|How does your garden grow?
copyright © 2007
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.