My mother taught me to peel back the cases when I was little in our garden near Liverpool. I was enchanted then and am enchanted still. I want the honesty to grow everywhere in the garden, but it will only flourish in the cracks between the paving stones that it finds for its self.
I was lucky enough to teach and to live in Costa Rica for four years, many years ago.
There was so much I loved and admired about this country: the complete lack of military spending; the emphasis on education and the great respect Costa Ricans had for teachers; their unashamed search for peace and most of all, their protection and love of wildlife. When we lived in Costa Rica it had the highest percentage of its land mass given over to nature reserves of any country on the planet and the diversity of habitats in this tiny beautiful country is breathtaking.
San Jose, the capital, is not the most scenic city in the world, it has pollution and ugly malls, but my attention was caught by this article on one of its satellite towns : Curridabat.
Take a read to lift your spirits.
How inadequate language is!
Scent, smell, perfume ignites memory like nothing else, they are far more powerful than sounds or even vision; we might think in pictures, but we feel and remember in smells. And when we try to evoke this experience in language , how we fail!
How to describe the sickly smell of sweet chestnut in flower; the wedding yearning of mock orange blossom; the catch in the throat of lilac after rain and the elusive, unexpected sherbet of iris flowers without the use of simile and history?
Privet flowers are the smell of long summer afternoon in quiet suburbs, elderflowers are the back seat of Dad’s car as we drove down long hedge rows to collect saucers of white flowers that would be turned into explosive summer wine. This petunia has a bubblegum smell that reminds me of the Brazilian friend who gave me a pot plant to thank me for cooking dinner. The little plant perfumed the garden table for the whole summer many years ago.
I can share a picture of a scented petunia with you, but not the perfume. Your mind will have to imagine what my words stumble to evoke, or maybe you can just step outside to smell the real roses and they will create their own story and memory of time and place for you.
I have half an hour before the chicken needs carving, in which to contemplate time.
I understand that there is clock time and internal time. The clocks stuck on church towers and round our wrists were made imperative by the invention of trains and the necessity of time being the same everywhere and tracks being cleared and so we slice up our life into internationally recognisable fragments, so that now the planes can fly and the computers can whir. The time in our heads works on a more complex level, where the present is composed of memory and potential future and moves to the rhythm of the thinker.
And then there is seasonal time: never the same, always the same, always the future.
The year progresses at its own pace, different in each village, different in each shadow that cools the flower or delays the germinating seed. You need to know a place well to compare the seasons. This year the celandines were late, but the ravens bred early. This year swifts were late, but the cuckoos(who had been absent for two years ) returned and called over and over from the hedgerow.
This morning we watched the young ravens,already fledged and learning to fly, tumbling over the cool, tall pilling clouds. White throats are singing their territories, storks are walking on improbably long legs through the buttercups, spearing slugs to feed their nestlings. The house martins have just arrived.
Ahh ! I can smell that the chicken is cooked!
November is a month to read in. The garden has died back and after work there is no light left to admire what has survived.
And so I read. Serendipity has provided an eclectic selection recently thanks to a school book sale.
Firstly I am reading Peter Camenzind by Herman Hesse; then A Fool’s Alphabet by Sebastian Faulks; a biography of Jame Joyce by Herbert Corman and The Ascent Of Money by Niall Fergusun. This may sound impressive, but I admit now that I am reading them with varying success.
The Ascent of Money is on its way back to the library. I am 60 pages in and waning. I started well. The introduction was arresting. The average salary of an American in 2007 was $34,000. The chief executive of Goldman Sachs, a man called Lloyd Blankfein, received $ 46 million dollars – per year. I cannot even conceive of such a sum, so I had to read on. Fergusun explains metal money the gold and silver of South America that fueled Spain and Europe in fascinating detail, but once he goes into the methods of banking and accountancy that grew out of Renaissance Italy, I struggle and start to skip pages. As life is short, I move on!
The James Joyce biography was written the year after Joyce died. The stamp in the front of the book shows it was bought in India and then the inscription shows it was given as a present. It was sold from a library, no doubt its outspoken opinions on everything from Irishness to politics, coupled with its lyrical description deemed it unfashionable, but I am greatly enjoying it . I savour it in tart, cool, evocative slices.
