Number one enemy

Just a short note. You may have noticed my propensity for mentioning slugs and snails. In fact, I believe doing so will strengthen my claim to be part of the great family of English / British gardeners. After all, this island could well be renamed Slugland. One of my first posts on this blog was dedicated to the little creatures (here). But truth be said, I do not hate them. Over the years, I have given up on the more cruel ways to get rid of them and have now come to the conclusion that one has to share (up to a certain point). So there we are : slugs and snails  are not my number one enemy on this little plot of land. Indeed, there are creatures I dislike more than them, for instance aphids (brrrrr…). As for the creature I loathe above all others… It isn’t a critter, nor a blind slimy wriggly thing from the depths of hell, no : it is a soft, furry, white-pawed and gracious looking mammal, the likes of which you find colonising your Facebook feed if you happen to have befriended missionaries of the cute therapy cult (there are an awful lot of them), j’ai nommé THE NEIGHBOUR’S CAT(S). The reasons for its election as supreme Suppôt de Satan ? They can be summed up very quickly : it soils, it kills needlessly, it taunts. It is the ugly face of domesticated nature. It also knows very well what to make of my threats and pressing invitations to visit my oven. None of the devices I have invested in, in order to keep it at bay, have had any effect. In a nutshell, the feline Foe teaches me about powerlessness and, in time, maybe, about humility. Meanwhile, I still dream of waving the water hose at it. Shoo !

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The dead of Winter

January already. I have been thinking there seems to be no such thing as “the dead of Winter”. Not these days, at least. Of course, the previous years have taught us that the coldest part of Winter might very well be hugging Spring rather than Autumn, and there are plenty of weeks left for the Great Jack to come and choke plants still in his glistening hands. However, if “the dead of Winter”, that silent, darkest heart of Winter, exists, it must be have been very discreetly hiding between two sighs in a night when I slept soundly.

I have laid down manure sometime in November, on two thirds of the flower beds. I intended to wait for some vegetation to die back, which would facilitate the mulching of the rest of the garden. But death took its time, and Advent and Christmas preparations filled the days (how many school shows ?). To be honest, the thought of clay squelching under my shoes wasn’t too enticing either : we don’t have a garden path and the “lawn” is basically worm-cast with a bit of green in between. So here I am, nearing mid-January, with a half-mulched not-yet-asleep garden. Some plants haven’t even had time to die back that others are awakening already : if snowdrops and winter aconites are sadly missing from my garden, a few hellebores are getting ready to show off. Unfortunately, I noticed the other day that something has been boring into the flower buds. Whether snails and slugs are to blame, I decided last year to forfeit the use of slug pellets (and have heard they might become illegal anyway), so I’ll have to bite the bullet, hoping the culprits leave me enough flowers to enjoy. On this topic, the cover of this book amused me greatly when I found it in the local bookshop :

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I wonder if anybody has read it ? I suspect the answer to the title is a simple NO. And where would the fun be otherwise ?

These pictures are out of season (and of bad quality) but I would like to share them anyway. This is what the maples looked like last November (where you can see the new fence replacing the rotten one where the old ivy lived. I am hoping it will weather down quickly).

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Confused primroses.

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My camellia sasanqua Rainbow – the flower of my wedding (in October).

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How I am looking forward to this Spring, which will be the first in which I will enjoy the fruit of my gardening efforts since coming back from France !

 

Autumn garden

I have been wanting to write about the garden for so long… A few notes in the Gardening Diary page is all I could manage. But leave it too long and then you don’t know where to start, ending up with a disorganised post…

Most garden blogs I follow have been stressing what an extraordinary summer it has been: so hot, so dry. For weeks, members of several (if not all) Facebook gardening groups were seen tracking the mere possibility of rain up and down the country, each of us envious of any sign of dark clouds pictured in another vicinity, and triumphantly showing off drop-covered leaves whenever the winds would favour our own parched bit of land. Only on the surface was it fun : of course, somber considerations on climate change and the fragility of our (near) future on this planet could be felt behind seemingly light-hearted comments. I don’t remember how many weeks we went without any proper rain in my part of Kent. I couldn’t bring myself to let my plants die and I confess to having watered every few days, knowing it might all be in vain as I was due to be away for more than a month. As for the green bit in the middle, the ex-lawn so to speak, it was the same yellow and brown hue as everywhere else in the country. Even the clover struggled. My lovely neighbour agreed to help with the more precious plants, but he too was going to go on holiday soon. After his departure, the garden and the new pond would have to fend for themselves. Thus I left for France, prepared for a very sad return, having bid farewell to those plants I was sure to find dead, from damp loving creatures that wisdom should have kept me from purchasing in the first place (mainly three astilbe, a Sanguisorba obtusa – pimprenelle du Japon, my son’s little dionaea muscipula – dionée attrape-mouche) to acer palmatum seedlings and other potted and therefore more vulnerable green friends (not to mention our first tomato plants).

I left, I came back, I saw.

First, the “lawn” : of a vivid green, and of an endearing though not very respectable height.

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Then, the hedge : big, naughty, escaped, free.

The pond : full to the brim. Finally, the plants : alive, the whole lot. As for the little carnivorous beauty : it was thriving ! After our neighbout’s departure, Canterbury had apparently been showered by a storm or two, of the generous kind. However, tidying up would have to wait : we only had time to quickly mow the grass before leaving for Lancashire for another week. September arrived and I started clearing, as well as cramming in as many of my foxgloves as possible in the space available. Foxgloves galore next Spring !

The little pond, my favourite thing, in July and October :

 

The heuchera at the front is Alabama Sunrise (how could I resist that name ?) and its leaves will soon cover the plastic edge of the pond liner.

I couldn’t resist the urge to cut off another strip of grass in order to be able to plant more stuff. Here is the new border, looking a bit young, where my favourite thing is the pheasant’s tail grass. I can’t wait for it to grow and fill the space.

Quite a lot of hacking back and pruning was required. I carried on with the tentative pruning of a box (previously barrel-shaped) in the niwaki-style which I had started last year. For the first time, I used garden twine to try and train branches into the desired direction. This scupture will require a few more seasons’ growth to reach a better shape.

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I also pruned my oddly shaped Acer palmatum Redwine which is a vigorous and messy grower. It was a bit daunting but I am happy with the result. Unfortunately, I don’t have a suitable picture of what it looked like before.

