A week tomorrow my local branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society meets up.
The branch area seems to cover a good deal of east Cheshire. I’ve never been along to one of their meetings, although I picked up my agave guadalajara from a stall of theirs at Wilmslow fair a few years ago. This month I really should give it a try: usually they meet at my local library, but this time they are at the local parish hall at the end of my road, so i’d be very lazy not to attend.
Recently, most of my spare cash has been spent on repairs and upgrades to my pushbike (i don’t drive, so it’s how I get around). What with buying a saddle, handlebars, grips, chain, cassette, chainrings, shoes, clipless pedals, rear derailleur, tools and I forget what else, it’s cost me more than my work colleague’s MOT. Jesus. But I dare say I can manage to swap a succulent or two with like minded maniacs, sorry, I mean gardeners. Another thing i’m curious to find out is whether society members are solely into having neat rows of mammilaria etc flower in the conservatory, or whether they actually garden with this stuff, taking risks with hardiness and so on and so forth. A mix of both, probably, but I intend to find out.
Obviously the other thing going on is me shoehorning the garden into a small greenhouse. The usual cliches apply: not enough room, why did I decide I needed to keep all twenty colocasia, all sixty agave seedlings, how high can the brugmansia be before I have to wield the secateurs, all the plants appear much larger in pots. It’s all very exciting and of course it gets me thinking about what to create next spring. The privet and hawthorn hedge at the front of the front garden is going to have to go, and a new plan formulated for the front garden as a whole; it’s all very well planting four aralia elata symmetrically, but all sense of formality has gone out of the window now the tallest is endangering the overhead phone lines. They look shamelessly inappropriate. Besides, this year they grew branches. Not many, but enough to make it much harder to kid myself that I have a quartet of fishtail palms out front. I can’t be having that now, can I?
I do love it when things get out of hand.
Not quite sure how to write this without sounding unreasonably brisk, but on Friday I buried my father. Dad had had trouble of some kind for over a year, but was only diagnosed with cancer less than five months ago. Of all the things he meant to me, not least was that more than anyone else, he gave me more of a sense of belonging to a place. (Odd maybe, considering he’s from the more working-class Lancashire side of Manchester and i’ve spent most of my life on the posh Cheshire side.) So i’m fortunate to have some of his handiwork to remember him by, here in my own garden. See, besides being an electrician, heating and refrigeration engineer, he had an interest in most trades: he built the brick raised beds in the back garden and fashioned a roof over the smaller one so as to satisfy my odd gardening needs. The large bed is built from interior brick I scrounged from a skip down the road, and fractures easily in frost, so dad used so much mortar that it will virtually stand up on its own without the bricks. And this is what they looked like yesterday-
Something to remember him by. As is this fine acer palmatum my work colleague kindly presented me with. Good choice, Di-
And while we are on the kindness of others, a friend took me out in the car to take my mind off things, I have a good picture of the spot we went to. I had a swim-
There are some kind folks about.
It’s a pity the fruit on this plant isn’t edible, because it looks delicious. I did try a tiny sliver of it once, having read mixed reports of it’s toxicity. It gave me a slight stomachache, though it tasted ok.
It is farmed for use in the manufacture of contraceptive pills.
The young stems are perfectly smooth and black, the foliage gracefully lax and of an even, deep green. It seems to become more lanceolate as the plant matures. It flowers freely, lilac blooms with bright yellow anthers. And the fruit! Garlands of queen olive-sized, spotlessly smooth, starting green, striped with a linea nigra as if to denote fecundity, ripening yellow then orange, at which point the fruit splits and falls to the ground. Finally, it’s a strong grower. It’s had a lot of pruning to keep it from getting in the way of the paths.
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
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
(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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
Behind the desert I have all sorts, including Hedychium ‘Tara’ which is in flower at the moment
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
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
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:
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 . . .
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-
And the victims, for posterity-