Peter Carmenzind was writen in 1904 by Herman Hesse, before either of the terrible wars ripped through Europe . The hero was born in a remote Alpine village, which was not considered romantic. He climbs his mountains, but no one skis down them and the concrete and the chair lifts of 21century are an inconceivable future scar. The descriptions of the Föhn wind roaring up from the soft south to rock the roots of the icy peaks are memorable.
The book that I read each night at the moment is however A Fool’s Alphabet. This shows the life of a child of a British soldier and an Italian woman; told over places which begin which each letter of the alphabet in order. To achieve this, the story is not chronological, but swings between settings to cover each letter in turn. Rather than being contrived or disorientating, this structure is unexpectedly pleasing, as it seems to mirror the random nature of memory. I know I am enjoying it because I don’t want it to end too soon!
It is odd to write about what I am reading, as I don’t aim to recommend these books to anyone. It is rather like introducing acquaintances to one another at a rather badly lit party.
Reading in November is like that.
Stripping lavender flowers from their stalks is the most peaceful task I know.
As you sit beside a basket of trimmed flowers and rub your fingers along each stem, the seeds are crushed: gently releasing a perfume that soothes the soul and relaxes the mind as it rises. The bowl slowly fills with soft light flowers. Plunging your hand in and stiring releases more perfume, until you can taste lavender on your tongue and feel it on your eyelashes. The world is slowed down. You breathe deeply and everything seems safe and clean, fresh and very very young.
I always leave the lavender until it is seeded, as the flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees that I would not deprive of their perfumed food. The seeds smell just as intensely as the flowers and this way I have the pleasure of their perfume and the sight of the butterflies too.
A few bunches are hung up for decoration and the rest will fill cotton bags to scent pillows and sheets in the linen cupboard. The smallest lavender bag will go in my work bag. When I need reminding of my garden I rub it between my fingers and I am back in the green shade inhaling the complex glory of lavender in a safe, perfumed summer garden.
Sometimes the garden grows so fast there isn’t time to breath. Our weather has been very hot and very wet. The air is saturated in moisture and the garden feels like a hot house. The weeds are growing, the trees are growing, the flowers are growing and the slugs are multiplying.
The air is perfumed. Lime trees are in full bloom and the perfume somehow reminds me of my mother’s washing powder and all seems clean and safe. The sweet chestnut is also in flower and the feathery blossoms are heavy, exotic and unfamiliar and they make make me sneeze.
The moth trap is full of the usual suspects. The light emerald wouldn’t leave my finger and the little emerald with its raggy wing seemed determined to make a point, but what it was, is as elusive as perfume and the racing days.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
from The Collected Poems (Faber, 1993), by permission of the publisher, Faber & Faber Ltd.
The world is racing ahead. The sky is sliced open with spring light and into the space bird song is pouring. There doesn’t seem time to understand it, to count it, to measure it. This is the blood in the veins . This is life.
Our flat in Switzerland was like posh student accommodation. Two very small bed rooms and an open plan room with a lot of glass, but no window sill to rest my plants upon.
I never realised how much I needed walls until I moved to Switzerland. Before that I had taken them for granted, but the Swiss are very modern, love glass and see little need for walls. If you couple this with a very high population density then you have dinning rooms that loom strangely in space, over each other. You can admire each other’s cooking, cutlery and even flatulence at disturbingly close quaters with total strangers. I couldn’t get used to such intimacy and did the same as we did in Brazil, blocked it out with plants.
We bought weeping fig trees that loved the reflected heat of our “ wintergarten” and raced away. In the wonderful Swiss second hand store or “brokie” I found a set of shop shelves, with wheels which I loaded with devils ivy cuttings, filched spider plant babies and some geraniums abandoned at the end of the summer that I fed and costeted. They responded by flourishing and giving us some semblance of verdant privacy.