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Our other shady bed now (with the Japanese maple starting to show colour) :

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Some of my favourite flowers and plants from mid-summer until now (the pictures are captioned if you want to know the name of the plants) :

Some babies for next year :

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Next things on the list : buy some more daffodil bulbs, plant the allium sphaerocephalon bulbs, sow honesty, and… get rid of a lot of ivy (I will tell you about that…).

I will leave you with funny pics of my kids’ idea for mulching / pot decoration and a brave little holly.

Happy gardening to you !

Garden (and pond) miscellaneous 3

Our small pond has been in function for 19 days now. During that time, we have had very little rain, almost nothing, and I feel increasingly anxious about it. The good news is, the liner doesn’t seem to be leaking, in spite of the fact that it is irregularly supported underneath (very hard to backfill properly with a preformed liner equipped with shelves). Alas, this week, the string algae have started to really prosper. Barley straw extract hasn’t had any visible clearing effect so far. We’ll see. It’s early days. More important is the fact that we have gorgeous froglets, tadpoles, at least one pond snail et a multitude of mosquito larvae happily jerking all over the surface. Hum.

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This very bad picture shows a random edging made of bits of concrete (which were unearthed in the digging process) and flintstones. The latter have been carried home from Broadstairs beach by my heroïc husband – believe me, they look small but are heavy. I hope to get some more and gradually replace or hide the concrete. And yes, I need to fix my camera’s excessive contrast problem.

Not quite one of the university ponds yet.

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Now for the rest of the garden. Yesterday, I dug up one of my twin paeonies. I know. It hasn’t flowered this year : a few buds formed but didn’t develop into flowers. After that, the poor plant was engulfed in beautiful love-in-the-mist, hypericum and various other things. Well done if you can distinguish it in the following pictures (I love how love-in-the-mist looks like peacock feathers).

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So, up it came. In its place, I planted a small Philadelphus Snowbelle and covered the bare soil around it with pots. The uprooted paeony has not been discarded in the green bin yet. Instead, it was dumped under a golden euonymus, in case I feel like rehousing it in a pot in the next few days. After all, I have had it for some years and it did flower in the past. Here are its twin plant’s flowers (as you can see, hardly the Sarah Bernhardt it was supposed to be !).

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And now, totally random pictures :

I don’t know the name of this climbing rose but I sure like its flowers.

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The lupin is bearing a second flush of spikes but its leaves are a powdery mildew mess by now. Was better last month.

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My dark delphiniums have done better than the mauve ones. I also have a sky blue one, but I have the impression it flowers later in the summer.

The Philadelphus Snowbelle :

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The shady bed last month :

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The sunny bed last month and now :

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The colours of Broadstairs cliffs at the moment (I couldn’t resist taking a tiny sample of the Jacobaea maritima) :

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A number of summer flowering plants are on the verge of coming out, eryngiums, echinacea, phlox, hydrangeas, verbenas, echinops, orleya, wild carrots, shasta daisy… I hope they will let themselves be admired before we leave for the summer holidays at the end of July. Happy gardening to you too !

Garden miscellaneous (2)

Une matinée bien employée pour une grenouille de ma sorte consiste à  :

– Déposer les enfants à l’école.
– Avaler en vitesse quelque chose et vérifier que les quinze livres sterling économisées sont toujours dans le portefeuille.
– Se ruer en ville aussi vite que le permettent des talons un chouïa trop ambitieux pour trouver, au milieu du marché de Saint George’s Street, l’étal de plantes. Le choix est un peu moins alléchant que la semaine dernière, mais il reste de quoi se satisfaire, quelques incontournables des jardins anglais. Deux delphiniums violet foncé, un autre bleu (foncé aussi), un phlox paniculata Mike’s Choice qui fera pendant à mon phlox paniculata Mount Fuji, et trois petits pots de cosmos sonata blancs dans les bras, rentrer à toute vitesse, manquer se rompre la cheville.
– Sortir de la cabane à outils la pelle, constater qu’on n’a pas assez de force pour l’enfoncer dans l’argile, se saisir de la truelle mieux aiguisée et se lancer dans une réduction mesurée de la “pelouse”, meilleure solution pour planter davantage quand l’espace se fait désirer.
– Feindre d’avoir oublié qu’on avait décidé de laisser aux iris de Hollande jusqu’à mi-mai pour fleurir, ou plutôt écouter son instinct et son expérience, lesquels savent que ces bulbes ne fleuriront plus (they don’t earn their keep, comme on dit ici), et enfoncer la fourche avec délice. Empiler le tout sur les bouts de “pelouse”.
– Dégager du parterre les autres plantes (Coreopsis Early Sunrise, Penstemon Phoenix quelque chose, ciboulette, polémoine bleue), afin de les réorganiser, mais sans oser toucher les agapanthes, parce qu’elles sont bien capables de vous le faire payer- en somme, parce qu’on les craint (on connaît sa place dans la hiérarchie du jardin).
– Verser un petit sac de 20 litres de compost sur le tout, demander pardon aux lombrics que la fourche blessera, et planter ou replanter tout son petit monde.
– Se réjouir, se féliciter, sauter à cloche-pied, et considérer avec reconnaissance l’amoncellement de nuages sombres qui menace pluie.

Avant

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Après

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Vous me direz qu’à première vue, la différence ne justifie pas un tel débordement d’autosatisfaction, et je reconnais volontiers que ce n’est pas Versailles, mais vous verrez que cet été, ce sera bien joli.

Au passage, saluer les narcisses Sir Winston Churchill, qui sentent si bons, et puis les tulipes Groenland (ce sont les roses et vertes), compagnes des Spring Green tant aimées.

Garden miscellaneous (1)

I’ve decided to stop pretending there is a theme to what I post about my garden, when all I want to do is to share pictures and let the joy spread. Hence the title.

Today is, according to the weather forecast, the last day of sunshine. The mini-summer comes to an end, but, boy was it good while it lasted !

Yesterday, while inspecting my garden, I suddenly noticed that the bearded irises were going to flower.

Even though I look at my plants very carefully almost everyday, I never manage to catch the precise moment when the flower bud swells inside the leaf-looking thing and silently detaches itself, flame or teardrop-shaped. That elusive birth remains an enduring mystery. To me, they evoke the moon appearing as a cloud drifts away. Something about them is reminiscent of old Japanese or Chinese paintings (other than the fact that irises were often depicted in them).

