’s one more bucket of weeds, an extra sprinkle of seeds, a last thing to plant, another one to water. Can I beg just five minutes more? Please?

Katherine Swift was not a gardener, but over twenty years she carved a gloriously abundant creation from a field. She learned as she went, following her instincts and her nose, indulging her senses to the full; absorbing, dreaming, playing.The older I get, the more I understand that it is the child in me that gardens – the little girl at the Nature Table with her nose pressed up against a jar of tadpoles, or a silky buttercup under her chin or a fragile dandelion clock in her hand. I am in constant awe of those horticulturists who can quote Latin names verbatim, who can tell an angustifolia from a tomentosum without batting an eyelid or recognise a rose as ‘Madame Alice Garnier’ or ‘Mr Lincoln’ in one glance. It’s all very clever and grown up, but where’s the wonder? Where is the dazzle of colour, the blast of perfume, the jolt of texture, the burst of flavour? Where, oh where, is the birdsong? After all, what is the tracery of cherry blossom against a blue sky without the diving and swooping of swallows, the cobalt drift of hazy bluebells without the evocative call of the cuckoo?

The National Trust asked Katharine to submit detailed drawn plans for the garden she intended to create. She couldn’t do it, so instead she wrote a vivid description, a magical guided tour of a garden that existed only in her imagination. I love that and feel echoes of the same thing here, where we are creating a new garden in an old space. Yes, we have ideas – vegetable patches, flower borders, herb gardens, orchards, woodland edges, spinneys, climbers and scramblers, hidden nooks and crannies, interesting hints and glimpses that make you want to wander, weaving paths that help you on the way – but as yet they are somewhat vague, soft and shimmering at the periphery of our vision, blurred and shadowy, elusive yet exhilarating. It’s like an outline faintly sketched in soft charcoal, waiting for the bold sweeps of colour and fine detail to bring it to life. Who knows what we will end up with? It feels like a journey that could see us veering off in so many different directions, but whatever happens, of one thing I am certain: as long as I have time to stop and stare, to immerse myself in the wonders of nature around me, to appreciate the minutiae and vastness of the living, breathing world then I will be very, very happy. That’s treasure, indeed.

A Lazy Affair

I am currently reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift for the fifth (or is it the sixth?) time. It’s an exquisitely crafted book about her twenty years spent developing a National Trust garden in east Shropshire. The eloquent prose is woven with golden threads of horticulture, geography, geology, history, country lore, biography and acute, beautifully-described observations that make the book a rich tapestry of a read. It never fails to fascinate, move and inspire me. In a memorable passage, Katherine describes how long-term illness kept her out of the garden for many months; on her return, she was completely horrified to find that nature had taken over and gone completely off-plan. However, she soon realised in delight that all the bolting and seeding, rambling and scrambling, shifting and drifting had in fact created a garden of infinite magic and wonder, the plants setting up stunning partnerships of colour and form that could never have been contrived or designed.

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Our own Shropshire garden in 2015

I love this passage because this is how I garden all the time! It’s a personal thing but I have never felt the need for too much discipline and control in the garden; I’ve always been a curvy lines, wonky wigwams, daisies-in-the-lawn sort of gardener and I think there are three main reasons for that. The first is that a huge number of my favourite plants are very prone to flaunting themselves and self-seeding or running out of control: foxgloves, granny bonnets, lady’s mantle, calendula, borage, angelica, fennel, feverfew, lemon balm, forget-me-nots, mint, nasturtiums, verbena bonariensis, Welsh poppy, Californian poppy, shirley poppy . . . try keeping that bunch under control as they march their riotous pageant of colour and scent across the garden. How many times have we discovered new ‘borders’ in unexpected corners, as if planted by some unseen mischievous hand?

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Shropshire again. There was a vegetable patch in there somewhere . . .

