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Things That Have Interested Me

How does your garden grow?

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
20 January 2007

Not long ago, the tone of voice of books and articles devoted to the winter garden was entirely encouraging: to maintain a continuity of interest, to pay attention to the colour values inherent in barks and shoots and berries, to have something in flower in the darkest months - all this was simply the mark of a good garden.

Here is EA Bowles in the peroration from My Garden in Autumn and Winter. "If only the owner of a garden will plant enough plants of the most different types and habits procurable, there ought to be never a day in which he cannot find some pleasure in watching growth or decay, structure of bud, leaf, blossom, fruit or stem, no minute of the daylight hours of the working days in which there is no interesting and health-giving work to be done; and no bed of the garden that will not provide some offering for a friend, whether it be cut flowers, ripe seeds ..."

The garden should be interesting and health-giving. Bowles liked plants for their associations and interest, as well as for their individual beauty. He was not taken with "the art of gardening for colour effect". What charmed him was the variety in nature. And naturally winter held its own challenge for anyone with such a point of view. English winters were comparatively mild. English garden-writing - Gertrude Jekyll, Bowles, Graham Stuart Thomas - placed a particular emphasis on winter.

Today that wholesome sense of a season with its own characteristics and merits has been undermined by anxiety, the press has been full of letters recording strange out-of-season flowerings and we are perhaps in danger of falling out of love with the mildness for which we used to be envied by gardeners in, say, New England. We look at a flower in bloom and think: O my God - it's a freak!

The annual freeze-up and the snow used to form a dividing line for the season, and what came after the snow were considered spring flowers: snowdrop, crocus, daffodil. Yet to specialist gardeners like Bowles these varieties were by no means confined to spring. For there always were species in nature that flowered before the snows, and Bowles talked in his book on crocuses of achieving in his garden "an unbroken succession of flowers" from mid-September "until April showers bring such a wealth of other blossom that the gardener no long needs the lowly crocus".

That would, in my impression, be a tall order for the open garden, but Bowles was thinking of what could be done with an alpine house as well as the rock garden or scree bed. The Saffron Crocus, Crocus sativus, is one of the autumn-flowering varieties. (Bowles tells us that the Saffron Inspectors of Nuremberg "caused one Jobst Findeker to be burned in the same fire as his adulterated Saffron in 1444". Wagner should have written an opera on this subject.) It was in October that you would have seen the crocus fields in flower in Saffron Walden. There have been many autumn crocuses grown in Britain, but they have always been slow to multiply, since they have not (hitherto, I presume) set seed in this climate.

There are autumn snowdrops, too, rejoicing in names like Galanthus reginae-olgae subsp. reginae-olgae (the variety "Cambridge" being the one we grow), coming out at the same time as the crocuses. The man who discovered this flower in the mountains of the Peloponnese went mad, having unsuccessfully demanded 500 francs a bulb, and the flower was lost to view for a while - perhaps the first recorded example of "snowdrop madness" or galanthomania. To the uninitiated, the autumn snowdrop looks like a plant flowering out of season, but Bowles had a succession of snowdrops flowering from October to December. Or so he says. Maybe he, too, was mad.

Less common are the autumn-flowering narcissi, two of which (Narcissus serotinus and Narcissus elegans subsp. elegans) we have grown in pots. The surprise with these tiny plants is that they are narcissi at all - they lack the characteristic trumpet of the daffodil.

My point is only that it is better to think of winter bulbs, rather than spring bulbs, and to imagine crocuses as having a season roughly speaking between the autumnal and the vernal equinox (the season during which, it is said, Milton composed Paradise Lost), with an intermission during snow and freeze-up. It has long been an ambition of gardeners to have irises in bloom the whole year round. None of this is weird, or against nature. Indeed, it is nature.

Just before Christmas we counted the number of flower varieties in bloom in the garden, and reached 103. It's a large number, and would have been larger had the roses not been tidied up just before, but it is not startlingly larger than a list made on Christmas Eve in 1998, which came to 82. The statistics include plants, like the roses, which straggle along until knocked back either by frost or by the hand of man, along with genuine winter-flowerers like Clematis cirrhosa or the mahonias and the hellebores. Most of the additions and subtractions can be explained without reference to climate change.

What has changed is the feeling these lists inspire, which was once purely a matter of achievement: this is one haphazard indicator of the richness of variety that has been built up in this garden. Now that sense of achievement comes with a caveat. But I'm in favour of understanding the caveat a little better, and seeing what actually happens in the garden, and how it relates to what happened in the recorded past. Rather than shrieking "It's autumn and I've just eaten a raspberry!", to remember that raspberries always enjoyed an autumn option.

Before pulling up the plants we have loved hitherto, in anticipation of a Mediterranean climate, it would be worth taking time to watch how the ones we know and love have been getting on unwatered, or how they get along when they are no longer over-watered throughout the summer. It's worth looking and asking whether all the plants we have been taught to associate with the damp garden really do need such continual drenching, or whether they can tolerate a degree of drought. So much of what we have been taught and have passed on was wrong to begin with anyway. And much of what we assume for the future will also turn out to have been wrong.

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