The Witch’s Garden.

In a post last winter I pondered the question of why we garden and asked blogging friends for their opinions. I suggested that one of the reasons we garden is to try to recreate a paradise we remember from our childhood. As Christmas Eve is traditionally a time for story telling, I will tell you the true  story of the  lost childhood garden I try to recreate. There are no Christmas Eve ghosts here, just a witch.

The witch lived in a huge Victorian Gothic, stone -built house with turrets at each corner.  On our way home from school we dared each other to crawl through  the hedge and sneak through the overgrown garden to peer in the window or even ring the door bell, then hide in the shrubs whilst she hobbled out  and waved her stick, angrily calling out curses and no doubt casting malign spells over us.

Finally, one day she lost her temper entirely and instead of turning us physically, into the little toads we already were, she released her horrible looking Bulldog.  He came after us growling and snapping furiously.  We fled in terror. When we were safely on the road, we assessed the damage; apart from the fright, we had one ripped skirt, two scraped knees and several painful thorns embedded in tender flesh.  We decided we had gone too far, the witch had won and we daren’t go back.

bulldog

 

 

 

 

But…. but… on our headlong flight I had noticed a huge patch of pure white snowdrops.  I just had to have another look. So just before it got dark on a cold February afternoon I crawled through the hedge to see the snowdrops.  They were even more beautiful than I remembered but like everything else, overgrown with brambles. The next day I took some secateurs from my father’s shed and a little fork and set about freeing the snowdrops.  It was the first gardening I ever did.   Little did I know that I was laying the foundations for a lifelong obsession.

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I am very glad to have been young when instead of being shut up and constantly supervised, children were free-range.  When I was a child, parents had no curiosity as to where their children went, as long as they had a clean handkerchief and were back in time for tea. So at weekends as long as it wasn’t too cold and the ground wasn’t frozen I would go out with my secateurs and trowel and clean up a bit more garden.  I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ and now I had my own secret garden to rescue.   It was hard work and a lot of what I would have liked to do was beyond my strength and limited range of tools.  I was baffled to imagine how the small girl and a sickly boy in the book could have done all that work themselves.  All I could do was tidy up little bits here and there.  And of course I lived in terror of being discovered by the witch and her snarling dog.

One day my worst fears came true.   I was totally absorbed in my work.  Trying to clean up round the yellow aconites, I  had drawn closer to the house than I usually ventured.  I never even heard the witch creep up on me until her claw-like hand had me by my collar.  ‘I’ve caught you, stealing my flowers, you horrible child. Shame on you! You’ve even brought your own trowel to dig them up with.’

Terrified, I explained that I was gardening, not stealing. I told her that I had already rescued her snowdrops and started on cleaning the brick path and I couldn’t bear to see the celandines trying to grow through so many weeds.

 ‘Celandines!’ she said contemptuously. ‘You mean aconites!  If you love flowers you must learn their names.  Now come with me.’  I got to my feet and followed her, although I really wanted to run away.  Nobody knew where I was.  I was alone with the witch. All the witchy stories I had ever heard  came back to me.  None of them  had a very good outcome. Apart from Hansel and Gretel and that was only because they had pushed the witch into the oven. I was a nicely brought up little girl and clearly couldn’t go around pushing old ladies into ovens. She took me to the house and gave me a little basket. Then she led the way to edge of the woodland where there was a bank covered with violets.  I had never smelt violets before and at first I couldn’t think where the scent was coming from.  Nowadays, the elusive scent of violets always takes me straight back to that moment.

 Don’t stand there gawping child, fill the basket with the flowers; no stalks mind and then come back to the house and I will show you some magic’.  

Pulling the heads of flowers seemed a curious thing to do but I was too frightened to disobey.  She clearly needed the flowers for a spell and I dreaded to find out what sort of spell it would be.

When I went back to the house the witch led me into her kitchen and told me to spread out the flower heads on a board. She separated an egg white from the yolk and told me to beat it up and not to stop until my arm ached and the froth became stiff. She then told me how to paint the egg white on to each flower with a little brush. Finally she made me sprinkle sugar over each one.