On the other hand, I have a strong suspicion this messy entanglement of dutch iris leaves will produce nothing worthy at all.

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I’ll give them until mid-May to prove me wrong, if they don’t want to end up in the green bin. They were one of the first plants I had. I had no idea what I was doing. They did give a few good flowers in the past, of the ordinary purple-blue kind, but I could really use the space for something more interesting.

The hostas are opening up. Prayers to the God of gardens to preserve them from the hated molluscs.

(Hosta June and Hosta Canadian Blue)

I am mightily pleased with Narcissus tazetta Martinette.

They were worth the wait, for their heavenly scent. With time, I am more and more drawn towards smaller varieties of daffodils. I shall try to plant more of these beautiful flowers. Surely, one can always find space for a few more daffs, no ?

Sadly, in one of my two pots of ranunculus, all the flower buds have been destroyed. More precisely, they seem to have been excavated from inside. If you know what can cause that, I’d be grateful to learn.

On the Alexanders, I found those two little guys. Again, if you know what they are called, please let me know.

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Oh, and a patch of weeds, for good measure.

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Are these willow herbs ? If so, they are allowed to stay. I have also allowed Herb Roberts to grow a bit everywhere. It is gorgeous and so easy to pull up if you grow tired of it.

I hope you are enjoying Spring too !

May it last !

Few places are as beautiful as England when the sun shines as it does this week – it’s that dazzling green. There are so many occasions of exaltation and gratitude that I feel dizzy.

Walking accross the field to go to town, yesterday, I thought I would love to have a blog section called : “Ce que j’ai vu de plus beau aujourd’hui” – “The most beautiful thing seen today”. How and what to choose ? In spite of the flowers, I think I would have to give the prize to that tender-green haze floating around the poplars’ crowns as they start to leaf out. It is so thin, almost intangible, barely perceptible against the bright blue sky, and yet, the sign of an unstoppable force.

All is not perfect, even in my protected little corner of the world. I found the baby blackbird on my lawn. It was laying there, uneaten, its eyes open. I suspect the magpie, as the neighbours’ cat is a lazy, floppy thing only apt to soil the flower beds. Since then, I haven’t seen Mrs Black go back to her nest to feed any other chick… She is still going about in the garden, though, and Mr Black has reappeared. They may be moving from the ivy into the firethorn, which undoutedly provides better protection, but competition is fierce, if the sparrows’ indignant cries are to be believed. However, Mr or Mrs Little Red is still living in the pouch nest offered by Grandma, and I keep my fingers crossed for baby robins !

I have been spending whole days in the garden, planting out Orleya grandiflora seedlings which were trying to root through the capillary mat, sowing white cosmos (my favourite flower of all) and Californian poppies, mulching with horse manure (before the poppy seeds were thrown in, but after the cosmos had been sown – I know I am stupid, but hey, they are tough). I have also dug up a fuchsia and moved it under the boxwood (yes, the poor plant I tried to niwaki-prune last autumn). I expect the displaced fuchsia will be sulking forever. My unsuspecting walk in town ended up with a few additions to the plantations : Astilbe Vision in Pink, another bleeding heart (“les boutons, on dirait des poires avec des têtes de nounours”, dixit my son), a yellow lupin and, more importantly, a dark blue delphinium. Honestly, how was I to know it was market day, and there would be a wonderful stall of cheap yet healthy plants ? By the way, butterflies are about !

And today, and it sums it all up : I hanged the laundry to dry outside. Tada !

A few pictures :

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From the Norway maple (érable plane) at my son’s school.

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Claire’s cherry tree. Claire died aged 19 many years ago. People used to hang shiny ribbons from the memorial tree’s branches, but don’t seem to do it anymore.

Now, in my garden :

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With dew, this time, Aldor ! 🙂

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My beloved Hepatica transsylvanica.

 

Under the snake’s head lilies’ skirts.

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Primula Belarina Pink Ice, ready for a wedding !

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Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost, the plant I wouldn’t be without. The picture doesn’t do justice to its amazing blue.

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Jewel ! Centaurea montana Purple Heart.

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Cornus praying.

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Acer palmatum Osakazuki leafing out. It looks like it is taking its elegant rose gloves off, doesn’t it ?

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Acer palmatum Katsura means business this year (was put in the ground last autumn) and is already out. My son likes to shake its little hands (yes, we are odd).

That’s it for today ! Enjoy the sun while it lasts !

Notes on skylarks, memory and happiness

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Walking one morning on the Holcombe moors under a bright Spring sun. Distances are vanishing into a gleaming haze and on the banks bloom the first coltsfoot flowers.

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Up Moorbottom lane, the warm stones elicit sensations of Southern Alpine paths.

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Lancashire moors, Southern Alps, worlds apart ? Not to me. I walk, grateful for the benevolent pressure of gravity, and my whole being is but a smile. The hilltop is a sea of blond manes, vibrating with the skylarks’ song, and we ride to the frontier whence the clouds rise.

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For the skylarks I am immensely grateful. I love The Lark Ascending, but have never actually seen one, let alone a hill full of them. I follow many as they aim to pierce heavens, and fall. At one point, I see one disappear into the blue, as I was told they do, sometimes, mysteriously. I stand transfixed under the empty sky where its song still resonates. Then comes a familiar pull, inside, a need to put words on this happiness.

This is L’s home, the hills of his childhood. At their foot lies his hometown. It is a small Northern ex-industrial settlement which, at first sight, any visitor would find dreary, to say the least. I still wonder how his first girlfriend, a girl expelled from the Tuscan paradise of Arezzo, survived the aesthetic (as well as climatic and cultural) shock. As for him, who had no other home to escape to, he found salvation through an interest in local history. Researching the archives to write the story of his region and try to salvage the remnants of the Industrial Revolution heritage from the shortsightedness of local councils infinitely broadened the possibilities of what first seemed to be on offer. On those soot-dark mill town walls, a wealth of echoes started to resonate, windows opened onto a richly animated world. Under its veil of rain, the landscape began whispering, speaking, singing. History wasn’t that merely useful source of valuable lessons it is so often sold as, but a meeting place and a condition of happiness. In L’s case, there was a deliberate attempt to draw from the powers of memory (his own and that of others) in order to defeat the poverty of his experience. For me too, happiness and memory are intrinsically intertwined, but in a different way.

