Blossom on the morello cherry. Dreaming of cherry pie… Look, lots of these pictures are random ones taken in my garden today, to give you something pretty to look at while I bash on about Gardening: My Thoughts. Your visit is very important to me and so on…
It was a drippy, grey and misty sort of afternoon so we retreated to the glasshouse and a feast of pelargoniums of every imaginable type. Our senses, dulled by too little sleep and too much chablis, awakened. We trawled the aisles, sniffing foliage, holding little black pots up to the light to admire the delicate leaves.
I was drawn to the sherbet-y, dainty Queen of the Lemons, not just for its hangover-banishing aroma, but for the description on its label.
PELARGONIUM Queen of the Lemons
Poor Mabel! What had she done? Made the mistake of wearing diamonds in daytime? Displayed an extensive collection of fish knives? Asked to use the toilet?
But I brought home my Queen, and a few courtiers, feeling rather smug at my refinement by association.
When I first started gardening a dozen or so years ago, I had no idea that this most gentle of activities was as riven with snobbery, beset by fashion, as everything else. I was just relieved if I got through a season without slaughtering the Innocence (that’s Collinsia verna to you).
I was a newlywed. I had a few pots on a Marylebone roof terrace and big dreams. I wandered innocently into the garden centre, picked up some packets of seeds that looked pretty and hoped for the best. I made all of the beginner’s mistakes. I planted too quickly and too thickly, a little bit of that here, a little bit of this there, with little regard for what sort of conditions each plant needed.
But gardening quickly became an obsession. I amassed books by the stout-of-shoe and stout-of-heart. Margery Fish, Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Beth Chatto – the glorious sorority soon crowded my bedside table. I knew my addiction was serious when most of the books I read became text-heavy and picture-lite. At one point, poor Séan considered suing the late Christopher Lloyd for alienation of affection as his Well-tempered Garden was never out of my hands.
My Walthamstow Wonder is sprouting,
delighted that I haven’t killed it yet.
In winter, there were catalogues to study. Not just any old seed catalogues either, but specialist pamphlets, most with no vulgar pictures to distract. These are top-shelf material for gardeners, the things that put ‘cult’ into horticulture. Any plant described as ‘rare’ or ‘seldom offered’ is our hard core. The idiosyncratic descriptions warm the chill of winter: ‘Mrs Fish acquired her plant during rationing in exchange for a quarter of tea’ (Glebe Cottage’s description of the Polemonium ‘Lambrook Mauve’); or ‘the whip-like tips of small brown arum flowers look like the rounded backsides of mice’ (Beth Chatto on Arisarum proboscideum).
I joined the Royal Horticultural Society and attended their shows in Vincent Square. They really are marvellously comforting, like a big church fête in one of the better parts of Gloucestershire. They’re crammed with thoroughly decent people in sensible clothes which run the full colour spectrum, from oatmeal through khaki to nut brown.
I soon realised how naïve I’d been in my smash and grab raid of garish seed packets. Flowers are the obsession of the amateur. Those gaudy geraniums (which I now knew to call pelargoniums), non-stop busy lizzies and flowing petunias were the horticultural equivalent of top-to-toe acrylic. Foliage was where it was at: hostas, ferns, euphorbias were the thing. Colour was tricky. Gentle, blending colours with perhaps the odd well-thought-out surprise acquired from Great Dixter were just about allowed.
I met people who played it so safe they drained all of the magentas, mauves, golds, oranges and reds from their gardens to the point where they contained hardly any colour at all, “except, of course, green, which really is the most complex and thrilling colour of all,” they claimed.
These gardenistas visited Vita Sackville West’s White Garden at Sissinghurst as though it were Lourdes, designed to cure them of any longing they may have had for gaudy, waxy begonias or shriek pink rhododendrons. In Vita, they found their high priestess.
As if to underline her peerless good taste, Sackville West’s husband, Harold Nicholson, once said of her, “Vita only likes flowers which are brown and difficult to grow.” Which brings us to difficulty of cultivation, demonstrated never more strongly than with roses.
For decades, able and dedicated people have sweated to bring us roses which are disease resistant, flower continuously and behave sensibly. These blooms can have names like Radox Bouquet, Sexy Rexy, Disco Dancer, Pretty Polly or Rhapsody in Blue. Are we grateful? We are not. In our quest for chic, we want roses that were bred before 1900 and are magnets for mildew, aphids and black spot. Ideally, they will have names beginning ‘Gloire de…’, ‘Comtesse de…’ ‘Souvenir de…’ and many of them will flower once, for about ten minutes, so long as it isn’t raining too hard, and probably when we’re on holiday.
True style, in gardening as in everything else, is elusive – a shifting, spectral thing. As soon as you feel like you have a handle on what’s cool, all the big kids have moved on. So there you are, stuck with the knot garden, prairie border and bed of exclusively black plants, looking like Daniella Westbrook in top-to-toe Burberry.
Even the vegetable patch has not escaped the style mavens’ attention. Of course, you could have a few scrubby rows of leeks, or you could have a potager overflowing with fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. And it’s very important to grow the most exquisite varieties, selected after hours studying Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden catalogue as if it’s the kabbalah. Obviously, you won’t miss out Bright Lights chard with its orange, yellow and scarlet stems. And your salads will glitter with dainty Heartsease violas, Indian Prince marigold petals and mahogany nasturtiums. No iceberg lettuce for you, but choicest mizuna, pain de sucre and merveille de quatre saisons. Say it softly, it’s almost like praying.
But despite all of this, gardens are freedom. They are the buffer zone between us and crazy. In a world full of ‘instant’, gardening forces us to be patient and rewards us with a glimpse paradise. You may never own an Old Master, but you could cram some tulip bulbs into an old terracotta pot. Within a few months, you will have display to rival any Vermeer. And really, who cares whether it’s in this year’s colour or not?
This is supposed to be Ballerina. The perils of buying your tulip bulbs from open bins in Columbia Road market. I think naughty gardening sprites go around mixing them all up so, a few months later, surprise! Any idea what it is?