 ‘Right, now off  you go home.  Come back tomorrow.  And this time come through the gate like a civilised person and knock on the door. ’   She looked at my scared face and added a little more kindly.  ‘I’ll make you some hot chocolate and you can taste the violets.’

I made my way home feeling quite baffled. Had she really said ‘Taste the violets?’  Maybe she wasn’t actually a witch but just a bit batty which was just as scary really.

The next day I knocked on the brass loop which was hanging from a lion’s mouth door knocker and was ushered into the huge kitchen.   The dog was curled up in his bed and didn’t even glance at me, although I heard a low growl. The witch made me sit down next to him by the Rayburn and gave me hot chocolate in a beautiful, china cup which was decorated with rosebuds.  As I drank I found playing cards painted inside the cup.   I had never seen such beautiful or such strange china.  On a plate there were the violets; crystallised and frosted with sugar. They were sweet and crunchy and really did taste of violets. The witch smiled at me, her witchy face quite transformed. ‘You see?  It’s magic. Flowers made into sweets.  Now, you can’t sit around here all day, out you go. If you go into the potting shed you will find some proper tools, you can’t do much with that silly little hand fork.  And don’t go near the pond, it’ s very deep and the grindylows may get you and pull you in. They live in ponds and have long strong arms and hands to grab children with. Keep right away from the water’

I didn’t even know there was a pond but after that of course I had to go and find it. It was in part of the garden I had never explored before and was big enough to have a small island in the middle.  It was an enchanted place, quite hidden away.  Obviously, it was a bit scary because of the grindylows.  I didn’t really believe in them, but still the idea of long armed monsters was enough to give me a delicious frisson of fear.  Each day I was drawn to play at the water’s edge.  I watched frogs and then tadpoles and one day in spring I found huge buttercups growing round the margins.  I knew that these were called ‘May Blobs ‘and I rushed to get Miss Middle-Um, as I now called the witch. I didn’t know how her name was spelled, and I still don’ t, but in my mind it was ‘Middle-Um’  I wanted to show off my knowledge because I knew she was very keen on the naming of names.  She had made me learn the Latin names for all the spring flowers in her garden and I fell asleep each night rolling the lovely words round my mouth. ‘Primula denticulata, Pulsatilla vulgaris, Puschkinia libanotica’. The words were like poetry to me.

Miss Middle-Um scolded me for playing near the pond but all the same she was delighted to see the buttercups which she told me were not buttercups but Caltha palustris ‘Flore Pleno’. She explained that ‘palustris’ meant ‘of marshes’ and  ‘Flore pleno’ meant ‘double flower’. She said that the word ‘May Blobs’ was a local name for them so although it was pretty, I had to think of it as a nickname and make sure I knew the correct name too.  ‘Elsewhere they may be called Marsh Marigolds or Polly Blobs or any other local name’ she explained. ‘That is why Latin is important because it is universal. If you love a person or a plant you should do them the courtesy of remembering their proper name even if you call them by their nickname now and again’.

Eventually my secret came out and my parents found out where I spent so much of my time. I think Miss Middle-Um must have told them because I never said where I was going.   My parents were incredulous.   Why did I spend so much time with an old lady in her overgrown garden?   It was very odd behaviour. Why didn’t I play with my friends instead?  And anyway, if I was so keen on gardening why didn’t I garden at home?  I could have a little patch of my own if that is what I wanted.   My grandmother was even more hurt  that I never wanted to spend time with her in her garden.  ‘I didn’t even know you were interested in gardening. You never seem to want to spend any time in my garden. ’ she told me reproachfully.

