Sunday, 23 May 2010


In April-May 2006, my much-loved, much-mourned garden in Oxford achieved a brief period of perfection. We'd had a very late spring, much like this year, and so all the early flowers came together---the bone-white of the pear-tree blossom mingling with bluebells and tulips, primroses and sugar-pink dicentra. If I were, by some miracle, to live there again and have that garden for my own once more, I would certainly do it completely differently, adopting a much more radical and formal design. But as it was, a long gravelled rectangle with a table, which I made myself, surrounded by foliage suited us quite well.

When I think about gardening, I'm always torn by my instinct for classicism and an equal love for cottagey informality. The two traditions can be cleverly made to play off against each other---as, for example, at the extraordinary Lower House, near Hay-on-Wye--but with the Lake St garden I dithered around too much for it to be a really coherent design. This is partly a consequence of the nature of the place: we were renting the house, and didn't know how long we would be there, so I intially started the garden just to 'grow some stuff' in a spirit of experiment. Gradually my ambitions---and financial expenditure---increased, until it was one of my prime joys in life.

Now, it is perfectly possible to do quite astounding things with a small garden, as Roy Strong has shown in a charming book, and if I ever own a house similar to Lake St---that is, a late Victorian mid-terrace---then I will prove the point. (Alas, what with academic pay being as it is, I shall probably end up living in a crisp packet on the side of the M4.)

As a result, the Lake St garden became rather a palimpsest of whatever horticultural idea had seized me at the time. I never got over the problem that in spring (February to May, perhaps) I want to enjoy a space inspired by the cool colours of woodland: deciduous green, blue, white, pale pink, delicate yellows. But then, come high summer and into autumn, I wanted hot, burnt colours---golden and ochre sunflowers, scarlet poppies and crocosmia, tawny grasses, orange cannas and heleniums. As as result there was usually a weird-looking period of overlap around the beginning of June, as the pale, delicate spring palette gave way to the brazen summer one. An orange nasturtium against a bluebell is not a successful combination.

So, this is the garden. About fifty by twenty, it has a gravelled eating area, beds filled with bluebells and herbs, and walls on either side. Wigwams of hazel twigs add a slightly potager-like, witchy feel. It was absolutely a plantsman's garden: I could never say no to the interesting one-off, the rare herb with oddly scented foliage, the big set-piece. Many plants we culled as seeds (or self-sown seedlets) from the various formal gardens around Oxford: in particular, the thoughtfully-planted borders of my old undergraduate college, Lady Margaret Hall, were rich hunting grounds, both for seedlings and ideas. In the end, it wasn't as aesthetically successful as it might have been because I tried out too many ideas in it: it was both a pastel spring garden inspired by Gertrude Jekyll, and a blazing summer 'jewel' garden of the Christopher Lloyd via Monty Don sort, in which Piet Oudolf-esque meadow planting rubbed shoulders uneasily with my penchant for whimsy and druidical wortcunning. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal. Here it is, that magical last spring.

From my Lake St garden diary for this day four years ago:

Garden at its peak of loveliness. The cow parsley is fantastic---but I should have put more in on the left hand side. The heucheras are also great, and the chocolate brown lysimachia is excellent and much taller than last year. The gunnera is going well, the golden hop is well above the garage and the russian vine is sending off stems in streamers. The bluebells are excellent and the ox-eye daisies have developed their little white-hearted buds. Unfortunately, slugs have gobbled the heleniums and the echinacea. Not so good. But I have planted a huge number of dahlia 'Bishop of Landaff', with their amazing scarlet flowers and dark brown, nearly black, foliage. I've also potted out the sweetpeas, which were a bit pot-bound, and the leonotis, which should be eight feet tall in two months. The lemon verbenas are leafing up but the blackcurrant sage has expired in the frost. Roses in bud everywhere through the garden. I'm glad I added so many ox-eye daisies, as they're going to add a sense of lushness and abandon to the whole.

The garden in summer:

1 comment:

Suem said...

It looks glorious. Something so lovely about a garden that you've tended and cultivated, a space of your own to just "be" in, and a labour of love!

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