Garden symbolism

26 Aug

Thinking about garden style led me to do a little bit of research into the symbolism of gardens. The thing that sparked this off was reading a catalogue from a 1972 art show in London entitled French Symbolist Painters. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only show of its kind to have been assembled in Britain, at least in living memory, so I was more than pleased to happen upon the catalogue in a Keswick bookshop a couple of weeks ago. In the introduction, Philippe Jullian writes that

The movement resembled a dense forest; its branches sought to hide the factories and the railways, its pungent fruits held the key to ‘anywhere out of the world’, and its luxuriant blossoms inspired Art Nouveau. The roots of the trees thrust themselves deep into the subsoil of Celtic and Norse legends, while the saplings, taken from exotic species of trees issuing from Florence, Byzantium and even India, produced poisonous blossoms . . . we are rediscovering these strange species of trees and re-erecting the moss-covered statues, long grown monstrous in appearance. This forest had been planted with trees from the forest of Broceliande and with flowers from the garden of Klingsor.

I had to look those references up. Broceliande is a mythical forest of Arthurian legend, said to have existed in northern France. Klingsor’s garden is in Parsifal by Wagner, stage directions being “the magic garden rises and fills the whole stage. Tropical vegetation, luxuriant display of flowers.” The garden is populated by seductive yet innocent “flower maidens” (bit of patriarchy for you there).

This is a garden of the mind, but what happens if I switch it around, switch the imagined tropical plants for real ones and cultural objects for mental images? After all, a symbol is only a suggestion of something more beyond a word, an object, a plant. I don’t see why symbols can’t issue from a garden too. As it turns out, they can and they do, obviously; just think of the garden of Eden, but remember, there was more to Eden than meets the eye.

For once, there was an unknown land, full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes; a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream; a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.

(From the film Velvet Goldmine)

Perfect and poisonous. Gardens can get away with contradictions like that. It’s what they are about: trouble. There would be no gardens in utopia, that much I know. The essential thing about gardens, and if you know me a little then you won’t be surprised to see me writing this, is that each one is a fantasy sprung free from reality. They always say more than they intend to and lead off to, well, to something that isn’t a garden, be it functional reality or dysfunctional fantasy. Eden had its forbidden fruit. Most gardens have very visible perimeters, separating them off from the business of modern life. That’s what makes them so unlimited in the imagination: their limits. “You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist. The hacienda must be built.” (Ivan Chtcheglov) The Hacienda has stood to describe a real garden and a utopian vision, not to mention a nightclub, which is kind of half way between the two, if you ask me.

Apparently Jung and Freud thought of gardens as symbols of purity, chastity and femininity. Walled gardens especially have a long, long history of association with the Virgin Mary, so I read, with the modesty of their carefully tended paths and planting. A favourite play on this is the garden in Zola’s La Faut de l’Abbé Mouret; unlike the reader, who knows what’s going to happen, the hero knows nothing of his sin until he looks through a gap in the garden wall.

On the other hand, forests are said to symbolise dark forces of nature, somewhere boundless, somewhere to get lost. I suppose my garden sits somewhere between the two, garden and forest. I know it’s fake, but it’s also made from nature, albeit with a lot of help through the winter. So long as it contains life, and all of life, including the dark and the light, i’m not too bothered what the symbolism is. But it’s there. It lives along with the plants. It’s for others to decode and decide what’s going on, i’m only the worker.

nor till the poets among us can be 

‘literalists of 

the imagination’–above 

insolence and triviality and can present 

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall 

we have 

it.

(from ‘Poetry’ by Marianne Moore)

You can have it both ways, real and ideal, natural and unnatural. In fact, you have to! And that’s me done on the subject, until next time.

Back Garden Update

24 Aug

The camera seems to be a little better at the moment. Not so fuzzy as it was. So here are some images I took this morning.

It’s a little bit chaotic out there, I have to say. I’m hooked on collecting massive plants, which is great except that focal points get a bit lost. But first, there’s this vignette, which is pretty orderly

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Here’s another view of this bed, one I created this year. It was meant to be made up of waifs and strays, but it makes more sense that the others nonetheless, maybe because there aren’t a number of enormous plants competing for attention

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Here’s another new bed. Most things in it are pretty low to the ground, and there’s a colour scheme to most of it. Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’ is getting a bit wild and woolly, I should probably try dividing it when I dig it up. Hardly anything in this bed is hardy. Come winter I will most likely have to put some of yesterday’s purchases in there, seeing as 8 of the 9 plants I bought prefer to be in full sun. Again, I am going to end up with a bed of monster plants: Ginkgo biloba isn’t exactly small once it gets going, but at least it should stay relatively erect at first; a plus, seeing as this bed is only three feet wide.

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Next, the large raised bed, which makes little sense. Everything in it is admirable in itself, just not together. Maybe I should bite the bullet, pull Lilium henryi out and put the bulbs in the front garden.

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The smaller, covered raised bed, aka the Desert, is behaving itself. Maybe the plants would grow a little faster with more water in summer and less impoverished soil, but they definitely won’t be rotted by a cool, wet summer like in 2012, when Aloe striatula rotted off, and that’s the main thing

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Behind the desert I have all sorts, including Hedychium ‘Tara’ which is in flower at the moment

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Next up is the back left corner, again rammed with plants, not least because a Solanum laciniatum, which was already big last summer, unexpectedly made it through the winter and is even bigger now, so much so that I have had to chop a couple of large limbs off it to give the tetrapanax and gingers more light

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The last spot i’ll show is in the jungle, deep in the shade of Pseudosasa japonica, where Blechnum chilense has been taking off these last few years. There’s a path in there somewhere, I can just about get through it after yesterday’s clearances

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So, all this makes me wonder if I have a style. For sure, I have a way of gardening, but is it a style? Or just habits? Answers on a postcard.

