March 26, 2020
There is no excuse for a weed in the path or a leaf out of place any more. These four walls are our confine. Happily they include our two little gardens, front and back. Even more happily spring is giving them a new aspect every day. We have never peered at each bud with such rapt attention, or gloated so much at the opening of each flower.
Three times today I have been out to check on Clematis ‘Avalanche’ (a de luxe edition of C . cirrhosa? No parentage revealed). Last night I thought I saw a minute extension at its tip, where it is just reaching the trellis. This morning I was not so sure. But yes, there is action: the bud is opening. What’s more, the C. alpina that has spent the winter looking like raffia, so sere and thin that no sap could possibly rise in it, has suddenly sent out a shoot, green from brown, no thicker than a thread.
In front of the house, meanwhile, Magnolia x soulangeana is dropping its fleshy petals on the paving, one side white, the other bright purple. For some reason they remind me of a Tudor courtier’s slashed doublet. And no, I’m not reading Hilary Mantel. I’ve realised we have too much red facing the street. The camellia hedge dividing us from our neighbour (planted long before our time) is really Grenadier. So is our window box, and a trough of cyclamen. We must be more careful.
I’m rereading some of the gardening books that got me started in the 1970s. I used to think then that Graham Stewart Thomas was cutting-edge stuff. (His scholarship still is, but it doesn’t read so well today). We were still reading Vita Sackville West. Brigadier Lucas Philips was issuing appropriately military gardening instructions. Christopher Lloyd was the tearaway. Beth Chatto was the calming, naturalistic, influence. Mrs Desmond Underwood seemed to have a monopoly of silver plants. How remote it all seems from today’s brown flowers and beige grasses.
Perhaps the biggest change is the choice of plants in nurseries. In those days you were offered (if you were lucky) the species and perhaps a couple of favoured cultivars. Today in many cases (see ‘Avalanche’ above) the busy breeder has effectively produced a new plant whose origin in nature scarcely matters. Information is limited to a plastic ticket in Dutch and two other languages. (‘It needs moist well-drained soil in sun or semi-shade. Soak rootball before planting’). The trouble is, I’m curious.