The flat had no balcony, but it did have a set of concrete steps up to the front door that were ours alone. As soon as our first winter was over, I started to buy plants and to move them outside. I started with yellow primroses from the coop and graduated, as the sun strengthened, to ivy leaved geraniums, that trailed red flowers over each open step. In the wonderful botanical garden I snipped a few modest cuttings of lemon, peppermint and rose scented geraniums, potted them up and nursed them and soon it was almost impossible to get up the step and into the flat for perfumed and coloured plants.
Watering became an obsession, as each plant was in a planter small enough to fit each individual step and one day of sunshine could dessicate the whole pot.
We had been given very precise instructions when we rented the flat about what was allowed and what was “verboten”. Using the washing machine or showering after 10 at night was not allowed; hanging out washing was not allowed and shaking a table cloth out of the window was punishable by death. I was therefore very careful not to irritate my neighbours below by over watering and dripping on their doorstep. However after two years of squeezing more and more plants into our improbably small space, My Swiss neighbour actually volunteered to water my babies when we went away and started to talk to me!
At the top of the steps we put the tiniest BBQ known to man and if we each sat on a different step there was just space for us both to eat a chicken leg and for our cat, Bonkers the Magnificent ( who had survived Zambia, Kazakhstan and six months quarantine in England) to survey his new, peaceful and eminently edible kingdom.
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The strangest place I have ever tried to garden was Kazakhstan.
Our first apartment had two balconies. The first faced into the courtyard of the concrete blocks . It had a washing line and you could glimpse the steppe from the top floor as it rolled out, brown and flat to distant Russia. I realised that growing things here would be difficult when after a couple of seeringly hot months my washing froze to cardboard cutout stiffness over night.
The other balcony was boxed in with wooden sides and glass. On the shelves there were still pickles and jams, left by some previous tenant, making use of the cold space to store carefully preserved food, as everyone used to do before the supermarkets came. There was no window sill for plants, but there was an extraordinary view of the Tian Shan mountains . This was Almaty, at the far south east tip of Kazakhstan, the old capital and the most stunningly located city sprawling between the snow capped mountains linked to the Himalayas in the south and the central Asian steppe to the north.
When I lived there remnants of the former USSR were every where, but so too was the newly independent Kazakhstan rediscovering its nomadic and Muslim roots.
In our first year we managed to grow nothing, but the school had a remnant apple orchard, which was so perfumed and perfect in the spring it made me cry. Almaty is supposed to be named after the father of apples and the genetic parent of all apple trees does apparently originate in the country.
Bonkers the magnificent came with us from Zambia and after a lot of bribery and some crying, we got him through customs in one piece. He hated the apartment, there were no chameleons to chase and indoor life did not suit him. We put him on a cat lead and took him to the orchard, but he collapsed as though his back was broken and then escaped up a tree, only to be retrieved with a broom.
We found another apartment in the centre of the city . It had another boxed in balcony full of pickles under which trams rattled and shuddered. This was in the same street as the magnificent state opera house, which broadcast its music for free on summer evening to those who could not afford the tickets to the plush boxes, but who could listen to the outstanding performance on the street, cooled by the great glaciers fed fountains . Bonkers preferred this apartment, as the balcony that faced the courtyard was laticed with bird cage wrought iron and he could catch a breeze while watching the bats plunge out of the plane trees and listen frustratedly to the scops owls calling in the summer time.
He was never allowed out, as he would not have found his way back up to our top floor home and there were rats bigger than he was by the bins. The rats grew plump on the bread left out by my neighbours who considered it a sin to throw bread away and so it was left carefully off the floor for whoever, or what ever may need it.
To assuage his terrible yowling I ocassionally carried him down to the courtyard, where he would be admired by neighbours who would bring their own imprisoned moggies to their own windows to be introduced in a mixture of Russian, Kazakh, English and German.
On the bird cage balcony I grew red geraniums; hung spider plants and tradescantia and grew the best sweet peas ever, trailing up the iron work until the summer heat burnt them off . French marigolds grew well and a jasmine reminded me of Zambia and of Greece. Everything had to come in before the temperatures crashed for the long cold winter, the double glazing closed and the city wide heating turned our sunny kitchen into a greenhouse.
