Augustine blues Posted on May 18, 2008

We were in Snowdonia for the spring: all six days of it. We went in what felt like the end of winter; branches all but bare, fat flower buds on the ashes but not the oaks (last year it was the other way round). We came home in early summer; the biggest difference of all being the beeches, which had managed to unfurl, shake out and spread at least their first four leaves per twig. They were still in that state of infinite tenderness when the shoot is a slender, silky green-grey extension weighed down by almost transparent wisps of leaves, but the sky was full of them, green in the majority over blue as you looked up. Bluebells, open only on sheltered primrose banks before, were jostling in deep violet crowds. Birches and larches were a haze of bright yellow apple green.

I admit I felt cheated. I need leisure to revel in spring. A long day at the office and I would have missed the best part of it. Happily I was in the woods, trying vainly to capture the metamorphosis on my camera. I lay under a rhododendron under a beech, knowing that the picture could fail dismally to convey the filtering light, the pale purple, paler green and intense sky blue woven in restless shades, knowing that the only way really to see is to put away your camera, stop even thinking, and live in your eyeballs.

The rhododendron is R. augustinii, the nearest (admittedly not very near) to blue. Among the shades of violet and lilac, in dappled sun and shade, they can seem as blue as bluebells. When we acquired our wood, 13 years ago, I planted a dozen R. augustinii along streams and by little waterfalls. I pretty much left them to take their chance. A wood is not a garden; the dustpan and brush have no place in forestry. Despite neglect nine of the twelve have flourished. Last autumn I cleared the invading birch, gorse, bracken and brambles around them. This spring their slender framework and little flowers, as elaborate as orchids, graced the shifting light under beeches and larches like puffs of smoke. I shall plant more. To plant anything else would be gardening.

Of course we went to Bodnant. I had never been there at the cusp of the rhododendron season before, and was ébloui (there are English words, I know, but don’t you love the French?) by the colours, the scale, the mastery of this extraordinary garden cum forest. It made me concentrate on the question of colour. It goes wrong when a bright or strong colour is isolated. A single red flower among pinks is effectively a weed. Red and white are the colours to be most careful with: they need careful grouping with plenty of green. One path in the upper garden is dedicated entirely to red rhodos, with truly regal effect. Down the cascade by the old mill, on the other hand, red fights pink and white, not so much a patchwork as an outbreak of measles.

Even blue, soft as it is, is best played alone.

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