I like the fact I can walk right around my garden. My plot isn’t big, but its attraction for me – apart from the view through the trees to the water, is that it is several gardens in one and the separate gardens have their different characters and atmospheres. We can walk around it together. I can write it into being and by the miracle of your imagination, you can come with me.
We’ll start at the front gate, which is of the five barred sort. It means people walking down the lane can see into the garden but I don’t mind that. The wide bed on the right as you enter is a girly mix of pink and gold. I planted it for passers by, that’s why the prunus autumnalis is right by the gate. It flowers in the winter and gives the dog walkers something pretty to look at. The bones of this area are the shrubs – a scented azalea, a daphne, a clipped bay, a fuschia splendens, a polygala, but between them are tall grasses, verbenas, echinaceas and the rudbeckias which are still flowering bravely in mid October. I don’t cut this bed down for the winter. The grasses look lovely even in death and the seed heads of the echinacea are like little hedgehogs. This is one of my favourite bits of planting in the garden; only three years ago there was an ugly conifer hedge here. It’s gone now – jasmine and akebia hide the fence instead.
On your left is the agapanthus bed. There are lots of of them, in every shade of blue with a few white ones mixed in. Behind them is a row of red stemmed cornus. They come into their own in the winter. Amongst the agapanthus I’ve just planted lots of crocosmia Lucifer that someone gave me, so next summer it will be the scarlet, white and blue bed. Gardening is about creating and managing change. Nothing is permanent, everything is in flux. I enjoy that. Mr T., whose province is the garage, cannot understand why I walk slowly round the garden every evening. He cannot see what I see – the incipient bud, the dying fall, the small signs of animal and insect life all around me.
Look forward from the gate and you see the shallow steps that lead up to the lawn. On the left is the new semi circular bed. This faces south and has light sandy soil. I have planted a simple curved laurel hedge behind it which will grow like the back and sides of a stage. The performance area is where the blue, yellow and silver plants will be. The bulbs are already snuggled under the soil, but the aromatic herbaceous planting is still in my mind’s eye. I enjoy deferred gratification. Gardening is about that too.
Now we’re on the lawn and the wood is on our left. Ahead of us and hiding the badger steps, is the woodland edge garden. Most of this is inherited planting, – a tall burgundy leaved acer, a viburnum, a pittosporum, but I’ve added to it and extended it, so that now the woodland edge curves round the corner and we will have a bit more shelter and privacy from next door. There’s a young mountain ash, a wonderful silver leafed pineapple broom and camellias – lots of camellias.
If we turn to our right, we go up the south side of the house and into the tropical garden. There’s a woodsy smell and thick bark mulch underfoot. We’re in a different world. Tree ferns, hostas, palms and cannas line the wide path to the back terrace. Here the soil is heavy and the planting is lush. In front of us is the huge magnolia that opens its pink chalices every March. The high granite wall supports a scrambling fuschia, a red rose and a baby climbing hydrangea. In the corner is a delicate camellia which always flowers at Christmas. This is the private terrace, the quiet reading spot and the doors of my bedroom open on to it.
We can keep going. Along the back of the house is a long bed that runs for maybe forty feet, it has walls on two sides and is shaded by an evergreen magnolia. This is garden of sinister plants. Many of them are dark leaved, there’s blood sorrel, pulmonarias, monkshood, a campanula called ‘Sarastro’, a Dark Angel hydrangea. Against the back wall are five young Garrya elliptica – their silky tassels make this an interesting walk even in winter. When we emerge into the light at the end, we come to the Paradise Garden. It’s tiny, but it’s the warmest spot in the whole garden and there is a welcoming seat for us to admire the asphodel, the Madonna lilies, the olive tree and all the Lady plants – sweet dame’s rocket, sweet dame’s violet, lady’s mantle. This is where the bees suck on a row of lavender. It is where the angelica grows.
We’re nearly round now. Ahead of us is a narrow grassy path that takes us past the myrtle tree, an old fashioned rose and the evergreen clematis that hides the fence between us and the studio next door. But there is one more treat. Beside the back door is a wonderful acer. It must have been planted when the house was built – maybe thirty years ago. It’s not big, maybe six feet tall and five wide, but at the moment the leaves are dying in a blaze of glory. The little palm shaped leaves are the colours of an autumn sunset and they litter the path under our feet.
A couple of steps down and we are back in the front yard again. The mild Cornish climate supports such an extraordinary range of plants. In less than ten minutes we have travelled to the Mediterranean and Australia, we’ve climbed the mountains of Mexico and we’ve sat on a hillside in Nepal – and yet we have never left the garden. Many years ago, when I knew I would never have children of my own, a wise man told me to plant a garden. Since then I have planted many gardens, but this little bit of Cornwall is my plot, my acre, my paradise. I feel for the plants as I have felt for the animals in my life. I nurture them, I worry about them. I can be ruthless. I can be kind. Nature is God here, but I am her handmaiden.
Do you know of Stanley Kunitz? A wonderful poet and a gentle gardener.
The Snakes of September
All summer I heard them
rustling in the shrubbery,
outracing me from tier
to tier in my garden,
a whisper among the viburnums,
a signal flashed from the hedgerow,
a shadow pulsing
in the barberry thicket.
Now that the nights are chill
and the annuals spent,
I should have thought them gone,
in a torpor of blood
slipped to the nether world
before the sickle frost.
Not so. In the deceptive balm
of noon, as if defiant of the curse
that spoiled another garden,
these two appear on show
through a narrow slit
in the dense green brocade
of a north-country spruce,
dangling head-down, entwined
in a brazen love-knot.
I put out my hand and stroke
the fine, dry grit of their skins.
we are partners in this land,
co-signers of a covenant.
At my touch the wild
braid of creation
© Stanley Kunitz