Or rather, I am but Sybil is most definitely not. Trenches are being dug, large sleepers are being lugged around and paving slabs are stacked a little too conveniently against a neighbour’s wall. Sybil cannot be trusted. Given half a chance she will either a) hop over the wall, b) get squashed or c) dig to Australia. Or all three, but in a slightly different order.
I’m not naturally an early riser. I’m more of a night owl, still awake at 2am with my head stuck in a book. But during the summer months, when it is properly hot and the terrace outside the kitchen is warm under foot at 7am, I am happy to leap out of bed at the weekend far earlier than I might do on a week day.
I had planned to pick some roses, but they looked so pretty peeping through the bronze fennel and the nepeta that grows around them, I found I was only prepared to pick the blowsiest flowers, the ones that are close to going over, and of course the minute I did most of the petals fell off.
Fortunately some of them made it and a bleary-eyed child has just wandered into the kitchen wanting to know the source of the lovely smell.
Sorry if some of these shots are a little dark – to get really good photographs of a garden you need to get up an awful lot earlier than my 6.50 start. More like 5am. Then the light is perfect and you don’t end up with heavy contrast or bleached-out flatness.
They’ve taken their time, and there have been moments when I thought that perhaps I’d killed them, but at long last my Hyacinths (Woodstock) have burst into bloom. I moved the box this morning in order to block one of Sybil’s routes around the garden as she was crushing the new shoots of various plants around the base of R. Veilchenblau.
I’ve never grown Hyacinths outside and I didn’t really know what to do with them, or even where to put them. I thought they might look odd in what I knew would be quite sparse-looking beds, but stranger still in ones and twos in little flower pots – though I think I was wrong about that. So in late November, I think, in slight desperation, I turfed some mint out of this old wine box and shoved the bulbs in. Then I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. This is something to repeat next year, but with more wine boxes.
Elsewhere in the garden other containers are doing their spring thing. I can’t remember for certain what these are, Narcissus Bridal Crown maybe, I need to trawl through receipts and orders to check. It smells delicious and I’d like more for next year.
Out on the street everything seems to be blooming. Spring has sprung and someone has pulled a lever and switched all the Forsythia and Magnolias on. They look quite spectacular – a grudging admission in relation to Forsythia, which is a plant I could happily live without seeing ever again. The Magnolias on the other hand I adore.
I often wonder whether a Magnolia would be happy in the basement area that passes for our front garden. At the moment it looks like a junk yard: a heap of old bikes and a tragic-looking rabbit hutch (vast black and white rabbit long gone). But I have plans.
I spent a couple of hours on Saturday morning weeding, tweaking, cutting back, digging up, dividing, and generally getting to grips with the plants that looked in need of attention. I love unplanned gardening sessions like this, ones that happen because the sun is shining and for once, nothing else is demanding my attention.
This sort of slightly unfocused pottering is exactly what I need in order to reconnect with the garden when I’ve been feeling a little gloomy about it. As I work, I invariably spot things I’ve forgotten about, such as the little clump of violets above. Someone tied several bags of them to their railings last spring, with a note saying “take me”, so I took some and stuffed them in the corner of a bed without really thinking – I don’t even think I knew what colour they would be.
And I also find myself delighted by the sight of new shoots on plants I feel sure I’ve butchered or neglected – Clematis ‘Madame Julia Correvon‘, pruned to within an inch of her life, or so it seemed, just a month ago, is already on her way up the back fence. And C. Texensis Buckland Beauty, is showing signs of life too. Above is how it looked in July last year, climbing up through the Macleaya. I moved it at the weekend, so this year it will ramble through R. Veilchenblau instead.
Working in this way seems to free the mind and, more often than not, I find that by the end of the morning I have had at least one eureka moment regarding some aspect of the garden. And so it was on Saturday. Halfway through what was meant to be just a two hour session, a rather hazy idea that I’d been kicking about for some time now, came sharply into focus: wouldn’t it look wonderful, I thought, if I planted a row of Amelanchiers in front of the top level of the terracing.