My mind’s memory is very poor, and not improving. Of concepts and ideas I find myself quite deprived. Of cultural references – facts, dates, names, stories, those bricks needed to build a decent system of thoughts –, I have to admit to being less endowed than any person of a similar level of education should be. Why, I can’t even remember events in my own life, and those I can recall, I am often unable to order chronologically, even approximately. Yet it is memory that heals me and makes me happy. I hesitate to use the word “heal”, as I can’t pretend to have ever been torn apart by any particular event – but I was born and long lived under the star of an intense and unfathomable sadness.

Early in my life – before the age of ten – I waged war against time, in which my youth could only see a dispossessing monster, by trying to remember everything. That such a doomed pursuit could only lead to deeper sadness didn’t stop me from trying with all I had. It may have developed my writing skills but it was exhausting. It was bitter. On the edge of adulthood, stubborn though I was, I simply had to let go. Having yielded to the healthy necessity to forget, I survived. Yet, memory undoubtedly is at the heart of any happiness I experience now. Not the overburdened and then discarded storage system of my childhood, but a different form of memory. One through which, though unable to summon facts and dates, I experience what I would tentatively describe as volume, depth and thickness of sensation. A perception of complexity rooted less in the mind than in the body.

The frontier between the physical world – reality, as some would call it – and its spiritual body, is fading. There are layers in the light and layers in the present. I can perceive them. It is nothing new, but time, and gardening, have sharpened my consciousness of it, and extended the depth to which I can perceive. I can feel the continuous presence of what a restricted linear conception of time would have us believe are different instances, all of which supposedly dead but one, which is fleeting, and now gone. Oh, but things remain ! To describe that, French words come to me: concomitance, rémanence.

No effort of the mind is required. It is simply there: the radiance of a form of consciousness which appears in the likeness of a physical sensation, for it is rooted in the body and its memory. And so, years passing, I find myself increasingly relying on unconscious or barely conscious movements seated in my flesh to feel, of course, but also learn, remember, write. All that might not deserve to be called “thinking”, but it makes me happier. More learned people might say I am merely trying to describe something which psychoanalysts and explorers of the subconscious are familiar with. To me, it is a spiritual experience.

The feeling of incompleteness, of hollowness, we are told, is a distinctive part of the human condition. With conscience comes the sharp bite of loneliness. Yet… Try to walk in life as you would up a sunny mountain side, opening your senses, widening your conscience, sharpening your awareness: more is present than first appears. Feel how the densified air holds and defines your body, your mood, through pleasure and pain, how manifold the world, how it embraces you, abrades you, how its manifestations become signs, and marvel at your soul revealed. Is there really such a thing as loneliness ? It is love I feel. And if I get the chance to answer to its call, to share a few words, even to the passing wind, then this life is worthwhile indeed.

*

Behold
On the hilltops, skylarks
Shrill as light’s beating heart
Shooting up in the blue
Till all is song

*

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O Spring where art thou ?

Now is the season when blackthorns turn into clouds. Upon meeting their blooming branches, I am never quite sure if it is them, or I, who take off for the sky.
This old one, the top of which crowns the end of the path, between oak trunks, sings of Spring.

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Yet everything in my garden seems late this year, except for trees : on the maples, the dogwood and the copper beech, the buds are fattening appropriately. What is left of the forsythia tries to cheer up a very soggy garden. Even though I had a few dwarf crocus and irises (from my bulb lasagna), I am yet to witness the flowering of my first daffodil. I am all the more grateful for the brave little Hepatica transsilvanica and her neighbours, a little primula and a pink pulmonaria.

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Other friends are barely poking up, amongs which a Pasque flower which was not far from being true to its name (on time for Easter), eryngium Neptune’s Gold, an astrantia, two geraniums. They don’t make for impressive pictures, to say the least, but bring so much joy I had to give them a place here. Be grateful I am sparing you from the bits of lupins, bleeding hearts, etc.

I equipped myself with a poor woman’s greenhouse.

So far, it is housing two floppy tomato plants, a dying cutting of choisiya which survived the whole winter only to give up now, potential seedlings (orlaya grandiflora, which I first thought were borage, a reluctant set of unknown seeds which might be rose campion) and other mysterious seedlings which might be borage (???). Ahem. And some charming little cutting definitely leafing out, which I hope is from a bushy pink salvia adorning the other side of our street. And that makes me think I neeeeed Salvia Armistad in my life (I think Salvia guaranitica Black’n Blue has survived the cold !).

And here, proof that I was right to buy the dead-looking Clematis Jackmanii Superba from the reduced shelf at the garden centre last autumn !

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The best thing is that the little nest given by Grandma to my son has been carpeted by a robin.

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Alas, the other day, I inadvertently came nose-to-beak with him / her while he / she was inside. He / she flew away in great fright and the nest might stay empty…

To follow my menial but joyful gardening activities, read my Gardening Diary page.

In the garden again !

Finally ! A sunny day ! The February big freeze was for me, who am lucky enough to live in a heated house, a welcome thing.

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I had not seen proper snow for what felt like an eternity, and my daughter had the joy of her first snowman. Being British, the schools closed for two days, to my children’s delight. I went up university where I am now teaching ancient Greek with the unmistakable snow-aroused feeling of being the first human to tread into an unknown world. On the way up the hill, the big oak was wearing magnificent ermine. I felt awake and alive as I haven’t felt for some time, and somehow called upon.

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Before the February big freeze, I went out optimistically to plant things bought in Wilko or M&S and therefore not precisely identified : a bleeding heart (cœur de Marie) of the ordinary kind, some physalis (lanternes), two echinops ritro (oursins bleus), one eryngium alpinum (chardon bleu des Alpes), and a geranium pratense Splish Splash. Of course, being too lazy to put labels down, I now can’t remember where I planted most of them, which means some will be weeded with oblivious enthusiasm. They might find solace in the sound of my jolly weeding tunes. Of course, they might also have been killed by the frost.

