The season begins with receipt early in January of a catalogue from Chiltern Seeds. Each year I read it from cover to cover looking for something that will fulfil a useful role in my scheme of things. It takes me a fortnight of poring over it to decide what exactly to order. This year I have settled on half-hardy shrubs, scented plants and one or two hardy elements, the latter being the Honey Locust Gleditsia triacanthos and the Japanese Bitter Orange Poncirus trifoliata. These are both fearsomely armed with spines. Japanese Bitter Orange is a hardy, inedible citrus with which I hope to replace the privet hedge (spit) that separates the front garden from the pavement.
I hold on to a contradictory pair of impulses – to plant things that will persist here and to plant things that look like they shouldn’t persist here. So shrubs and trees that tread a fine line between the two, all of which require sun and well-drained soil; the raised bed then. These are Eucalyptus caesia, Acacia baileyana, Caesalpinia gilliesii and Leucadendron argenteum.
Having enjoyed the thick, ailing fragrance of Brugmansia, and that of Night scented stock Matthiola bicornis last year, which gives off a scent of almonds, white chocolate and vanilla ice-cream, i’ve made a theme of it with the same again plus Schizopetalon walkeri and Heliotrope. Heliotrope used to be fashionable as bedding. This sounds like a reason to stay away, but there is, so the story goes, something iconic about its scent, in the manner of Night-scented stock. The clinching thing for me was its appearance Zola’s La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, which I adore.
As I mentioned yesterday, I always try to start with an idea rather than plants per se, so to that end I come up with various schemes for gardens. One benefit of having relatively few hardy plants is that because I have to lift them for the Winter it gives me liberty to start from scratch each new growing season.
By far the most prominent feature in the back garden is the large raised bed. First season I grew a stand of opium poppies before whipping them out in July and growing Echium pininana ‘Snow Tower’ on into December when they in turn succumbed, not to my hand, but to a sharp frost. The next year I used succulents, in purple and glaucous shades.
Likewise, the front garden and south-facing back border (save a large Photinia fraseri ‘Red Robin’ whose crown I lifted to lend this mundane shrub a more distinctive look) are largely free of clutter. So you see, i’ve plenty of scope for experiments – a good job as i’m easily bored.
Therefore we have in the theoretical pipeline –
-a garden containing nothing but aroids (gloriously weird but expensive, tricky and difficult to give structure and height to)
-a black garden (needs contrast which is difficult to do well)
-a gendered garden (froofy flowers such as peonies, brugmansia and dianthus for the feminine, beefy cacti and succulents and thrusting aroids for the masculine)
and so forth. But we shall return to these in detail in future posts.
There’s a notebook I have somewhere knocking around the house filled with quotes, pictures horticultural or no, and schemes of various kinds, all related to my ideas and experience of my garden. The idea I had in mind when starting the notebook was to create an aid so as always to start from an idea when creating a garden, never from the practicalities. Now, i’ve been applying myself to that task for a very few years and the practicalities have caught up with the ideas. No, not the practicalities, practicalities are staid and boring and everything gardening is commonly assumed to be. Nonetheless, the realities of what is called ‘exotic gardening’ in soggy Cheshire clay have certainly caught up with me. It’s that ludicrous swoop from gilded ideals to recalcitrant mud that I want to note down in this journal. Yes, this is deranged. And no, I do not collect plants or want to recreate Madeira in Manchester. I want to create a place like nowhere else on earth. An incongruous place. A place that overloads one’s senses, like very mild torture. As for the name, the chthonic is that which dwells inside the earth or pertains to the underworld, so The Chthonic Life seems a good and grandiloquent label for my garden subjects and I.