Two hours later I was at Brackenwood Plant Centre wrestling four seven foot trees into the back of the car, along with a tray of fabulous Hellebores which had called out to me as queued to pay. You know how it is with garden centres. I dithered for a moment, winced at the price tag and then I had another eureka moment (aka clever bit of justification for overspend): if I planted them in and around my tulips, the razor-edged leaves of these big, well-established plants, would keep Sybil at bay.
It’s hard to take an interesting or informative photograph of a tree that is still pretty much only one step on from being a twig. But there are lots of buds, so photos of blossomy loveliness will follow soon. Hellebore photos even sooner.
I always find it hard to connect with the garden at this time of year. Exciting catalogues keep plopping onto the doormat, but it’s difficult to remember how the garden looked at the height of summer. The sight of the bare earth, the hideous temporary fix for the path, and the hazel tree that still, to my mind, needs to go, convinces me that it’s a hopeless case. I’m easily persuaded that there’s no point investing more money in what is obviously a lost cause. Autumn’s hangers on, whose presence I valued in late November and December, are now looking increasingly scraggly and give the garden an abandoned air. All in all it’s not very enticing.
But there are signs of life here and there: new shoots pushing valiantly through the mud, fresh buds on the shrubs and the early flowering clematis, so I am forcing myself to draw up plans and make lists. And trawling through the photographs I took last year shows me that even if my plans are pretty minimal, the garden will do what all gardens do, even half abandoned ones: it will grow, bulk up, fill out, knit together and at times look very lovely indeed. At least that’s what it did last year, as you’ll see from the photographs below, the first of which was taken at the end of April, and the last in mid-September.
I think it’s vital to keep a photographic record of a garden’s progress. If nothing else, the photographs will give you the impetus to get out in the worst weather to tackle boring jobs such as cutting back the Buddleja, or securing dangling vine wires, before it’s too late. It is also satisfying to see how far you’ve come and how much the garden has changed. And, possibly more important than all of that, photographs serve as a valuable reminder that gardens are in a constant state of flux – they change with the seasons, appearing fresh and newly minted one day, jungly and abundant the next, and then suddenly, or so it can seem, it’s all gone to seed and the show is over for another year.
I can’t quite bring myself to post the photograph of the garden as it is today – too grim. But I will, when I write part II of this post – some time next week, I hope. For now I am going back to my catalogues and my rather long wanted list.
Each time I think they’re over, a hidden bud bursts open and my anemones are
in bloom again. But this, I feel sure, is the last flower from my plants for this year.
But just around the corner, on Cheltenham Road, these anemones are still in flower and they are a source of great envy. The light was bad when I took the photograph, but I think you can get the picture – just look at the size of those plants, the vast number of beautiful flowers, not to mention the buds yet to open.
No one looks after them, they are in a neglected front garden right by a bus stop on a busy, fume-filled thoroughfare. Mine never looked this good. Why is that?
Envy is a terrible thing, and I feel it all the time in relation to other people’s gardens and their plants. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that I am not a very patient gardener, which is a bit of a problem when you’re less than a year into starting a garden from scratch.
As I’ve said several times now, each time I think the garden is over for the year, I notice that something is giving it one last go. I planted this geranium back in August, not expecting to see any flowers until next year. But, as is the way with hardy geraniums, or so it is in my experience, it took off almost immediately, using the Verbena bonariensis for support. I first noticed the hot pink sparks of its star-like flowers in late September, and I took the photograph below at the end of last month, when the fennel was still flowering. As you can see from my last post, it is still in flower now.
For a long time I called this ‘Lucy’s’ geranium, because it came to me via my mother-in-law, Sue, from her friend Lucy’s garden; at the same time it was known to my friend Imo as ‘Charlotte’s’ geranium, because of the many plants she propagated from the single specimen I then passed on. It is only recently that I’ve learned this geranium’s true identity: Geranium x oxonianum thurstonianum. Or at least I think it is. It certainly looks like it.
