Under the trees, beside the streams, along the hedges it is all going green. Brown and hazy grey are the colours of winter and it seems weeks and weeks to wait until the trees unfurl their first leaves, but on the ground; in the corners; amongst the beech mast and the pine cones, the seedlings are already marching up!
My second rented garden was almost on the banks of the River Wye on the English Welsh border. Sand martins excavated holes in the crumbling overhangs of the banks and swans sometimes misjudged their flight over the bridge and landed inelegant and indignant in the midst of the traffic. Curlews picked over the drift wood of the broad river and king fishers flashed jewel bright over the green water.
I was there only for a winter and a spring. It was just long enough for me to be delighted by the masses of snowdrops that appeared and diligent enough to start waging war on the ground elder that pushed its way up everywhere. Appropriately yellow Welsh poppies flowered between the paving stones and I collected their seeds to take to my own first Welsh garden in the summer.
The first garden and until quite recently the only garden I owned, was oblong and uninspiring apart from one magnificent inhabitant: my oak. The oak was a surprising remnant from the farm land or wood land that had been lost to build our bungalow. It was entirely out of proportion to the little suburban plot I owned and it was utterly magnificent.
I dug flower beds along the lawn and grew tansy and bear’s britches. Fox gloves loved the red sandstone soil and appeared everywhere and I adored watching fat bumble bees push their ways into the speckle lipped flowers. I grew a buddleia to attract the butterflies and killed it by pruning it too hard. I grew a Russian vine and nearly lost a fence because I couldn’t prune it fast enough. My roses got blackspot in the wet Welsh weather, my drive grew a forest of moss and my lawn turned easily into a meadow by planting wild flowers in amongst the grass and only mowing it once a year, much to the neighbour’s dismay.
The Welsh poppies absolutely refused to germinate and no appeal to their patriotic duty convinced them to grow, but the oak grew slowly, but surely each year.
Grey squirrels loved the acorns and also the peanuts we put out for the birds. One particular squirrel would follow a trail of peanuts cross the lawn and into the sitting room through the French windows. My father was visiting one summer afternoon and was surprised to look up from his newspaper to see Charlene the squirrel, sat comfortably on the carpet watching the television with him in the sitting room.
The oak tree is still there and I have made sure it has preservation order on it to protect it from the tidy minded. The garden alas has now reverted to plain lawn and all the flowers I planted are gone. The poppies seeds still refuse to flower, but the warm wet Welsh weather has kept the drive sstill lushly carpeted in thick green moss.
This massive gun turret is on the top of a maginot line WW2 bunker in the next village. It is testimony to the wars that have raged over this corner of Europe time and time again.
Now the bunker is lapped by a brown ploughed field and shaded by a few tall trees. The trees are frilled with the white seeds of old man’s beard and mistletoe is yellow and green in the winter sunlight. On the top of the bunker; which is still pock marked by bullets and shells; a rough grass land has formed with ant hills where green woodpeckers hunt.
May all remnants of wars meld back into the countryside like this.
Shakespeare thought sparrows were so ubiquitous that he used them as an example of something so common that only God could find their death significant . In Europe they have been so common that we often over look them, but in fact there are many less of them than they used to be. Populations have crashed due to intensive farming, sowing winter crops that leave no stubble in the fields and our obsessively, over-tidy gardens .
Like all wildlife the humble sparrow needs untidy patches with wild flower seeds and the split grain of sloppy harvesting that leaves something over for the birds.
It was in just such a rare scattering of maize seed on a country lane that I encountered a huge flock of mixed common sparrows and tree sparrows busily feeding on the ground. As they fed they kept up a incessant chatter that makes one of the most cheerful of bird sounds I know. It is the background noise of childhood and the sound of quiet gardens made rorcous, alive and safe .
As we approached they fell utterly silent and then wheeled away in an indignant cloud. They wheeled over our heads, so numerous that they looked like smoke for a moment before descending on a couple of old apples trees . Their descent into the trees was so sudden and complete that they seemed to fall into the branches as if dragged down by a powerful magnet. No squabbling for places or hesitancy; they knew exactly where they were going and were silent and hidden within seconds. Humans have grown up with sparrows, even evolved with them: we know that when the birds are singing there are no predators near and we are all safe.
When the singing stops we are still afraid.
To keep some closer to home I put out bread crumbs every morning on a bird table away from my cats. My reward is the sound of a dozen sparrows chirruping each day and their simple song make me feel a little safer.
Oentheras are a wonderful example of the tenacity of beauty.
They arrived in my garden via a handful of seeds collected from flowers growing on gravel near the local airport and one plant made a rosette of long leaves. The next summer a tall spike emerged and the first irresistible lemon yellow blossom unfurled as dusk gathered, followed by another and another until it was studded with saucers of light reflecting petals in the darkness.
I know it is considered a weed in North America, but in Europe it has become a garden plant and is naturalized in many countries. The oil collected from the seed is famous for regulating hormonal imbalances in women and it has pain relieving properties in neurological conditions and in the the treatment of eczema .
I grow it simply for its beauty.
It self seeds and the plants move around the garden and appear where the seeds lodge and I always try to make space for them in the flowers beds or in the middle of the lawn.
Watching the flowers unfurl at night in real time is one of the highlights of mid-summer and is best enjoyed at eye level in a hammock with a glass of chilled wine to toast their uncoiling exuberance. As their Latin name is apparently derived from the Greek for wine, it seems the right thing to do!
T.S Elloit said April was the cruelest month, but for me it is the kindest, greenest, lushest and most beautiful of all the months in my garden.
It is raining, soft, soaking raining and as I watch the cherry blossoms on my neighbour’s tree are opening and the silver birch leaves are unfurling, turning the indistinct haze of buds into tiny sharp new leaves.
On my kitchen counter the green bean seeds are waiting for a lull in the downpour to be planted and my cat is miowing with indignation because she wants to go out but won’t tolerate her own muddy paws.
If it wasn’t raining I would be out in the vegetable garden, as muddy as the cat; but as I am sheltering in the kitchen I thought I would share how beautiful the garden is with you. April really is the start of the gardening year proper, so it seems a good time to start this blog and share my passion . Not every one would like this garden, it isn’t tidy, it isn’t themed, it isn’t colour coordinated, but it is full of life (even if the cats some times eat some of it!), and it is fascinating, so when I can, I will tell you about it.