Second, this laissez-faire approach appeals to my idle side: I love to be busy in the garden and actually relish the really hard graft, but if things want to take care of themselves and do their own thing, who am I to argue? Nature fills a vacuum so let it get busy and if the result is a semi-wilderness, so be it. Great for wildlife, great for us.

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. . . and here (2013) in our French garden, too.

Finally, I’ve always thought that bulbs and tubers that plump up, doubling and trebling, roots and rhizomes that run amok and seeds that scatter and self-set, sneaking into whatever places and spaces they can find simply want to be there. They’re happy and they’ll likely thrive, so let them be.

All this has been running through my mind this week as I’ve been trundling back and forth with my barrow, moving the compost heap slowly (very slowly – that hill is so steep!) to a new location. The Lazy Gardener Syndrome is alive and well here, it seems. Take for instance this sumptuous beauty with silken petals that shift from maroon to deepest plum to blackberry like light catching the swish of a taffeta ballgown.

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When I planted the bulbs in November, I chose to put them in glazed pots of Moroccan and malachite blue, thinking the combination would be pleasing to the eye. It is – but nothing like the stunning backdrop of acid yellow that appeared of its own accord. The fizz and bang of those colours together is like champagne bubbles up my nose,  bitter sherbert on my tongue. The yellow is a humble mizuna, self-set in a concrete crack. I left it for the insects. I’m so glad I did.

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Calendula (or pot marigold) is one of my all-time favourite plants. I love its cheerful disposition, it’s unpretentious down-to-earth attitude, it’s sharp herbal scent and tiny fingernail seeds. No need to plant, it was already here in little flashes of sunny light amidst the jungle of neglect. True to its name, it flowers all through the year but in April it is at its best, showing off in a hedonistic burst of sun-worshipping brilliance, carpeting the vegetable garden in huge swathes and exploding in pops and bangs in quiet corners. Last year, I planted a clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ to grow up the stock fencing around the vegetable patch. Poor thing, I have dragged it round several gardens in several countries but here at last it is settled. Roots down, head up, it seems to have found its spiritual home. It is about to flower for the first time in three years, the plump bauble buds on the cusp of bursting into a profusion of pink. Lovely . . . but how much more striking will it be with the self-sown calendula snuggled underneath?

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What hearty little troopers these marigolds are. Here in a clump beneath the glaucous thistle leaves of a globe artichoke, a heap of gold beneath an arching dragon’s wing; here in a shady forgotten spot beneath a Japanese quince, mingling with red deadnettle and sweet violets, a posy of weeds: I could not have planted a prettier patch if I’d tried. They can’t have it all their own way, though. I have lifted a few stray wanderers to plant in blue pots and make a splash of colour on the steps; they’re under control for now but I suspect those seeds will travel when the time is right.

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I have started to plant small flower borders where I can, a few favourite perennials mixed with bulbs and annuals. Even here, any sense of design or control has already gone with the wind. I grew lavender from seed, raised peach carnations from cuttings . . . but the forget-me-nots currently stitching them together are nature’s idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

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Even pottering about the polytunnel, pricking out and planting on, I am not safe. Beneath the staging, between the lettuces and in every available nook and cranny there are nasturtium seedlings lifting their shields against the metallic blue prongs of Californian poppies. Can you imagine what a riot this will be if I let it continue? I need to make an effort, exert a bit of control here . . . but not today.

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Borage needs no encouragement. It drifts up and down the garden in fuzzy waves of cerulean stars, flowering all year round which makes me happy – and the local honey bee population even happier. Just look at it nestled with the bright flowers of komatsuna. Both self-set; honestly, you’d think they’d planned it.

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The flowers are thrumming with bees, their frantic activity shaking and bending the slender stems. Here they fill their pollen baskets: dandelion yellow from the komatsuna, grubby white from the borage. I stand and watch transfixed at the whole precise busyness of it, the bees exploring the tiny throats of the yellow blooms, the whiskery black centres of the blue. I love this affirmation of life, of connection, of dependence; like that colour combination, it’s a beautiful thing.