New Plants

23 Aug

Wow, I only stopped by one of my local nurseries for a quick look and I came away with nine plants for under £60! It’s like it’s my birthday all over again. Here’s the haul:

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Myrtus communis, Angelica archangelica, Verbascum bombyciferum, mystery plant I assume is a Kniphofia; Gingko biloba, a Callistemon of some sort, Acacia paradoxa, Hydrangea aspera ‘Macrophylla’ and a huge mystery plant which I assumed was an agave, looks like it’s A. filifera, although it has bonus octopus arms instead of straight ones. Maybe it’s filifera cross-bred with A. vilmoriniana or A. bracteosa. Anyone have any thoughts? The seller said she grew it from a batch of mixed seed. Damn, it’s my lucky day. I don’t know how I missed it before . . .

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I’ve spent the afternoon ripping out a load of ferns and Siberian iris to make room for some of these. I was over indulgent with the iris because I grew them from seed saved from an old plant, but time is up for them now, as the inmates were starting the take over the asylum. New gaps-

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And the victims, for posterity-

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Desert flowers

25 Jul

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a heatwave, and very nice it is too. To celebrate, here are some pictures of cacti and succulents blooming in the covered, raised bed.
Opuntia macrorhiza:

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Aloe striatula:

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And this, which I have decided is Aloe mitriformis, though I might be wrong there:

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Gloriosa superba

25 Jun

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Here’s my newest new thing. It was bought as a tuber from the London Spring Plant Fair. Never having seen one in real life, i’m well pleased to have my own example living it up in the greenhouse. Despite the bloom looking like a lily, it isn’t. It’s a climber native to the tropics and is a noxious weed in some warm countries, which in my experience makes it an ideal summer annual in this country. I’ve lusted after those showy blooms for a few years now, with their reflexed petals with wavy margins. I like a wavy margin, me. Cultivation has been simple, I just laid the long, brittle and intensely poisonous tuber in a large pot in the conservatory and moved it into the greenhouse shortly after the new growth broke the surface of the compost. This is another appeal: besides being glorious and superb (whoever named it was seriously impressed, obviously) it is lethally toxic, containing copious amounts of something called colchicine, which apparently causes one’s hair to fall out and various parts of the body to break down in ways too disgusting to detail, followed by rapidly ascending paralysis of the nervous system, and death. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t chosen to grow it just because it is deadly. I don’t have living arsenals of colchicine, ricin, scopolamine and oleandrin just for the sake of it. Its toxicity would be by the by if it weren’t for its peerless, flaunting beauty. No, it’s the combination of beautiful and deadly that hooks me hopelessly in.

As for garden use, gloriosa superba doesn’t really have one, for me. The colours don’t fit in especially well with any scheme of mine, I haven’t a sunny spot by a door to use to show it off, and in any case I wouldn’t want it where my children can easily access it. It’s here only as a greenhouse specimen.

Oh, the never-ending pleasure of tending living things which have no right, according either to good taste, safety or the simple facts of our cold climate, to be alive here in northern England.

Mid June

22 Jun

*sigh* i’ll lay my hands on a better camera soon, meanwhile there’s a fog on the lens.

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Ornithogalum saundersiae, an explosion in glowing blue-green.

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and the same in its situation, which is another of the new beds i’m creating where the lawn was. It’s planted with waifs and strays from the greenhouse, there’s no great plan to it. It’s been very dry here recently as you can tell. That’s ok, it suits most of the plants i’ve placed in this particular bed.

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This bamboo selection, Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’, is growing like mad in its third year with me, typical bamboo behaviour there. It doesn’t seem to be much of a spreader – so far.

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Two aloes coming into flower. To the best of my knowledge, aloes tend to flower in the cooler months in their warmer natural environments. I have no idea how they figure out what the hell to do in my climate. I’m pleased enough for them to be alive, let alone in flower.

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Opium poppy. These things are bordering on being weeds, the way they will set roots down anywhere. I wish the peony flowered strains I have grown in the past were such prolific self-seeders. They were spectacular.

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Here are a couple of bona fide annual weeds, Rosebay Willowherb (epilobium angustifolium) which goes crazy at the time of year, and Hairy Bittercress (cardamine hirsuta), a year round annoyance.

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Paulownia tomentosa

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Plenty of blooms on brugmansia ‘Maya’. I would bring it into the house for a couple of nights to see if I could live with the perfume without getting a headache, but there’s red spider mite in there and angels’ trumpets are martyrs for those critters.

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I’ve posted before about this combination but it’s worth doing so again. Glaucous, scarlet and black together. You can tell that they are drought tolerant. The cerinthe grows much more upright under the roof of the desert bed. There’s not much soil in that bed. They’re growing in a mix of at least three quarters gravel, a little sand and the rest is coarse, twiggy compost I brewed up myself and added in thin layers in amongst the rock.

New bed

31 May

Here are the latest results of my efforts. I’ve tried to make the colour scheme as unearthly as I can! I will cover over the paths with bark mulch at some point.

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