Garden Invaders, Good and Bad - 20th May
As the exam season at Strathclyde Law School draws to a close, for the first time in what seems like months it has been raining quite heavily here in deepest Paisleyshire. Good for the soil, of course, but an additional benefit is that the duller light brings out the garden colours rather better than bright sunshine which has a tendency to bleach the human eye. So even poorer weather has much to please the gardener. Another pleasure came last week, when I heard a cuckoo in the distance. This is an annual event at this time of the year though, to my knowledge, I have never actually seen a real-life cuckoo.
As the years go by, I am slowly turning the garden into a place of foliage rather than flowers, with the aim of having contrasting shades and shapes on a longer lasting basis. The colour palette from leaves is in fact barely more limited than with the more fleeting delights of petals. Some time ago we visited Drummond Castle just outside Crieff in the early spring, and though their Italianate garden, unique and quite out of place in Scotland, was not yet in flower we were blown away by the range of colours emanating from nothing more than leaves. Here in our own policies we have created a contrasting landscape made up of the delicate leaf-green leaves of birches, the glaucous tones of grey willow bushes (calix cinerea) contrasting with, and enhancing, coppery acers, the deep dark plumb of black elder (sambucus nigra) and physocarpus diabolo, the headlight yellow of the golden spirea and the softest lime green of the newly unfurled beech. There are whites in variegated weigela and even pinks in the multi-coloured leaves of actinidia kolomikta (hardy – though fruitless – kiwi). The hostas pick up and repeat all of these shades. Of course, there are some flowers in and around the bushes at this time of the year, most noticeably orange quince which always seem straight out of an oriental print and the violet/mauve of magnolia, and early-flowering perennials of which Solomon’s Seal, with its rows of small white lanterns, has to be the most charming.
Is there anything better in the arboreal world than the beech tree (fagus sylvatica), by the way? A mature specimen will have contorted branches interlacing into a dome of elegance held aloft by a trunk with the smoothest grey bark, but it is its foliage that makes this simply the best of trees. At this time of the year the new leaves have just unfurled, rather later than birch or sycamore but, boy, are they worth waiting for. Not only is their colour spectacularly fresh, like a mint leaf in a gin and tonic served on some sparkling Mediterranean beach, but their touch is the softest of all leaves. Stroking a beech hedge in May is like stroking the underbelly of some docile feline. Then in the autumn they turn to burnished gold and, giving joy in a winter morning, the tree often holds its dead leaves until they are thrust away by the unfurling buds of the following spring. If ever a tree were a gift from nature, this is it.
And nature is generous with her gifts. Partly because the garden was so empty when we came here twenty years ago (actually, it was a field) and partly because I couldn’t afford to fill the space with purchases, I grew, and remain, happy to accept whatever the wind blows in. Plants know themselves where they like to grow and, as if botanical Sheldon Coopers, they flourish best when they are allowed to choose their own spot. Wild foxgloves and ferns were the first to arrive, followed in short order by gowans, a clumping weed, but one that pays a generous rent with its pleasing leaves and yard-tall white daisy flowers with dark yellow eyes, that sway in the breeze like dancing ballerinas. Gowan, incidentally, is the old Scots name for ox-eye daisy, though how the phrase “plucking the gowans fine” came to indicate the time of one’s youth I have no idea. (This was Burns originally, I think, then adopted by that most English of writers in the canon of English literature, PG Wodehouse).
Meadowsweet came too, in a delightful golden variety (so I suspect an escaped cultivar). Rather more surprisingly, and even more pleasingly, came into the garden of their own accord some aquilegia – not just the vulgar purple sort but paler pinks and even whites. I have since scattered the seeds of blue, red and yellow cultivars with the result that, quite soon (early June), the garden will be dominated by that easiest of early summer blooms: some indeed are flowering already. They are of course highly promiscuous and the seeds never come true, but I scatter them anyway by pinging the seed-heads when they are dry, and simply digging up as many of the plain-jane purples as I can (eventually, they all revert to that state). When I was a child, and did not understand either plant or animal reproduction, aquilegia seed-heads delighted me – for you could open them up and with luck discover a forkie tailie growing (so it seemed) there. So that’s where insects come from, I concluded from my scientific observations. We didn’t have sex education in Dundee in the 1960s, or even reproduction in biology: my mother told me that girls were found under gooseberry bushes, and boys under cabbages. (Though it may have been the other way around – which might well explain why I’ve always been a little confused about gender identifications and roles. Gooseberries are, surely, more masculine than any of the brassicas).
Another grand plant that comes of its own accord is verbascum. I now have some cultivated clumps, which provide pink and mauve every year in their really sophisticated flowers, but a brasher treat is that wild gatecrasher Verbascum Thapsus. As a biennial, you first notice rosettes of furry leaves, rather like Lambs’ Lugs, which sit there for a year building strength. Then the following year it throws up a thick, hard spike, four or five or even more feet tall, with a foreskin-soft outer layer and a spiral of yellow flowers, which lasts for months before the whole thing dies. They are cyclical and the garden sported five or six of them last year, and will have none this year. Likely next year, or the year after, I will notice an odd clump of soft grey leaves and the cycle will start again.
A rather more recent invader that has come of its own accord is wild geranium (the delightfully named Herb Robert). They have tiny flowers compared with their cultivated cousins and are more or less an annual, but they seed profusely: it’s one of those plants with an in-built spring mechanism which throws its seeds far from its parent when you brush past it. I find the lace-like leaves of this plant very pretty and am happy to allow it to flourish where it wishes. Some people regard it as a nuisance weed, for once established (as it is now in my garden) its seeds go everywhere, but unlike, say, buttercups or dandelions, or even lawn daisies, Herb Robert can be pulled out with ease. I tend to remove it from beds but leave it in those odd nooks and crannies where it would be difficult to plant anything else. Another example of this, which have only appeared in the past five years, are Welsh poppies. Their flowers are yellow as buttercups and their individual clumps, smaller and more delicate than their brash red cousins, tend to establish themselves not in any flower bed but in the gravel paths. This helps to soften the hard landscaping and so I am happy to leave them there. A leafy plant that serves the same function (though it tries also to get into borders) is feverfew, a little clump of bright yellow leaves that will later have white pincushion flowers. Again, I like having this growing through the gravel and, with care, it can (like Herb Robert) be medicinal. I hope to write on edible and medicinal plants later.
They say that Herb Robert keeps rabbits away. I can’t say I’ve noticed. The rabbits’ trail of destruction remains a constant heart-ache. These are the bad invaders, arrogant-faced brutes who like to eat flower heads and stalks of emerging jewels. They make me feel like Vercingetorix facing the Divine Caesar, when I want to be Herman the German (Hermannus Alemannus) at the time of Tiberius. Their wasting in the Teutonic forests of my box hedges would be a lesson for them, but one doubts that they would learn from it (as Miss Prism despaired on hearing of the reported death of Ernest Worthing). I never liked Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. All my sympathy, and empathy, lay (even as a child) with Mr McGregor, that good and hardworking man whose just reward was a delicious rabbit pie for his tea (made, you may recall, with Peter’s father). Now there was a gardener after my own heart.