I remember tiny bunches of the first real flowers from the steppe: miniture tulips and irises sold by old ladies infront of the cathedral on my birthday and wishing I could explore more of the steppe myself, and feeling the cold air falling from the mountains on my back and wishing I could really explore them too.
We explored the balcony and watched an extraordinary city instead.
ALL MY GARDENS PART 7 : ZAMBIA .
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Before my first Christmas in Switzerland I went looking for mistletoe to add to the holy and the ivy of a traditional English winter decoration.
I was living in the suburbs and found ivy easily enough and holly in a nearby copse of trees , but no mistletoe. For me mistletoe is a mystical Druidic thing that loves apples trees, needs a golden scycle to cut it and will inspire strangers to kiss beneath it and is absolutely essential for Christmas.
In the copse of conifers and hornbeam behind our apartment I found tantalising snippets of mistletoe lying on the ground; solitary twigs of two simple leaves and the odd pale white berry. I looked up into the trees, searching for the familiar ball shape of a mistletoe plant suspended from a branch, but there was nothing. Maybe someone had been here collecting before me and these leaves were their debris.
Eventually I was reduced to buying an over priced sprig in a local florists, but I wondered where they had found it, so far from apple trees.
And then came the New Year storms: howling gales ripping off branches and uprooting whole trees. In the felled conifers were hundreds of little mistletoe plants, living their parasitic lives amongst the thick evergreen branches quite hidden to my ignorant eyes. It had never said in my English botany books that mistletoe lived in pine trees and yet here was the abundant proof, littered on the forest floor.
This week in France, the storms came again and the woods are crashed with fallen limbs and boughs, but I was still amazed to see the mistletoe in the unexpected embrace of the felled pine tree. Such odd, but comfortable bed fellows!
In my memory Zambia was soft dust, jacaranda trees, chameleons and a black and white cat.
We took a job in Africa to escape the soul crushing megalopolis of Sao Paulo in Brazil. It was like moving from Mars to the moon. We still had work and a home and books, but nothing else was the same.
Our little African house came with a tiny garden of overhanging bougainvilleas around enough lawn to sling a hammock across and a patio with a rusting metal table and chairs, behind a lattice work of alternate bricks held up by a tenacious and magnificent jasmine plant.
We lived in the capital , but even in the city there were stars such I had never seen since camping in Costa Rica and the heavens seemed very close indeed. Every Saturday we could hear beautiful music and pick up trucks passed by crammed with traditionally dressed Zambians singing. Eventually I understood that these were funerals.
There was a small vegetable garden and the bright orange soil splashed the whitewashed wall after the rains. We tried hard to grow things, but despite the sun and the rains nothing flourished and we began to understand how infertile tropical soils can be.
Amongst the pepper plants we found a chameleon. Watching it was like regarding the inhabitants of another planet as it’s golf ball eyes rotated to watch us slowly and its pincher hands clasped and climbed in an hallucinary dream.
Bonkers the cat was obsessed with the chameleons. He owed his life to my worry about snakes and spiders. I had insisted that a Cat would be essential to protect us and so he appeared to keep us safe. I asked if anyone had a cat with kittens and if so could I have a short haired, female, black cat, if possible. A month later a black and white, long haired male kitten was given to me in an ornate bird cage. He was small enough to sit in my hand and we fell in love.
Bonkers ran up curtains, fell off and broke his leg. He burnt his whiskers on the embaula. He crawled into the engine of a car and got badly run over. Our extraordinary Zambian vet brought him back from the brink over and over again and Bonkers the Magnificent survived .
There were excellent market gardens around Lusaka and trays of bedding lobilia, zinnias , begonias and candy tuft could be bought to bring a bygone suburban England to this lovely, lush country.
We walked to work each day and the enormous road side trees carefully planted for beauty rained down purple, gold and cherry coloured petals onto the quiet side walks.
In our garden the jasmine was loaded with so many flowers for a few months that it pulled down the wall and we could reach the avocados and mangos shining in the foliage beyond, while Bonkers stalked the chameleons and the singing trucks drove by.
If any one is bored on a cold Sunday these are parts 1-6 of All my Gardens:
Today was a very Alsace day.