In the half conscious fever of Spring, I also cut a circle in the “lawn” to plant an unnamed “red paeony” from M&S (bareroot, or whatever it is called). To be honest, I don’t know what to call the green-and-brown thing on which we tread between the flowerbeds. I can still discern signs that in a distant past predating our presence in this house, it must have been a lawn. Now, I couldn’t even call it “grass”. It is mainly moss and various weeds (most of which I welcome in this kind of asylum blanket) sucked down into greedy squidgy clay. We keep talking about putting down stepping stones, and in my dreams I picture a red brick path, like Monty Don’s. However, there are a few clues indicating this won’t happen any time soon. My husband’s and my own DIY inclination and skills are famously inexistent. And as for our organisation… Suffice to say that the water butt bought last Autumn is still lying down near the bike box, while the new retractable hose happily rests under the dining table, keeping company to boxes of books. Anyway, regarding the “red paeony” : a few days later, I started to worry I must have planted it too deep, so up it came, only to show me that it had already sent down nice little white roots !

Outdoors, I have sown white nigella damascena (nigelle de Damas), aquilegia chrysantha Yellow Queen (ancolie) and lychnis coronaria (coquelourde des jardins). I also put some borage seeds (bourrache) in cracks here and there, hoping it will prevail over the dandelions. Indoors, I have gone for orleya grandiflora and more borage. I still have an envelope full of yarrow (achillée millefeuille) and wild carrots seeds. See the theme ? Of course, I have no idea where all this will go. I am only guided by a desire for something lacy, airy and white, which would also make me the favour of self-seeding in the future.

You are quite lucky my mobile phone tendered its resignation this morning. Otherwise, I would have inflicted on you my whole picture-roll of green and reddish bunny-ear-shaped things poking up from the remnant of mulch. This is for me the most exciting time of year, when stuff I had completely forgotten suddenly appears and shouts its salutation to the new season. It is quite alright to be alive.

 

 

Of Winter, and November foliage

I have been a bit busy in the garden, as recorded in my Gardening Diary page. Winter finally seems on its way, and I should be planting the last tulips, had I not run out of decent containers and compost. I have bought a few oxalis corms which also need to be planted. When I left Paris, I had to part with an oxalis triangularis which was not doing very well, to be honest, but that I loved as it was offered to me by my best friend after one such plant featured in a novel I wrote.

I don’t do Winter bedding. I tend to (try to) appreciate enthusiasm in gardening regardless of how the outcome suits my taste. However, although I feel appropriately amused and cheered, walking along the garden centre’s shelves of colourful pansies, dainty cyclamens and ornemental cabbage, I dislike the artificial coating they give to winter gardens.

Winter’s beauty stems from bleakness, starkness (of course, this statement comes from a person priviledged enough to have shelter, central heating and so on, I appreciate that). I admire gardens which understand and celebrate Winter’s bare grace instead of trying to conceal it or dress it up. In their contemplation, I find a gripping emotion related to the acceptance of truth. Stripped of all adornment, what is there left ? Bare stems, barks, seedheads, structures, skeletons, decay – death, and life within it. There is such power in the darkness of winter. Sleep and hibernation are for plants a gathering of strength. As for beauty, I don’t think anything can beat the glory of a silver birch against a winter sky.

But I am getting ahead of myself, it is only November after all. A few pictures of some treasures found in my garden or near my house.

Acer palmatum Osakazuki

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Acer palmatum Redwine

Forsythia

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Anemone japonica Honorine Jobert

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Cornus alba

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Hosta Canadian Blue

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Hydrangea (can you spot the snail ?)

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Fagus sylvatica purpurea

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And a felled tree in the field, death’s ever open eye.

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Releasing a maple

On Saturday, the tree surgeon came and felled the heron’s sycamore. He was a young man with hair as red as it comes and a very handsome smile. Did it make the fall easier ? My husband is still feeling hurt and guilty we had to bring it down.

 

Today, as night was creeping in, I took Acer palmatum Katsura out of the pot it has been sitting in for at least three years. The roots had escaped through the draining hole and into the soil.

This is what its rootball looked like.

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Not desperately pot-bound, but clearly in need of space. I looked at it. I paced the garden. I looked at it again.

The plan was to trim the roots and repot in a bigger container, a beautiful green-glazed one which used to house Acer palmatum Osakazuki. Indeed, this evening, I had as many good reasons to keep this little maple potted as I had to do the same to his bigger cousin a few years ago – above all, the lack of a worthy planting space in the garden and the lingering thought that if (or rather when) we have to move, it will just be much easier with the maples already sort of packed. No, a Japanese maple is not the kind of plant you plump anywhere. Yet, this evening as a few years ago, I could not keep a tree contained. So I released it. Anywhere, almost, between the box and a self-seeded hypericum, and unwisely near the wisteria which will be sucking quite a lot of water away.

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You will think me foolish. With any plant, except for bulbs and maybe box, I struggle with containers. As soon as I receive a plant, I feel, if not an urge, at least the need to give it to the earth. And when it is a tree, even as slow growing as this Japanese maple…

Planting a tree in the earth is like freeing a bird. Roots belong to the mysterious world of unconfined depths as wings to the sky. We walk the roads that draw their interface, unsure where we belong as yearning pushes and pulls our hearts along the way – farther.

Gardening Diary

So as not to burden your WordPress Reader, I have created a little page called Gardening Diary (up there in the menu). In it, I intend to record menial garden-related tasks, or events which don’t really deserve a blogpost. Why, may you ask, not keep such a diary to myself ? To that question I don’t have any satisfying answer. I feel like sharing it, in a unobtrusive way. I also hope that by making it available here, I will keep at it regularly.

The picture is of today’s haul, under the poor light of my desk lamp : a few Daucus carota seedheads collected from the Greyfriars meadow garden (which I believe Franciscans still tend to), and a most exquisite, delicate other seedhead from my garden – and I don’t know from which plant ! Happiness is made of such small things.

Small is my garden

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Yesterday, I finally trimmed the lavender – my only bush produces just enough to make one dried bunch (don’t laugh). I cherish it all the more ; after all, each flower stem was cut individually by me and arranged by my kids . Making lovely scented sachets is not for us, as it would be heart-wrenching to cut the flowers before they are over, especially as they were, until these last days, the main attraction for bees in my garden (with the purple toadflax and a tiny Sedum Lime Zinger. By the way, I haven’t seen one single bee on the Japanese anemones and wonder if that is normal, as the flowers are wide open and the pollen easy to reach). So, I will have to be satisfied with the one dried and faintly-scented bunch – and satisfied I will be indeed.

