Over the years, people have described my garden as an “English garden”.
I was delighted to hear them say so at first, visions of strawberries and cream and English roses swirling in my mind’s eye. Except that looking around, I didn’t see that many of either. Oh, I have the strawberry plants – the fruits of my labour much enjoyed by rabbits and squirrels – and I have a few rose bushes, but was that enough to qualify as an English garden? Perhaps an English garden was something else altogether?
And of course it is. According to Wikipedia, an English garden presented an idealized view of nature, drawing inspiration from paintings of landscapes by Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. “They usually included a lake, sweeps of gently rolling lawns set against groves of trees, and recreations of classical temples, Gothic ruins, bridges, and other picturesque architecture, designed to recreate an idyllic pastoral landscape.”
So, not quite my garden which was entirely devoid of all of the above. Further reading revealed that friends had probably meant an English cottage garden, which is described as “informal design, traditional materials, dense plantings, and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants”. A cottage garden relies more on “grace and charm rather than grandeur and formal structure”.
Flowers common to early cottage gardens included primrose, violets and daisies where those “used to fill spaces, gradually became more dominant”. As one who spent much of this summer on my knees, pulling out violets from my lawn and digging up clumps of daisies that had seeded far and wide, I can vouch for this characteristic.
With that exercise out of the way, I was free to sigh over gardens described in books. Has anyone else noticed that many of those describe English gardens? And that English gardeners have this vastly annoying habit of waxing lyrical over gardening in January? January, when I risk frostbite if I step out into mine. And their sense of scale is vastly different from ours. In The Garden Farmer, Francine Raymond describes her “small garden” – one in which she is able to grow a ton of flowers, vegetables and fruits and raise a few hens and pigs. Hens and pigs. In a small garden. The two don’t belong in the same sentence, but the book is such a visual treat and packed with so much information that I readily forgive her and dig in. How can I not love a woman whose resolutions include “To sit around in the garden with a cup of something more often”?
Or one who likes drying her laundry in the sun?
Line-dry your clothes to save electricity, lessen greenhouse gas emissions, reduce wear and tear on your clothes and minimise static, writes Raymond. Pegged properly – from the hem – clothes get less wrinkled and need less ironing, she continues, adding that the occasional rain shower while the clothes are hanging outside works as a fabric softener. If you want to go whole hog, you can follow her suggestion to drape clothes to dry on top of fragrant bushes.
Raymond’s “timely advice” includes sniffing as many roses as you can – “on the street and in other people’s gardens”.
“I garden to hold tight to my connection to the outside world,” she writes. “It lightens my mood and keeps me sane, improves my health and gives me hope.” She provides earth-friendly solutions that you can concoct in your kitchen for killing those dastardly red lily beetles, the bane of the gardener’s existence.
Her recipe for a garlic spray that gets rid of them as well as aphids, mites and whiteflies:
Mash two or three garlic cloves in a mortar and pestle and steep in half a litre of water. Mix well and leave to macerate for a couple of days. Strain the bits and decant into a spray bottle.
She also extorts us to stay on top of ripening fruits and veggies to foil creatures that lie in wait for the same and I think of the rabbits that gambol right past me with tomatoes that I want for my salad. I sometimes fear I am about to turn into Elmer Fudd, out to best that wascally wabbit!
May is her favourite summer (it’s summer in England!) month. And mine, and mine! I say to her, as though we are chatting over a cup of something in her garden.
We may not have as long a gardening season as they do in England, but we toil in our gardens spring through fall and also need her reminder that there’s an art to relaxing in a garden you care for.
How do you switch off and ignore that wilting plant, that blinding clash of colours or unfortunate partnership, allow your mind to drift, and take pleasure in an environment where you usually labour? This is the gardener’s dilemma in August. Try to find an area with a view of the sky and horizon, a few swaying branches, some waving grasses to hypnotise you into serenity. Let your mind wander down avenues other than the garden path.
I just wish she had provided the names of all the flowers in the gorgeous photographs instead of generic captions like Make sure you grow year-round nectar and pollen producing plants for insects and their young.
Names, Francine, give me names! So I can go out and add a few more plants to my English garden.