Firstly we went to a very small and a very strange museum called the museum of love in the nearby village of Werentzhouse. In a tiny renovated Alsace house there is an astonishingly rich collection of vintage post cards in albums neatly stacked on wooden shelves. All are connected to love .
There is barely room to open the album, but each one holds a treasure trove of beautiful post cards. I looked at the album of cards made of real human hair, which was slightly creepy, but also very funny and touching.
I also looked at cards sent by French soldiers in the First World War to their sweethearts back home and was amazed by their variety and also the sauciness of some of them! The ladies explained that they were bought by soldiers in packs of 12 and they built up to tell a story of longing and love, for the shy or the inarticulate. Both world wars are still so close in the Alsace, I couldn’t help wondering how many young men got to send all twelve cards or to experience the effect on the loved one.
Returning home saddle sore from unaccustomed cycling, we decided to try a glass of Auxerrois wine recommended by our next door neighbour. I love all white Alsatian wines, especially the wonderfully perfumed Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, but Auxerrois is a rarity, possibly because it is so hard to say. This wine was a delight. I am going to stop myself burbling wine snob nonsense, but it is light, and full of flavour and perfume. Not much of this variety is grown and often it is blended in to make Pinot Blanc and essential in Crèmant d’Alsace. I include a photo and a link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI7La0dopZU&feature=sharek
to a you tube clip that gives some sense of the history, complexity and great wines of this little border region, where I have planted my unexpected garden .
São Paulo Brazil has about 20 million inhabitants and from my first experience, only one tree.
I could see the tree from my apartment on the fifteenth floor. It was in a school yard a long way down and it was completely dwarfed by the high rises that surrounded it. São Paulo was the most relentlessly urban environment in which I have ever tried to grow a garden and yet a city more in need of green it would be hard to imagine.
When we arrived in our first apartment we stepped over the street children huddled together like puppies under blankets. When I looked out onto the balcony I felt I was falling into the most profound pit I had ever seen, as the earth that should have surrounded the building was being excavated to a terrifying depth, to build the sky scraper next door.
We didn’t stay long.
There were a few more trees near the next apartment we lived in, but they too were dwarfed into insignificance by the dimensions of the buildings.
From this second balcony I hung ferns in baskets and tried my best to make a wall of green with ficus trees, crotons and butterfly palms. Bigonias are native to Brazil and an assortment of types gave colour and leaf shapes to my attempt to block out the view of the city.
Wildlife is more tenacious than we think however, and a feeder soon attracted a spectacular swallow tailed blue humming bird that had swapped a life sipping nectar from blossoms in the topical forest for a city life drinking sugar water from a plastic feeder. The blue grey taneger we had first met eating chilies in our Costa Rican garden appeared again in Brazil on this high rise balcony and even built a nest, as delicate as a wren’s, in an old plant pot. She even laid eggs, but three days of colossal thunderstorms sent apocalyptic lightening and biblical rain across the city and somewhere in the storm she was lost and her eggs were never hatched.
(I found her photo in an old scrap book)
In our local bar, where we sat at pavement tables shouting above the roar of the traffic, fruit bats picked ripe fruits from the few road side trees. They must have been able to smell when the fruit was ripe and the bats appeared in their hundreds for a few day only hanging clustered like ghouls with their large intelligent canine faces, observing us drinking cold beer far below.
On the edge of Sao Paulo is a wonderful place called Pedra Grande. Before the city grew into the chaotic megalopolis that it is today, an enlighten city father decided to protect the city’s watershed. In order to do this a very large chunk of Atlantic forest around a rock outcrop was spared the axe and to this day Paulistas can walk amongst the real tropical sky scrapers of giant trees and delight in three toed sloths, howler monkeys and magnificent toucans only a short drive from down town. This remnant of paradise was our salvation and we spent each weekend there buried in the deep green and the brilliant colours that make up a tropical forest.
To climb to the top of Pedra Grande is to understand the true shape of the world.
The walker emerges from the shade of the thick forest, scrambles onto the smooth granite boulders and the conurbation of 20 million souls erupts into view. The tens of thousands of sky scrapers bristle up into the smog hazed sky and then slope away into infinity, as the curvature of the planet is revealed in this awful, breathtaking monument to the human ability multiply and to build.