In a small garden like mine, every plant, no matter how insignificant in size and interest, has a presence and makes an impact (and I include weeds, for which I have a lot of consideration). The constraints of a limited space induce an interest in plants rather than in garden designing – in my case, this follows my natural inclination towards individual entities (if only in a very sensory-wise manner, as my actual knowledge amounts to zero). Indeed, what is there to design in a plot like this narrow strip running northwards from the house to the shed, where some grass (I daren’t call it a lawn) has to be kept for young children to mess about ? I simply have no space (nor funds) for cleverly winding paths revealing secret corners, let alone screens and pergolas. If I was to invest in something, the priority would be a water butt and a composter. Greenhouses are for my next life.

There may not be much to design, but there is nonetheless a lot to observe and contemplate. It is easy to know your garden when it is this size. I walk in it a lot. I listen, smell, touch, go on all fours to probe under the lowest branches and leaves. I talk to plants and invertebrates – not always in a polite way, mind you. Yet, even here, I can be pleasantly surprised, and at no expense : how many unexpected holly seedlings can you find popping up in a narrow border that you examine everyday ? Is that a little pulmonaria growing under the lavender bush ? Oh, it has a sister a bit further, and another one in the grass ! Yes, I know it is hardly a miracle to find a keen self-seeder like lungwort growing without permission, but for me, it is a first and a joy. I planted three of them some years ago (High Contrast, Pink Haze and I don’t remember which other one), but they seem to have had a hard time during our absence, just about clinging to life. I have moved them to another border where they seem to be perking up a little. I enjoy these simple companions, flowering early and therefore helping bees, and their silver-sprinkled humility.

And then, there is that plant which looked dead when we came back (basically a little woody stump which I didn’t even notice at first), but is now pushing up new leaves. I don’t remember what it is, and am therefore excited to see growth appear – I suspect I’ll need to wait for next year’s flowers to be able to identify it. Looking at it, I am funnily reminded of Argos, Ulysses’ faithful dog, which stubbornly fended off death, enduring old age beyond his time, fighting the battle of hope to see his master once again before passing away. What do you mean, you don’t see the link ? Isn’t it obvious that this faithful plant waited for my return to come back to life ? My story even presents the advantage to have a less pathetic outcome than Homer’ tale !

Retour d’Ulysse par Louis Frédéric Schützenberger (1884).

N.B. Leaving those epic shores, I would like to add that in Poundland, I found Rumex sanguineus (red-veined sorrel) and Chiastophyllum oppositifolium ! The first one is already under attack from some hated molluscs (but I swore not to use slug pellets). The second one is an alpine succulent as happy in the shade (or so I’m told) as I am to have it. 🙂

Vegetal Key (what gardening is)

I read today a wonderfully written post which, amongst other things, talked about its author’s reading of nature. It stirred me. I would like to answer to her but 1) my little comment was again sent by WordPress to the bin ; 2) I have had no time to think properly. This somewhat clumsy article is partly a side shoot of that beautiful text.

My God, Gardeners’ World is such an efficient feel-good program. Folks, forget about wars and scars, injustice and hatred. Behold community gardens bringing different generations and social classes together, see how a bare plot of land can become the bed for what I’d like to describe as a garden of people, sharing knowledge and stories in an important and often otherwise unattainable physical closeness. Those hands together in the soil fertilise time.

I realised today, listening to the marvelous Roy Lancaster interviewed by Carol Klein (episode 18), how choked by emotion I get when people talk about their love for plants. In this interview, Roy stressed how his interest in all things vegetal led to a much wider awareness of the intricate texture and nature of the world. First, you are drawn to a plant’s aspect, which then tells you about its environment (why does it grow in such place, next to that other plant, how does it respond to the setting, etc). Little by little, your interest widens from one area to another to, potentially, the whole planet (which obviously includes people – oh how daft and simplistic the opposition between nature and humankind).

And certainly, for me, learning about plants has changed my conscience of… everything. I grew up in a big city, often tightly locked in my own body, as many urban teenagers do, with an incredibly narrow conscience of the world. Nature, to which I have nonetheless always been drawn, remained mute – nameless. And I knew the world was inhabited, but in a sort of hopeless, opaque and frustrating way. England’s most valuable trait, an ever faithful attention to the living world, unlocked me. Now – call me crazy if you will – I feel I can perceive its whisper. As I wrote in another post about landscapes, I don’t clearly understand what it “says” (is it even possible ?), but I can hear what seems to be a voice and a call. Higher happiness came in its wake, with the sense of fullfilment gained when pieces of a previously mixed-up jigsaw finally fall into place.

Roy Lancaster’s relationship with plants illustrates what I love about gardening. It isn’t (just) about putting nice colours in the right place (subjective anyway) or expressing one’s personality (honorable yet still self-centred). It is certainly not about showing proofs of suburban respectability (those hanging baskets…), nor even about being a good-hearted person caring for living things.

It is about opening eyes, ears, nose and hand, fine-tuning one’s skin to wind and seasons, learning the language of time and space, the matter of light – of LIFE. And death, most importantly. Feeling the mystery of each (moment ? event ? Can’t find the notion yet) which relies on it already passing away and yet throwing roots into eternity. Nowhere better than with trees and plants have I felt that time, though painfully (or mercifully) real, is only superficial. Gardening can be a discovery of one’s soul, created for connexion and love. In my interpretation, Adam and Eve were not left in the first Garden to own and control, but primarily to listen and learn, to be defined as much as to define.

(That burst of recognition in my heart when Roy Lancaster talked about the knowledge passed onto him of the Latin names : “I realised then the names were keys to unlock these histories of plants. The world came alive for me through the names of plants”. 
Names : music. Altogether seals of individuality and keepsakes of long gone people’s perceptions and knowledge. Poetry. Gates : in the post I mention at the beginning of this article, the author says she doesn’t need to know the names to appreciate and love, but also admits nature talks to her about herself, her own history and emotions. Knowing the names allows me to step outside and see the other. That is the path to love. I will deny that it is an illusion.)

