I was walking through someone’s beautiful garden yesterday and I suddenly had an epiphany: I am becoming a gardening enthusiast.
Where I used to be a person who would vaguely register “purple flower,” I am now a person who knows the difference between an “allium” and an “agapanthus,” and even realizes that they are plants suitable to a herbaceous border. Slowly, gradually, I have learned to recognize dozens of English plants and flowers. If I knew them before, it was only in a storybook way: “hollyhocks,” “lamb’s ears,” “dahlias,” “catmint,” “delphiniums,” “lupins,” “sweet peas.” Somehow I have crossed over from a person who loved reading The Secret Garden, to a person who wants a secret garden. I was thrilled when my peonies recently started blooming, and visiting the garden center for a plant shopping binge has been the highlight of my week. Believe me, it hasn’t always been this way.
I don’t remember a lot of flowers in Central Texas, where I grew up – only the rather boring, hardy varieties like pansies and marigolds. One suited to the mild winters; one suited to the arid summers. Bland, ubiquitous flowers. We had “lawns” of thick, coarse St. Augustine grass instead. Maybe some trees and a few shrubs.
A lawn is serviceable; it is frontage for your house; it is something that has to be mown and edged frequently. If you do take pride in it, it is because of the rigorous neatness, the vigorous greenness, the vanquished weeds.
A “garden” is something entirely different.
A garden is a creative enterprise; an aesthetic statement; a revealing form of self-expression. It is a constantly evolving project – full of delight, surprise and heartbreak. It may take years, even decades, of plotting and shaping; yet it can change overnight. A garden resists the control of even the most masterful hand, as it is constantly subject to weather vagaries and the self-seeding propensity of so many plants. It is never “done,” but always a work in progress. A garden is cyclical – and therefore, a source of ever-renewable small pleasures. I will be sad to see the wisteria, clematis and peonies fade with the end of May, but by June the roses will start blooming.
Many keen gardeners have a flower that they are particularly passionate about – and for me, that flower is the rose. The David Austin Handbook of Roses is like horticultural porn: seductive and highly thrilling. I drool over the descriptions, lingering lovingly over: “exquisite little buds,” “good, bushy growth,” “light musk rose perfume with a hint of myrrh,” “luxuriant healthy foliage,” and “richest velvety crimson.” Each rose is almost more beautiful than the last – and there are hundreds of them. I know that I can’t have them all, but I can still have lots. I fantasize over them, making wish lists. I like the old roses the best; the peony-like ones, with proper rose fragrance.
Being a word lover, I also love roses for their names. No doubt “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but I can’t help believe that there is something in a name. “Alan Titchmarsh” and “Eglantyne” are both beautiful pink roses – but which one would you rather have?
I have no problem confessing that I get a strange satisfaction from rose names – both the beautiful and the quirky. I know that proper gardeners learn the Latin names of their plants, but I would so much rather have a “Falstaff” rose or a “Shropshire Lass.” When I was choosing a pale apricot rose to mix in with some lavender and purple salvia I could have gone for “Abraham Darby” or “Evelyn” or “Pat Austin” – but when I spotted the “Ambridge” rose, I knew that I had to have that one for Sigmund. (English readers will recognize “Ambridge” as the village in which “The Archers” – a long-running radio drama that Sigmund is devoted to -- is set.) Although I picked “The Pilgrim” for its delicate yellow blooms and strong climbing prowess, I still delighted in its American overtones. (I hope that it will be a vigorous adventurer, swiftly conquering the ugly garage wall it has been trained against.) “The Generous Gardener,” a pale satin slipper pink, will hopefully bring good luck in the new border. “Celsiana” and “Penelope” will be massed against the side fence. Old English names, like “Glamis Castle” and “Winchester Cathedral,” are mixed in with my herbs. At some point, I just know that I will have to establish my Poet’s Corner for roses: with “Jane Austen,” “William Shakespeare, “The Dark Lady,” “Thomas Hardy,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and so many others to choose from.
Gardens really are about putting down roots. Because a garden can take years to properly establish, it is a long-term vision – an investment in the future. In July, we will have lived in this house for two years – nearly a record for our family. Even though we have spent nearly all of that two years renovating our house, I still think that I could happily “up sticks” if the right adventure presented itself. A house is a house. (And besides, I really need a bigger kitchen.) We have lived in lots of houses, but this is our first real garden. I can imagine that with a few more years of putting down roses, I may not ever want to leave.
After two weeks of glorious sunny weather, what I have come to think of as “default English weather” has returned: 50 degrees, damp, gray, soft, misty. I know that my newfound gardening outlook is starting to change me, because my first thought was thank goodness it’s raining, because the garden needs a good soak!