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Emptying the final barrowload of compost and forking through the new heap, my eyes drift to the broccoli. The plants are spent, the harvest over; time to clear the terrace for sweetcorn . . . and yet, all on their own they are creating a splash of colour as beautiful as anything else in the garden. More bees here, too; the corn can wait awhile. Let’s enjoy that soft buttery yellow against the dusty purple. Opposites on the colour wheel: a marriage made in heaven.

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On the subject of marriage, I have started to make petal confetti this week. I made some several years ago for Sarah and Gwyn’s wedding when advice and guidance seemed thin on the ground; it was rose petals all the way, a bit of a problem when I had no blooms in the garden. I did have cornflowers, though; a whole prairie of them which had encroached on the vegetable patch (of course). I followed the instructions to the letter, selecting, picking, tying, hanging, drying, crumbling. It worked. It was very pretty but on the day, gone in an instant. I fancy something more substantial this time.

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Luckily, things have moved on, ideas changed and developed. How happy to find thay anything goes. Daisies? No problem. Calendula? Mmm, might have a few of those. Music to my ears. What a pleasure, picking from the great abundance around me; what a joy to simply leave them spread out to dry. By July, I shall have such a heady mix to scatter over Sam and Adrienne on their special day!

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Sarah has always had an artistic and creative talent, an eye for colour and a love of country flowers. It was no surprise, them, when on the day of her wedding with Gwyn she chose to pick her own bouquet. Literally. She bought a bunch of sunflowers from her local Co-op but everything else was foraged from her garden – flower beds, vegetable patch, hedgerows, hidden corners and wild places. The result was stunning, a beautiful creation that captivated me all day (there was even a little robin’s pincushion hidden in there!). When I started to plan the design for a blanket – a gift for their fifth anniversary in September – this was my natural starting point.

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How I agonised over my plan, though! I spent days messing about with different motifs and colour combinations, those sunflowers dominating every idea I had  . . . until I realised that was the problem. Go back, look again. Yes, the sunflowers were totally striking but for me it was the supporting act that truly made the bouquet: the foliage in so many shades and shapes, the froth of meadowsweet and curve of honeysuckle, those deep, rich purples and delicate silvers. That is where the beauty lies, a beauty I could never capture in a few shades of yellow, a couple of greens. I chose eighteen different colours.

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What a happy moment, to make a start outside in the sunshine this week. I am working squares in blocks of solid colour, each with a sunburst flower motif ( a ‘sunflower’) in the centre. My plan then is to join them in a gentle colourwash, moving through the blanket as if up the bouquet: greens of foliage, yellows and purples of flowers, blues for that clear September sky and a sense of balance in the overall scheme of things. The finished design hovers at the periphery of my imagination, I really don’t know how it will turn out. No problem. I have learnt that blankets, like gardens, are best left to their own devices at times. Pick a pattern. Choose the colours. Now let them decide how they want to be.

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I have to confess in my last blanket project, I had to exercise a little more discipline. Well, just like the garden, sometimes it’s necessary, I suppose. I wanted to create a rainbow and really there’s no arguing with the colour order of that one, is there? Science had me pinned down for sure! This was another gift blanket, for a new baby expected in August. Traditionally, we dress and wrap babies in white or the very palest of pastels. With my head brimming from the rich research and curiosity in The Morville Hours, I suddenly needed to know why. Is it historic? Religious? Cultural symbolism? Superstition? Oh sit down, my overeager imagination – the answer, I found, is far more prosaic! Babies need a lot of linen and white textiles have always been easier to bleach and launder in hot water. It’s a practical thing, nothing more. I happen to love bright colours around babies, hence my choice to make a rainbow. It might not be practical but I hope the message is as loud as that ridiculous shade of orange: a new little life – how wonderful, how exciting, how precious. What a tremendous thing to celebrate. Let me shout it out in loud and vibrant colours!  🙂

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