As I have said before, I believe most gardeners spend their adult lives trying to recapture the gardens of their childhood. Often it is their grandparents’ gardens which people grow nostalgic for and spend their lives trying to recreate.  I couldn’t love my grandparent’s garden. It was too formal and old- fashioned for my taste. They were very proud of their Monkey Puzzle tree, or Araucaria araucana, as Miss Middle-Um insisted I called it when I told her about it.  I thought it was hideous and was delighted that Miss Middle-Um shared my prejudice.  They also had bedding out plants in patriotic red, white and blue. Red salvias and blue lobelia alternating with white allysum. They had huge dahlias, each tied to its own bamboo cane. If you examined these too carefully they were found to be full of earwigs, which everyone knows creep into your ears and gnaw into your brains given half a chance.  Besides their garden was ruled by a terrifying Mr. McGregor look-alike called Sid. He waged war on rabbits just like in the Beatrix Potter book.  In those days my sympathies were firmly on the side of Peter Rabbit.  Besides Sid was very suspicious of me and convinced that my one desire was to stamp all over his flower beds unless he was constantly vigilant. Now and again in an attempt to be pleasant he would show me his party trick of eating worms, or pretending to, I hope.  I found this even more disturbing than being shouted at.

My father was a fanatical gardener and my parent’s garden was immaculately kept. I found it a bit boring. It has given me a lifelong aversion to tidy gardens with cliff edges to the scalloped borders and brown soil round each plant with little labels to remind you what everything is.  I preferred a wild, romantic garden where grindilows lurked. My father had a rockery and formal rose beds where stiff hybrid teas grew out of bare soil. These roses didn’t smell as wonderful as Miss Middle-Ums; they were in garish colours and although I learnt their names, I thought them very dull compared to the poetic names of Miss Middle-Um’s roses which I added to my night time litany.  In summer her garden was transformed into fairyland.  I loved the scrambling roses tumbling from every tree and sending out prickly arms to entangle you as you walked past. They had lovely full faces and an exquisite perfume.  I collected baskets full of petals and Miss Middle-Um and I crystallised them just as we had with the violets on that cold winter’s day.  I couldn’t imagine crystallising my parent’s hybrid teas.

I spent a wonderful year in Miss Middle-Um’s  garden.  I never managed to get it looking very tidy, but to be honest I soon stopped trying. I loved it the way it was. It was exuberant and romantic and full of hidden treasures.    The shrubbery was full of overgrown, ordinary shrubs and trees like lilac and laburnum but it had little winding paths leading to a glade at its heart.  Miss Middle-Um said it wasn’t a shrubbery at all but a   ‘Sacro Bosco’ which meant sacred wood. She said anything could happen in such a place because it was magic.   Although she taught me legends and tales of folk lore and magic, Miss Middle-Um was a scientist at heart and she taught me to use my eyes and examine plants.  She shared her garden and her knowledge generously.   On my birthday she gave me a magnifying glass so I could examine flowers more closely.  She also gave me a book from her bookcase called ‘Wild Flowers  by Mrs. Lankester which was published in 1864.

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Before  the year was out I was devastated to hear that Miss Middle-Um’s nieces decided she couldn’t be left to manage any longer in her huge house with another winter coming on.  They persuaded her to go into a home.  She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave her garden.  She had even confided in me that she was going to buy a horse to keep in one of her stables. Even I thought that a horse was a bit ambitious, as by now she needed a zimmer frame to walk with. I wished I could do something to save her and the garden,  but everyone said it was for the best really.  Her last gift to me was the china cup with rose buds and playing cards inside. I have it still.

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Her house was sold and converted into flats  and the enormous garden was divided into building plots.  For the rest of my childhood I had to avert my eyes every time I walked past my lovely witch’s garden which was gone forever.  But it lives on in my mind and little corners of my own garden where I have tried to recreate its magic.

Are you trying to recreate the magic of a childhood garden? And talking of magic, I wish all my lovely blogging friends a truly magical Christmas.

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63 Responses to The Witch’s Garden.

  1. Oh, how marvellous, you really are the queen of gardening ‘stories’ and this is a perfect treat. I like the sound of your Miss Middle-Um very much. Merry Christmas, Liz.

  2. Bodger says:

    Lovely story, beautifully told. I started gardening by digging up fungi in local woods and killing them in the transplant. My Grandma told me why they failed and how to learn from that. Glad that you hate Arucaria, everybody should. Happy Xmas.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you. You dug up fungi? Now that is a tad eccentric. No you can’ t transplant fungus. I used to have puffballs in the woodland in my previous garden. They are delicious sliced and fried with garlic and butter. I tried bringing them here and hoped the spores would spread. But they didn’ t. A very happy Christmas to you too.