(Oddly, I have not taken part in the community gardening schemes which florished around my quartier, in Paris. For the moment, gardening still needs to be a solitary occupation for me – rather, a silent one. That is, with the blackbirds jumping and racketing around.)

Garden diary

I can feel the sap thickening in my veins. I can’t wait for Autumn to come, the bulbs to plant, etc. I feel dizzy. Of course, gardening helps me cope with worries.

All I have at the moment is bad quality multipurpose compost. No potting compost, nor seed compost, nor grit, nor anything worth working with. So it is very much a case of “do or die”, otherwise known as “marche ou crève”. Plants have to be tough in my garden (hear that, green friends ?).

Yesterday, moved the Coreopsis Early Sunrise (bought in Poundland !) in a bigger pot. Probably a bit too big, but the plant looks healthy and I hope it will not feel too lonely. It is actually preparing flower buds !

Planted Geranium Black and White Army in the ground. Next to it, a little purple toadflax (linaire pourpre) which pops up everywhere in my garden and had started growing in an old pot. Toadflax is colourful, tall if a bit messy now, the bees love it and it comes for free : that’s good enough for me.

Today, I suddenly had the urge to propagate Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost. I love that plant : stunning silver green-streaked foliage, wonderful airy blue flowers in Spring, not fussy, reliable, happy in the shade. After having read that it should be done by division in Spring or root cutting in Winter, I listened to my impatience again and decided to grab my spade and “go-for-it-Girl” now, in Summer. I replanted two small clumps directly into the soil near the Osakazuki maple, another one where the delphiniums used to be, and two tiny ones in pots. If it works, it will be a lot of great plants for free.

And then, as I was catching up on old episodes of Gardeners’ World on the iPlayer, what did I see ? Monty Don who decided to divide an astrantia in Summer against the books’ recommendation ! He was following the advice of an Irish plantsman (I hear they are the new gurus of the gardening world now, and so they should be) named Jimi Blake, who has created a strange, excentric 20 acres wonderland named Hunting Brook Gardens. Quote to remember : “The crazier the look, the better“. (In the same episode, a young garden designer with the most unrepentant posh accent I have ever heard…)

The trouble with watching Gardeners’ World is that it fills you with an urge to try everything, collect every plant, not to mention the need, the neeeeeeeed to own a large garden with space for potting shed, cold frames, greenhouse, giant wheelbarrows, views on the countryside, prairie-style perspectives, etc. Sigh.

(Now I am starting to think I might need another blog if I am to write a gardening diary…)

Petites surprises

Avertissement. Sur les blogs de jardinage, on ne voit le plus souvent que de superbes plantes en fleur, des arbres majestueux, des spécimens rares, des pelouses manucurées. A Dieu ne plaise qu’une mauvaise herbe s’avise de paraître ! Aucune perfection de ce genre ne vous attend chez moi.

J’aime trouver dans mon jardin des choses que je n’ai pas plantées. Si des indésirables tels que le liseron ou la ronce pointent le bout de leur nez, je les arrache, et c’est une joie du corps. Le terrain n’est pas assez grand pour que la tâche de désherber devienne une insurmontable corvée (il y a bien le vieux lierre et ses cousins… mais c’est un autre sujet). Le plus souvent, les surprises sont bonnes et nourrissent ma gratitude envers le vent et les oiseaux. Chez moi, par exemple, le houx pousse comme une mauvaise herbe, ce qui est une bénédiction (où vous verrez qu’il a fait sec et que personne n’a épanché de fumier sur ce jardin depuis deux ans).

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La glycine de Susan, que je continuerai à nommer ainsi bien que ma voisine canadienne aux beaux yeux myosotis ait vendu sa maison durant notre absence, a fait un petit.

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Auriez-vous une idée de l’identité de ce jeunot ? Glycine aussi ? Jeune frêne ? Wait and see !

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En creusant au pied de l’aucuba du Japon que je retrouve tel que je l’avais laissé, à la fois vigoureux et affecté d’une maladie qui nécrose certaines de ses feuilles jusqu’à l’obsidienne, j’ai senti ma fourche s’enfoncer d’un coup jusqu’au manche. Cela ne m’était jamais arrivé – sous la couche superficielle de bon terreau, notre sol argileux oppose d’ordinaire une résistance opiniâtre. Je bascule la fourche. Surprise : une vieille souche surgit de la terre, révélant alentour et au-dessous des espaces vides, des ébauches de galeries. Elle est beaucoup plus jolie en réalité que sur la photo ci-dessous (le rouleau de scotch vous donnera une idée de la taille).

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Ce vestige sous-terrain se trouvait déjà là avant notre arrivée en 2011. Il est certainement la raison pour laquelle les pulmonaires installées au-dessus ne parvenaient pas à s’épanouir vraiment. J’ai donc déplacé les pulmonaires et je vais garder la souche pour laisser les enfants en explorer les trésors (en plus de l’habituelle colonie de cloportes).

Enfin, j’ai la joie de constater que la véronique fausse gentiane, plantée il y a quelques jours, semble se plaire assez pour lancer de nouvelles feuilles (le bazar tout autour vient de la santoline voisine que j’ai sévèrement ramenée à sa base).

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A bientôt pour un billet sur mes mauvaises herbes ! 🙂

P.S. : J’oublie de vous dire qu’il y a dans mon jardin toute une famille de merles ! Mister Black n’a pas perdu son temps. Le rouge-gorge a également fait quelques apparitions.

 

New plants from Canons Ashby

… and so I didn’t lose any time. As I was up in rural Warwickshire celebrating my husband’s uncle’s golden anniversary, I was kindly taken by my mother-in-law to visit Canons Ashby, a beautiful National Trust house, which was home to the Dryden family. The church is, thanks to Henry VIII’s unfulfilled matrimonial expectations, all there is left of the medieval priory run for four hundred years by Augustinian canons.

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The most striking feature in the grounds was, on the day I visited, magnificent summer perennial borders, with dahlias as the stars of the show.

I didn’t use to be a fan of dahlias, but have recently become partial to those amongst them which display light-coloured flowers (if possible single) set upon dark foliage. Is it acquired tolerance, as they seem to have become fashionable and ubiquitous ? Possibly, but I have always been attracted to the beauty of a foliage at least as much as to that of interesting flowers. In any garden, as in woodland, the tapestry created by contrasting leaves and structures (in colours, shapes, textures and ways to catch the light and the wind) is what I find most striking and memorable.