It is a fantastic plant, one of my favourites, and I’m delighted to have it back in the garden. It flowers all summer long, scrambling up among the other herbaceous perennials, providing lovely little flashes of colour in amongst the foliage. And it’s great for cutting because the delicate stems, which shoot off at right angles, form a kind of net into which you can slot the other flowers, so that everything sits quite naturally.
It is also an incredibly tough plant – I remember digging up several clumps in our old garden in order to create lots of new plants for the following year. Children and other stuff got in the way, so the thirty odd plants I’d planned to nurture just lay in a heap on the garden table. ALL winter. Every time I looked at them – which was probably daily – I’d feel a terrible pang guilt. And I think it was the guilt that stopped me from chucking them on the compost. In spring I noticed a few green shoots in amongst the brown mass, and so I planted them all – some in pots and some straight in the ground. They all survived.
I really need a full day in the garden. There are so many things I have to do: lots of bulbs yet to be planted; leaves to rake and bag up for leaf mould; two roses still need pruning; a path we should lay before it gets so muddy that we have to wait until next year; trellis and vine wires to fix. But at the moment it’s difficult to manage anything more than a desultory wander around the garden, sighing heavily here and there, before scurrying indoors to do other stuff (in a similarly random fashion).
This morning I thought I might at least squeeze in an hour before I started writing, but the heavens opened so I put it off for another day, though I did manage to pick a few flowers. I am amazed that this late in the year I am still able to fill a (small) vase with what could almost pass for summer colour – though the Sedum gives the game away.
Having had a few misgivings about Achillea ‘Moonshine’, I am now grateful for this flash of ochre gold in an otherwise very rust-coloured garden. I think it probably needs to be moved to a different spot, but it has proved its worth – flowering still, in late November – so it gets to stay. But all in all, there are very few flowers left now: the last of the Knautia is on the kitchen table, and although there are still Verbena flowers and lots of geraniums, the bunches are getting smaller and smaller. I think this is because my sedums, which are the mainstay of my daily cuttings, are now looking very sorry for themselves, their rust-coloured heads are like worn velvet, and their stems are wasting away. But as I poked about in the rain this morning, I spotted a couple of pearl-like buds on one of my anemones, and a few bright nasturtiums sheltering under their parasol leaves, so the garden may limp on for another week or two. I Know that my Clematis cirrhosa “Ourika valley” should start flowering towards the end of December (maybe sooner), and already the tight fat knots of next year’s Euphorbia flowers are emerging. It will be interesting to see if there is a moment when there are no flowers at all, or whether autumn’s stragglers will hang on until the cycle has started all over again.
The first week of school is over and we are all shattered: the children already look slightly grey and, after just five days, I am completely sick of the school run. A quick poll of fellow parents at the school gates on Friday proved that I am not alone. Not that this helps much, but it does go some way towards making me feel less inadequate.
Over the weekend we tried to get a grip on the things that regularly conspire to bugger up the week: lost uniform; nits; lost homework; nits; ill-fitting daps (that’s Bristolian for plimsolls, which are in turn quite distinct from trainers); lunch boxes filled with half-eaten yoghurt; nits; letters and forms from teachers relating to all sorts of events which will, if ignored, come back to haunt me and a child will cry. The riot act was read several times, the volume ranged from cold hiss to very loud. Only the garden behaved itself and provided these flowers for my parents, who came to stay on Sunday night.
I think that perhaps the first week back at school is a little like the first bicker-filled weekend of the holidays. It’s a hellish stand-off during which you have to make it clear, again (how long will it take them to learn this particular, and to my mind, rather simple lesson?), that you don’t enjoy being treated like a skivvy and that please and thank you are non-negotiable. By Sunday evening all the attitude, tears and general moaning seemed to have blown over. Yesterday I bundled them off to school with almost cheery faces – mine being the cheeriest of all, of course. My mum and I then went on a fantastic tour of Bristol’s garden centres in search of plants to fill those late summer gaps. Anemones were at the top of both our lists.
