I never garden in winter. I can't really see the point of winter gardens with dogwoods and snowdrops even though I have plenty of both. In winter I come inside and read and knit and crochet and write. I hate getting cold and wet in the garden and I quite like it every year when the time comes when everything stops growing and there is nothing I can do. It is done for another year. Close the door, light the lamps, pull your chair to the fire.
This year however I have turned my back on the garden in a big way. Usually in winter I do at least some thinking and dreaming. By January I am starting to engage with the idea of gardening and I might read about gardens or spend time making up plant lists or musing about what to do in one area or another. This year I did none of that. I had lost my gardening mojo. I had fallen out of love.
I think there were two strands to that. One was the extent to which over the late summer and autumn I had begun to feel deeply unsettled and "out of place". That is principally to do with my father's increasing ill health and my own desire to be part of what happens to him and my mother as they face this stage of life. I can see that my presence helps them, both practically and emotionally, and living five or six hours away I was constantly aware of the tug of love and guilt and the need to be somewhere else. It is hard to garden with passion when you feel like that. That has settled down to some degree as we have found ways of supporting them that depend on significant scheduled visits rather than daily proximity. The other strand was a gardening reason. I am very aware that what I call a garden is really a field with some very early planting in it. I feel my way towards what I am trying to create. Mostly my vision holds strong enough for me to be able to see it even when others can't, with the occasional patch when the whole thing blurs and melts like running wax.
Three things happened last year which challenged my sense of what we are making and which made any claim to vision seem ludicrous. The first was a visit to Beth Chatto's garden which I blogged about here. This really rocked me by making me feel that my garden was not a place to walk into. I realised that there was not enough enclosure and that in embracing the openness of my hillside and the beauty of the views I was in danger of creating a vantage point, not a place to wish to be in for its own sake. Partly in response to that I set to work to produce an area of meadow to walk into. You would not believe the work I put into that. Creating an annual meadow is not for the faint hearted. I dug and raked and attacked perennial weed and sowed and watered and dug up docks. The result was deeply, unsettlingly mixed.
Some parts were just glorious. Some parts were just a mess of docks and couch grass. I did not take any photos of those bits but there was way too much mess for the effect I wanted. So I came towards the end of summer knowing that I needed to do something different but not really knowing what it was. And then the third thing happened. Ian and I went to visit Veddw, the garden created by Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes on the Welsh borders near Monmouth. I loved Veddw. I slipped into it like a fish into water or a swallow into air. I felt very much at home in it. The hillside site, the dense, lush planting, the sharp lines of the hedges and the overflow of self sown plants all contributed to a feeling that this was what I was trying to do: to create a place which could be nowhere else, which was a hymn to the place, a world founded in a place. Anne and Charles could not have been more hospitable. Veddw could not have been more beautiful.
It took a couple of months after we got home for the experience to begin to take shape in my head and what took shape was a slow and sad realisation that what I am producing here is not a garden, not as Veddw is a garden, not the garden I had in my head. What I am doing here has no cohesion. While the side garden has its own beauty and the kitchen garden its own functional charm, the field which we have slowly and laboriously brought into cultivation is not yet a garden. The little orchard works. Today, full of daffodils and early leaf, it is a good place to be as the trees begin to establish.
At certain times of year the cutting garden is a paintbox of colour. Where we have created totally new planting, like the long bed in the lower part of the field which we call the native tree bed, the planting is, I think, good. I am good at repetition and flow and at propagating and creating new plants that will fill emptiness on a scale which still daunts me after years of city gardens. But there is no doubt that the most beautiful thing in this garden is the view and always will be and somehow the shapes I am trying to paint on the landscape are not producing that powerful sense of a heightened world which comes to you in the best gardens, which came to me standing in the Gravel Garden at Beth Chatto's, amidst the topiary at Levens Hall and looking down from the inscribed seat across the grasses and hedges of Veddw.
So I went away all winter and hid. As spring came I wrote to Anne whose thoughtful, careful reply gave me much to think about. Ian made me a willow hurdle for the side of the compost heap which once again proved that the functional can be beautiful. Now I am not quite sure what to do. Do I want to abandon my idea of creating something here? No I don't, although I might have to accept that it will be a series of smaller creations rather than a world of its own. It is quite likely that I simply do not have the wherewithal in time and talent to create something on the scale which I imagine. I emerged after a long cold spring and found that the daffodils in the orchard and round the swing lifted my heart. I laboured over planting them for three successive autumns and suddenly this year they were everywhere just as I had imagined. I find I can't give up the idea of my garden even though part of me would like to throw in the towel, so I am feeling my way towards something, although it may be something different to what I had imagined.
The key I think is in the meadow in the bottom third of the field. At the top of the field you need to let the view sing and we have taken out some tree growth as Anne suggested so from the high point the view across the valley to the farms and the hillforts is king. In the middle section the orchard and the cutting garden and the vegetable plots provide a unity which is functional and satisfying and which in a way is quite true to the people we are and the interests we share. But in the bottom third of the garden you have the chance to lose the glorious tyranny of the view. If I can find a way of walking into it, of getting lost in it, then I might be able to make the whole garden make more sense. Last year it didn't work but I might have done it wrong. It is a huge task. There are docks galore this year, making much of the area a scruffy wasteland. At the moment you can see all of last year's disaster, squared, and none of the small scale triumph. The native tree bed runs along parallel to the boundary hedge and is full of lovely things but it looks adrift from the rest of the garden as it has since it was dug and planted three years ago. A proper deep meadow with waist high grass and wide paths might be the answer. Or it might not. Karen came today and reminded me gently that she has been coming for most of the time we have been trying to make a garden and can see quite how much we have done. I couldn't quite engage with her properly about it but she did cheer me up.
The jury is out. I have sown poppies on the fire sites. We have put Round Up on the docks. I am digging up dandelions in the cutting garden. I am feeling my way. We can always put the whole thing back to grass and bring in sheep.
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?" Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto", line 98.