Leaving the formal beds near the house, we went down the slope to admire the vegetable terraces. Behold these whopping pumpkins :

Alas, near the shop and therefore unmissable, there were the stalls full of lovely as-if-just-for-me plants : a trap cunningly set for weak souls of my kind. Resistance was useless, there was no point wasting any energy pretending : I would go away with as much as I could carry. That is, not so much : my ambitions were limited by the cruel reality of having to travel back to Canterbury by train – my husband was already in charge of our two suitcases and I wouldn’t trust my children with fragile living things (too heavy for them anyway). So this is what I picked :

Tricyrtis formosana Pink Freckles, a shade loving plant answering to the evocative common name of Toad Lily.

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Geranium pratense Black and White Army

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and Heuchera Berry Smoothie

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Why such impatience ? Why not wait for a trip to the garden centre, instead of burdening myself on a train journey ?

Well, the first reason could be that there is no garden centre in Canterbury itself, and that I don’t drive. Secondly, the Toad Lily has been on my list for some time (unusual, beautiful, mysteriously reminding of witchcraft and adapted to a shady garden, though mine may be on the dry side for its taste). I have tried it before and failed. Also on my list, a dark-leaved geranium : Dark Beauty, which I had purchased just before leaving England, hasn’t survived, so there we go again. Regarding the pink heuchera with the ridiculous name, it was my eight-year-old son’s choice. My hope is that it will echo the reddening leaves of Acer palmatum Osakazuki as the season progresses, and provide some sort of consolation for the death of Acer palmatum Shaina.

I should confess that a short walk in town last week saw me creep into Poundland and come out with Coreopsis Early Sunrise and a Veronica gentianoides… Not to mention a number of other beauties ordered online today, which I will show you when they arrive. After all, my birthday is only one month away (and a bit more, but let’s not be overscrupulous). 🙂

I leave you with these pictures of a sparkling spider city (taken in Canons Ashby).

 

My garden, two years later

And so it is that after two years in a Parisian flat where it wasn’t even possible to flower the windowsills, we are back in Canterbury. Back in our little house and, more importantly, to our garden !

During our absence, a friendly gardener regularly visited our plot, cutting the hedge (that dreaded ivy, the fierce firethorn, the cotoneaster, the thick-clawed climbing rose, etc) and keeping things more or less in order. However, and understandably, he had other things to do than stay for hours talking to my plants. To this lack of stimulating conversation (and to the first tenants’ children’s undoubtedly glorious deeds) I attribute the death of many of my vegetal friends. Therefore, let me tune my fine-stringed lyre and pay tribute to you, dear and sometimes very short-lived companions :

Verbena bonariensis, the flowers of which should have presently filled the corner with bright purple light:

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Saxifrage Carpet Pink:

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Creeping phlox:

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Dark-leaved geranium, lupins and alliums:

 

 

Edelweiss:

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Delphiniums (which were never blue anyway):

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Astilbe and various others, amongst which this wonderful hellebore which was so strong I thought it would never die:

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I must confess your loss does not tear me apart and that I already have plans for the space freed (watch this space, too).

I am sad, however, to have lost two of my Japanese maples : the red Acer palmatum Shaina and Acer Shirawasanum Aureum, which was the most precious plant in my garden.

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I used to look at its leaves glowing in the evening, and feel like a poor woman in whose unworthy house inclement weather had forced a prince to take shelter. I don’t know whether I will try to acquire another one. It is not possible to replace something truly loved.

Another cruel loss is that of Eryngium Neptune’s Gold – but for this one, I will definitely try again. Clear out of my way, anybody and anything which think they can stop me from growing eryngiums !

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Other plants did not die, but barely survived. Hydrangeas, to which the Kentish draught was cruel and hostas, which nobody protected against the slugs. Hosta June, for example, went from this :

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… to this :

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Surviving Japanese maples : Acer palmatum Red Wine (which has thrived and grown enormously), Acer palmatum Osakazuki (maybe sulking a bit), Acer palmatum Katsura (as delicate as ever).

Oh, but other plants did well.

Santolina, which crushed everything around it :

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And the strawberry plants, which invaded all the beds. I don’t know how many I pulled out, but here they still are, clinging to the gravel.

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It will take me some time to infuse some colour and shape back into my garden. Wish me luck ! I am looking forward to it.

 

Northern light

So here I am, back in the North ! 🙂 I haven’t written anything in English for a while, except a little song (to which I haven’t found the tune), but feel it is the language for this lighthearted blogpost.

I love the North of England. Its landscape of hills and moors is beauty and light, no matter what ignorant people say. Northern light, yes, and therefore whiter, thinner, sharper, dearer. Nothing to do with that irresistible Mediterranean wave which either knocks you down straight or doesn’t even bother to do so as it just goes through you, body and soul, leaving you on a shore beyond the known world, somewhere between life and afterlife. Up here, it pierces between two clouds (or armies of them), accurate and determined as the tip of a pencil, redraws everything around you, awakens your mind, sharpens your sense of being in a precise place, at a precise time, in charge of a precise task. Light of a chilly texture, carrying memories of long winters and pale everlasting summers, in tune with the people’s temperament – those I have met often seemed to be trying, by working long and hard, to resist an acquaintance with despair or an urge to fight.

When I was teaching in Kent, I met too many 18 year old boys who had never been anywhere North of Oxfordshire and imagined Birmingham as the gate of Hell. I found that shocking and either hilarious or sad.

My in-laws’ house, like all the houses in the neighbourhood, has very large windows, trying to catch that light. Inside, the walls are white. On beautiful days, it is a bit like sailing in a cloud. On rainy days (and boy can it rain in Lancashire !), it feels like being in a boat struggling through a storm – therefore, a sense of adventure (at least for people who are only passing by, like me, knowing they will soon retreat to some Southern shelter).

The highlight is the garden. Beau-papa tends to the plants and Belle-maman feeds and counts birds, hedgehogs, butterflies. Here I have met my dreamed England of the RHS and the RSPB (Royal Horticultural Society, Royal Society for Protection of Birds). I used to love stones, cities, marble-made memories, mineral landscapes. England opened my eyes and senses to the living world, and changed my life.

Here are some of the garden residents. Hope you enjoy them.