No balcony garden anywhere could compensate for that knowledge.
Some garden are yours for only a brief time .
After Costa Rica there were three short lived gardens.
The first was in Cheltenham, England and was basically a window box overlooking a courtyard. In a small space I kept hebes and cyclamens and tolerant bulbs. In the shelter of a town and the lea of an old building they flowered all year, untroubled by the cold and frosts of the real countryside. For the first time I understood the improbable things that are grown on upmarket London city balconies shielded from the seasons. The flat was in a Georgian town house with great high ceilings and long shutters and along the front balcony wisteria grew. Most of the year wisteria is an unpreposessing green vine, but for two weeks in the spring it blossomed forth with pendant purple flowers that filled the room with the fabulous, heady smell of honey.
The next garden was in Spain.
A slab of bare dry earth surrounded by a wire fence at the back and a slice of an almond orchard at the front.
It was the end of summer and nothing was growing. To water plants in a town where toilets were flushed with sea water would have been criminal and so I saved every drop of water we washed clothes and dishes in and showered stood in buckets to catch the used water. All of this saved water was thrown on the dry “garden” and soon seeds began to germinate and morning glory started to clothe the ugly fence with green and flowers. We were allowed to harvest the ripe almonds and we managed to crack the hard shells in the jamb of the front door and roast the nuts slowly in the oven after soaking in salted water. As the world is a stranger and more dangerous place than we often think, we did not stay long enough to watch this garden grow and left with only a couple of bags of salty nuts to remember it by.
Back in Cheltenham again, we took possession of an unassuming flat with a tiny balcony, just big enough for a single chair. I ranged narrow planters on the edge and clipped pots to the rails and in the next summer grew geraniums and nasturtiums and a wonder wall of perfumed sweet peas that leaned gratefully on the rails and provided a little display of flowers for the table for what seemed like months. From the balcony we watched the fire works that declared the millennium and waited for the world to end when the computers stopped working, but it didn’t.
Some times you do something that changes your life forever.
I took a job in Costa Rica. I packed up the house in Wales, confident I would be home in two years and we left to see the world.
The first thing I recognised in San Jose were bizzie-Lizzies flowering in cracks of the city streets and that is where the familiar stopped. I didn’t recognise anything else.
Outside of the city there were active volcanoes belching steam and spewing larva; in the uplands resplendent quetzals plucked wild avocados from cloud forest trees. On the Caribbean coast there were jaguars on the beach and on the Pacific coast giant turtles hauled themselves out of the surf to lay soft ping pong ball eggs in the moist sand. This was my new found land, my America and the exhuberence of the tropical forests; dry forests; clouds forest and beaches blew my mind.
This wasn’t Wales.
When there was so much to explore and so much pristine wildlife outside of the city to see, the personal domain of a garden seemed of less importance, but as l, like all other real people had a living to make, the jungle was only for the weekend and my garden was for the week.
Our bungalow in San Jose had a small wrap around garden with a car porch and a tall white wall on which sprawled the fastest growing bougainvillea in creation. An explosion of pink flowers cascaded from it all year and the huge spiny branches seemed to grow a metre a day. When we came back from a week away we had to hack our way through the gate.
At the Saturday market you could buy orchid plants hanging from scraps of wood and my car port was soon festooned in them. They went against all instincts, they seemed to have roots that should be covered in earth but were happy to absorb water straight from the rain. With some judicious spraying they periodically produced wonderful flowers, but the nakedness of the roots still disturbed me.
We hung up a sugar water feeder and a humming bird came to feed at the window. It was an utterly improbable jewelled mechanical toy that seemed suspended in the air by an invisible wire and to look into its bright eye was like looking into another geological age.
A tiny garden opened out from the shower with a burglar proof metal lattice above. This was the perfect place from which to suspend pots of more orchids and shade loving ferns and when I washed, I felt I was in my own miniature jungle.
