Tenderlings…..

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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.

After all,

we are partners in this land,

co-signers of a covenant.

At my touch the wild

braid of creation

trembles.

© Stanley Kunitz

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Before the wood is the water

 

I like to say that I can see the estuary from the chair at the dining table where I eat breakfast. However that’s not always true. In high summer the leaves of the weedy sycamores in the wood block the view. Now, in the autumn, as breakfast time grows ever darker and the leaves fall, my view of the water is expanding daily from one spindly trunk to another. By the winter solstice, some 300 metres beyond the dining room windows, the water will shine between the trees like a sheet of polished tinplate.

And tinplate is a good simile here, because tin is what it’s all about, this river. My river. My adopted river. My curving, curlewed, sand locked, abandoned river.

But I get ahead of myself. There will be time for that later. Before the water is the wood.

It has a name – Anne’s Wood. She died young, poor Anne and her parents gave a piece of rough land to the Woodland Trust in her memory. However to call it a ‘wood’ implies a sylvan arcadia which it is definitely not. In reality it’s a lumpy bit of scrubland infested with sycamore and scoured by the local children who have tied rope swings to the bigger branches. It’s also a favourite haunt of dog walkers when the weather makes the nearby beach less attractive. The activity of so many dogs also makes it a place where you mind your feet.

It’s not a big wood, an acre or two maybe and it’s crescent shaped, curving east towards the river. The back of the crescent is a formed of a stony bank of about eight metres in height and at the top of the bank is my garden. This has the strange effect that, standing on my lawn, I look into the wood at almost tree top height. I dig and hoe on the same level as the woodpeckers. In a secret corner of the shrubbery, behind an acer and a sickly pittosporum there are rough steps down the bank. If you scramble down through a thicket of butcher’s broom and brambles you reach the shortcut to the estuary. This is the badger track. Most nights, from their sett further along the bank, the badger family plod up the steps to their latrine by the compost bin. In every saucer shaped scrape you see a dark turd, for the badgers make no attempt to hide their faeces. I feel privileged that they feel safe enough use my garden as a lavatory. As long as they don’t eat my tulips, they are welcome.

The wood on the other hand has imperialist tendencies. Every spring I pull out hundreds of germinated sycamore seedlings. Left to their own devices, the progeny of the trees would march over the garden in a decade. When the autumn winds blow, sycamore keys spin down and screw themselves into the light sandy soil of the herbaceous border. They lie there like the stealthy advance guard of an invading army, until the rallying call of the spring, bugles them into active service. Surely after the apocalypse the sycamores will inherit the earth. This year I’m going to rake them up before they have chance to hunker down for the winter. Annihilate the enemy at the earliest possible moment is the plan.

I put my muesli bowl in the sink and pull on my gardening boots. Time for action.

The sycamore is not a native tree. It might have spun and spiralled its way across Europe from its homeland in the east of the continent, before finally arriving in Britain around 1500. (Although some sources give an earlier date of 1260). More likely however it was introduced. The pale, close grained wood grows quickly and shapes easily, so is useful for making utensils such as plates and spoons. The population increase after 1500 must have made the need for such small items more urgent and the decimation of English oaks to build English ships left space for this new invader. It’s not the best fuel though. We have a large stack of sycamore logs from a felled tree waiting their turn for the wood burner, but we have kept them too long and they burn like paper.

Acer pseudoplatanus says it all. The sycamore is an imposter. It’s trying to be a plane tree and not succeeding and because it’s not native, a sycamore tree supports only fifteen insect species. An oak tree supports nearly three hundred. But it’s not all bad; aphids love sycamores and tits of all sorts love aphids. The bird feeder in the garden is a regular haunt for the three common British species of tit – the great, the blue and the coal. Sycamores support one very specific aphid called Drepanosiphum platanoidis and it is this creature which produces the honeydew that drips from the leaves onto anything beneath. On the leaves of my scented rhododendron it results in a sooty black mould, onto the paintwork of my car it sets hard, like the caramel it is.The sweet substance also attracts honey bees, so I just put up with it and wash the rhododendron with warm soapy water just as I wash my car.

The sycamore is tree without a mythology. It’s upstart status cannot compete with the ash which is so iconic in Norse legend or the yew or the oak. It’s main claim to ancient use is that it’s a good tree for a hanging. The lower branches have sufficient tensile strength to support the weight of anyone unfortunate enough to be strung up on it. It does make a good whistle though and that associates it in Cornwall with both the habit of making whistles on May Day and decking the streets and houses with sycamore branches on Helston Flora Day. Although my view is that’s just because it’s always in fully leaf by then. When oak and ash might be more tentative about breaking their buds, sycamore is devalued by its abundance and its promiscuity. It is a victim of its own success in reproducing itself and colonising waste and abandoned land like Anne’s Wood.

I stand up and stretch my back and knees. There are hundreds of sycamore keys in my bucket. Hundreds of descendants of those sixteenth century sycamores. I can’t compost them, so I scramble down the badger steps and dump them in the wood. Back with their parents like the flighty children that they are.

It’s mid morning and I clamber back up the steps and kick bark mulch over the badger latrine. The wind blows a sycamore key onto the grass at my feet. Time for a coffee.

Published by Mole. October 2016