The Columnist
THE COLUMNIST
  The Oldi
   
Everyhthing in the Garden
  James Mitchie
  Blind Blake
  The Wife's First Novel
  Hedgerow Harvest
  Memories are made like this
  Rhinos on Board
  Panto Nostalgia
  Breakfast
  A Ghost Story
  Cocktails Anyone?
  Best Kept Village
  A Difference of Opinion
  MORE FROM THE OLDIE
   

 

 

 

 

 

Giant snail about to attack gardener
        

When I was in London, I lived next door to Dame Sylvia Crowe, one of the foremost landscape architects of the era, a woman who in her time had moved hillsides to create effects and dug out half Rutland to make a new lake. In the patch of communal square outside our adjoining gardens there was a flower border from which I was constantly trying to eradicate ground elder, in my role as volunteer gardener.

“It’s no use, really,” she said to me one day. “It’ll almost always beat you in the end.”

Ironic, really, that a woman who had dynamited portions of counties to achieve the right pattern and conjure lakes out of dry land should fly the white flag at the attack of ground elder twenty yards from her own flat. But a garden is, at best, a holding operation against nature, and I think this is one of the things that Stephen Dalton is trying to get at in a photograph exhibition I went to at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath in May. The show (like the book it came with) is called The Secret Life of the Garden, and consists of colour photos Dalton has taken over the years in his own garden in Sussex. His patience, his flashlight and his freeze frame technique have captured lots of things I have never seen, only imagined: a toad with its tongue fully extended catching a worm, a mother mouse suckling a litter, a spider in mid-air jump, a swarm of bees on a branch like a thousand brawling rugby forwards, and, most amazing of all, a barn owl caught in the flash as it flies into its barn with a mouse wriggling, terrified, in its mouth…

The overall picture is of action, movement, greed, death and hunger. No less striking than the picture of a blue tit flashing out of a nesting box is the caption which informs you drily that a brood of tits can consume 500 caterpillars a day. Nor did I know that a mouse is capable of reproduction from the age of 6 weeks. Yet this is not the impression that we get from our gardens when we look out at them. They are not throbbing with murder and lust, or mass catering. They seem static. They seem frozen in time like a picture. And, indeed, gardens are rather like art galleries which we have installed in the middle of a war. Out there in nature battle is being waged for survival, complicated sometimes by the arrival of farmers with pesticides, who do for nature what Hiroshima did for peace and quiet in the Japanese countryside, and in the middle of all this we install our gardens like an outpost of Bond Street, having a nice line of herbaceous plants here, and a rectangle of lettuce here…

Nature must think we are mad. Or rather, when a slug finds that row of lettuces, he must only conclude that it has been put there for him, the same as we feel when we find a field full of mushrooms or hedge flowing with blackberries. Chop, chomp, goes the slug, as it patiently munches its way through our delicious salads. The last thing it hears is a disgusted squawk, “Oh God, look at that slug!” followed by a bisection by a spade or some other execution. I think we would all feel a little miffed if, as we picked blackberries or dawn-plucked mushrooms, we heard a voice from heaven crying, “Blasted humans!” and felt a large boot descend on us…

But Stephen Dalton’s over-riding message about gardens, I think, is that our floral art galleries can co-exist with nature, and how much poorer gardens would be if they pretended that nature did not exist. This is the time of year when gardens are looking good and therefore are suddenly thrown open to the public, the profits all to go to some unknown cause. Not just big gardens, either. I was hauled up to Clwyd last week by a plea from my step-mother in Overton-on-Dee to lend moral support as she flung open her garden to the public along with her neighbours, and my son and I duly turned up, I to remove all the dog turds from the lawn before the public drifted in, he to race around getting ready to shoot the visitors. One of my step-mother’s dogs (she has thousands) had died the week before, and when we arrived Adam had, for the first time in his life, a gardening question to ask: “Where is the dog buried?” The spot was pointed out to him. He looked at it without comment. It was his first introduction to the notion that the English bury their relatives along with lots of strangers, but their beloved dogs they fondly bury in their own gardens.

The following weekend the gardens were thrown open in our neighbouring town of Bradford-on-Avon . The secret gardens of Bradford-on-Avon, it said, which is true, I suppose, as almost everything in Bradford-on-Avon is inaccessible, which is one reason why it is so attractive. My favourite garden was one on Jones Hill. I had always wondered why Jones Hill was so named. Now I know. It was named after Isaac Jones, builder of the house and garden we visited, and creator of the stone quarry which had given him the money to build the house and garden – indeed, one edge of the garden abutted on an old entrance to the mine, a gaping hole in the rock behind the bluebells. Keep Children Away, it warned, Dangerous! I think Dalton would have been impressed by the addition of one more hazard to garden life. Mark you, Dame Sylvia would have been impressed to see dynamiting and landscape gardening united so closely…

The Oldie 1993