Near the bedroom window a chilie bush grew, that produced very small, very fierce red chilies all year round. We tried a few in cooking and they were all seed and heat. Lying in bed under the mosquito net we would watch a plump grey taniger pluck them one by one and toss them delicately down without a tear.
After a while we were troubled by an appalling smell from the drain outside and eventually discovered a decomposing cane toad, massive and bloated. The drain man tossed it into the empty lot next door where it continued to fester and stink for weeks, but its removal seemed to encourage another cane toad to take up residence in the garden. It was as big as a kitten and excellent at catching pests. I know that cane toads are considered the pests in Australia where they were introduced, but in Central America, where they originate, they are wonderful.
There were only two seasons: wet and dry and things grew in both. The rains brought the lushest growth, but the windy dry season was still green. There was no respite from the geckos and lizards, from the frogs and the birds and away from the city, the butterflies, the bats, the snakes and the monkeys.
To us the whole country was our garden of Eden.
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.
My first garden, as a grown up, was the grandest garden I shall ever know.
In response to an advert in the Oxford Times we found ourselves renting the converted top floor of a monastery bake house in the grounds of Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire.
It was incredibly cold and impossibly right and romantic. The story was that it had been converted for DH Lawerence to live in as an “agricultural labourer” on the land of Lady Otoline Morrell and thus avoid conscription. However, his unflattering description of her in as Hermoine Roddice in “Women in Love”had resulted in a falling out and he never took possession of flat. Ottoline Morrell continued as a famous hostess of the intelligencia during WW1 and her guests included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sasson, Virginia Wolfe, Henry James, Bertrand Russel, WB Yeats, TS Elliot and of course the troublesome Lawerence.
The beautiful gardens she had laid out around the Tudor Cotswold manor house were open for us to enjoy and we timidly explored the lower reaches away from the big house and could hardly believe our luck.
At the furthest end was a lovely natural pool full of fish always ravenous for bread crumbs where I watched an equally hungry cat lean further and further over to catch them, until it fell head first in the water. It’s expression of outraged indignation as it hauled his sodden body out on the other side of the pond, was a delight I have never forgotten.
Beyond the fish pond was the Italian lake, which was large enough to swim in and to boat around a central island. The water was cold and green, but we braved it sometimes, floating briefly on our backs to admire the statues set into the deep green hedge. I would have looked more closely at the plinths upon which the statues stood if I had known the story that accompanied them. It was apparently common knowledge that Ottoline Morrell had an affair with the stone mason who made them and that their trists in the shed were the inspiration for the gardener and the lady in “Lady Chatterly’s Lover ” by DH Lawerence.
Beyond the lake the gardens sloped up to a formal parterre of 24 squares of geometric control, punctuated by tall yew trees and above that there were fabulous herbaceous borders of riotous colour and exuberance.
If you are trying to visualise this, it is maybe easier than you think, as some TV programmes and films with shots of perfect English gardens lapping honey coloured manor houses; were actually filmed at Garsington. So if it sounds oddly familiar, that is because it is. If you are an opera fan you may of course have strolled in the grounds during the interval as the opera festival held in the grounds annually, came to rival Glynbourn.
The opera came after our stay and in fact the monastery bake house flat was later used as offices for its administration (they also complained it was cold!).
During our brief stay their was a lovely performance of “Twelfth Night” on a perfect summer evening in the garden. We were helping taking tickets and as I stood by the gate, the youngest daughter of the owner came running up in great distress, as she had noticed that the toadlets in the pond had chosen this very evening to emerge from the water and thousands of the tiny creatures were hopping unnoticed between the polished brogues and stiletto heels of the oblivious audience. In my best school teacher voice I ordered the visitors to, “Look down at your feet! Notice the tiny toadlets and move slowly away from the pond!” Meekly they obeyed and clutching their glasses of wine, they obediently tip toed back to the paths and the great toad massacre was averted.
We were allowed to garden a dark patch of grass behind the bake house, but I didn’t dare actually dig anything up or try to plant anything in this lightless spot.
My only intervention was to ask for the grass not to be cut. This was allowed and as we had guessed a couple of wild common spotted orchids that had been waiting for years for the chance, flowered and then set seed on this bit of old meadow land. Their delicate wildness could be considered my second little contribution to this memorable, magnificent garden!