Back in London my mother gardens two plots. One is her own garden in which she has to work around a design she inherited from the previous owner and which is, quite literally, set in stone. It is a paved courtyard and all attempts to increase the size of the beds only result in the excavation of vast amounts of rubble and concrete. The second garden has been created from scratch on a plot of land which belongs to a neighbour and sits to the side of her house. When she took it on it was nothing more than slightly scrubby grass, but now, three years on, it is a really beautiful communal garden. Annoyingly I don’t have any photographs, but my mum has kept a record and I will write about it at some point as it’s a brilliant demonstration of what can be done on a tiny budget.
And talking of budgets, Henleaze Garden Shop came up trumps with one of the widest selections of anemones at the best prices (£1.75, £3.99 and £5.99 depending on pot size). In the end I came home empty handed having found it impossible to choose between Anemone hupehensis ‘Splendens’, Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’, ’Queen Charlotte’, ‘September Charm’ and ‘Whirlwind’. I wanted them all, but space is getting tight in some parts of the garden, and elsewhere beds will be completely re-worked in the spring. But of course now is the perfect time to buy these plants as they are in flower, and will look glorious for another month, maybe more. I will certainly return to HGS in the next week or so, but only once I have really considered these options and worked out where the plants will go. An anemone update will no doubt follow.
Back in May, when I planted up the newly terraced beds, I was worried that I’d left it all too late for there to be any chance of the garden looking interesting this summer. But three months later, although in no way finished, the garden is full enough to provide me with a daily fix of flowers. Not massive bunches for huge vases, but small posies just large enough to fill a stem vase, little jug, jam jar or tin can. The bunch above, which includes roses, fennel flowers, sweet peas, sedum and achillea (I was guided by the colours on the golden syrup tin), was picked at the start of the week for a friend’s birthday.
The next morning I gathered the slightly garish little selection above for the bathroom windowsill. It’s not the most tasteful affair, but something about the clash of the nasturtiums and achillea with the soft mauve of the Verbena bonariensis, and the hazey blue of the catnip pleases me – it feels slightly 70s for some reason, like a jolly wallpaper design for the kitchen. Later the same day, rather obsessed with the nasturtiums, which seem to be taking over the garden (more in another post), I picked the flowers below.
The need to keep the sweet peas producing prompted the picking of the next bunch, that and the desire to have the scent filling the kitchen. Incidentally, this vase is my best bargain ever – 25p in a charity shop. I don’t know anything about it, it has no mark, but I love its nipped in waist and the graphic grey, black and white stripes which are enlivened by little raised dots of orange and teal – odd and lovely in equal measure.
By midweek my inner Constance Spry had awoken fully, and I found myself tip-toeing through the flower beds in my pyjamas, scissors in hand. No plant was safe. Sedum in particular has been a regular target – fortunately I have a lot of it – and it has proved to be not only a very useful filler, propping floppier flowers up and bulking out the little bunches, but also a star in its own right. I like mixing it with knautia and fennel fronds -
and with verbena bonariensis, which I also have in abundance.
Yesterday I went all out and just cut a bit of anything I could reach without falling over: the last of the buddleja (Black Knight), more verbena, knautia and nepeta, sweet peas, again, some roses – Gertrude is in flower once more – scabiosa and a lone anemone.
It’s not a great picture, but this little jug of flowers smells amazing – the combined scent of the musky, honeyed buddleja, the heady sweet peas and the fresh sweetness of Gertrude Jekyll is out of this world. The perfume curls up the stairwell from the kitchen so that every now and then you catch a little waft as you move around the house.
The jug, one of a pair, is a bit of junk shop treasure rather than a charity shop bargain, and it’s perfect for flowers. I’m planning to use it for the Nigella which is about to flower any day now.