Photo thanks to https://mefoley.wordpress.com/tag/bloomsbury/
Spring seems such a long way off. A huge pall of freezing weather seems to have fallen over everything this week and it is hard to be hopeful, so in the long tradition of human survival in dark times I turn to memory and imagination.
All my Gardens:
The first garden I remember was around a suburban house in Cheshire. The house was newish and the garden was only a few years old and still raw around the edges. My mother planted roses and scented pinks in a raised bed above the lawn. My father constructed a swing on the neat lawn and I could swoop high above the fences and look down for an omniscient moment onto the gardens of our neighbours.
To the left was a garden full of red hot pokers. That was the first flower name that I consciously learnt and I was immediately fascinated by violence inherent in it and the obviously alien nature of the column of compacted flowers designed to be pollinated by humming birds that would never find Cheshire.
To the right was a garden with a dense sweep of shrubs around a circular lawn. This was interesting. Everybody else had square or rectangular lawns; a circular lawn seemed like a clearing in an Arthurian forest and who knew what might happen in this secluded ring.
What actually did happen was marvelous, but did not involve knights in shining amour. My first pet was a small tortoise. We let it out on the lawn to feed and brought it lettuce. It of course escaped and much wailing followed. Eventually it was decided it was dead and I forgot about it in the way that children do. One day, when peering over the larch lap fence, I spotted it traversing the secret lawn slowly , nonchalantly. It was resurrection. It was a miracle and a marvelous mystery that it could have been so close for so long, without my knowing.
The tortoise later came to a sad end due to Blue Peter, but that is another story for another cold day.
When the roses flowered I was fascinated by their huge perfumed petals and I greedily collected every one that fell and sometimes before they fell! My father owned a racey ash tray that had a naked little figure of a woman reclining along the dish. When the roses bloomed I would take her out into the garden and dress her in the petals which would stick to her figure with a little water. A red petal for a skirt, an orange petal for a top and a pink petal for her hat. The variations on contouring her nakedness were intoxicating . Surplus petals were collected to make perfume. Covering them in water produced rose water of which I was inordinately proud and presented to my mother in a bottle with a ribbon round it. Of course the liquid was soon brown and rank, but she told me she would wear it sometimes.
Whenever I smell pinks or carnations their heady spicy perfume transports me back to that first garden. I have tried to grow them in my own gardens, but with little success.
Some things are of their time and place and cannot, it seems, be recreated.
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.
My maternal grandparents were Irish. In Liverpool everybody seemed to have Irish grandparents and listening to my grandfather sing and play fiddle with his friends in the kitchen seemed what everybody did.
When my grandparents died and the family moved away, any links with Ireland seemed to losen and I eventually felt myself wholly English. However the idea that you can part of more than one country was there as bedrock and both my grandfathers travelled the world on the ocean going liners out of Liverpool and it seemed as natural as breathing to want to see the world.
I have lived now in nine different countries and on four different continents, having come to rest ( who knows for how long) in a beautiful corner of France on the edge of Switzerland and Germany . I like being foreign because I think anywhere can be my home and I can feel at home everywhere. My British nationality has been a great good fortune, giving me the language that has has made my living and a passport respecteacross the world. As a member of the EU my potential home and work place in any of the member countries offers me a huge range of climates, countries and cultures to choose from.
And then came Brexit.
I was prepared for the result. I had spent months researching my Irish roots and my eligibility for Irish citizenship as a foreign born national , but I hoped I would not have go through with it. This is not because I didn’t want to get dual Irish/British nationality, but because I hoped no one could be misguided enough to turn their backs on all the opportunities that Europe offers.
Unfortunately I was wrong, but unlike all the millions of my fellow Brits with no European ancestors, my Irish parents have stretched out a hand across the years and allowed me to continue being European, to continue living in France and to have the possibility to work or retire wherever the fancy takes me in the community.
I am very grateful to the Irish embassay in Paris for sorting it all out so quickly and to my Granparents for giving me the freedom to keep my options and my heart open in this amazing, interconnected world!