  3. The world could do with more Miss Middle-Ums and her special brand of magic. Best wishes for a happy Christmas.

  4. pbmgarden says:

    You are a gardening treasure and wonderful storyteller.

  5. Susan says:

    You have evoked so many memories, a grandmother’s garden, a native plant class conducted almost entirely in Latin, a neighbor who entrusted his green house to a teenager. Thank You, Susan

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you for your comment Susan. I think all gardeners have these sort of memories of people and gardens that were an important influence years before they had a garden of their own.

  6. Liz, thank you for a wonderful story. It made me remember a friend’s grandparents rose garden from my childhood. A magical place with roses trained into what seemed to me spiraling tall buildings. I haven’t thought of this garden in decades! But I loved to go there and creep around and look at the plants. Perhaps the genesis for my gardening?
    Merry Christmas!

  7. Such a beautiful memory for you and now we are all thinking about Miss Middle-Ums. When I young and out bike riding with my Dad, we dug up a lonely snow drop and brought it home. I have them in my Texas garden today.

    • Chloris says:

      How lovely that you still have a snowdrop that you found with your Dad. I love it that some plants in my garden come with the memories of people who gave them to me or places that I have visited.

  8. Lovely. Have you read ‘The Green Ship’ by Quentin Blake? If not, look out for it in a library or charity shop – or a very late hint to Santa

  9. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable post. Thanks, and you too. xx

  10. Cathy says:

    That is such a lovely story and quite magical. I remember bits of gardens that were untended around our village when I was little, but I never dared enter them except to pocket a few apples or blackberries near the gates! Happy Christmas Chloris!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cathy. This garden was huge and most of it was out of sight of the house and very overgrown. I would never have gone back alone if I hadn’ t seen those snowdrops.. Happy Christmas.

  11. Christina says:

    Thank you for your magical story. Just what I needed today, the day after my MIL’s funeral. I don’t have a garden from my childhood that I am trying to recreate but just the love of gardening that I inherited from my father. Thank you. A very happy to you and the pianist.

    • Chloris says:

      Oh Christina, what a sad time it is for you, I have been thinking of you.
      It does seem that a love of gardening is often in the blood. Most of my family are addicted to it.
      All the best for Christmas to you both.

  12. bittster says:

    What an excellent post, thank you.

  13. Brian Skeys says:

    A wonderful story to share at Christmas Chloris, how lovely to still have the tea cup and saucer. My inspiration was my grandparents garden, although at nearly two acres I do not come any where near it for size. Neither do I have, I now realise, my grandmothers knowledge or her ability to work such long hours.
    Happy Christmas to you and your family.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Brian. I wish I had my grandmother’ s stamina in the garden. She got a new garden fork for her 98 th birthday and went on gardening until she was 100.

  14. mrsdaffodil says:

    A terrific story, well told and hugely entertaining. It reminded me of my “free-range childhood” and my enraptured reading of “The Secret Garden”. Merry Christmas and Happy Gardening in the year to come.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Mrs. Daffodil. Will you tell us your real name one day?
      We are lucky to have had freedom to explore our environment as children.
      Happy Christmas to you too.

  15. croftgarden says:

    I was a free-range child too but my adventures were not as romantic – more falling off bikes and roller-skating into lamp posts. Nevertheless I dreamed about living in the country and having a garden. May your garden and your family bloom over Christmas.

    • Chloris says:

      Well you certainly have fulfilled your dream of living in the country now. You couldn’ t get more remote countryside if you tried.
      Happy Christmas to you too Christine.

  16. snowbird says:

    Wow, what a fantastic story. You had me spellbound, I didn’t want it to end. How amazing that you found your very own secret garden, you should have this published! Ahhhh….how sad that poor Miss Middle-Ums ended up in a nursing home, I wonder what happened to her poor old dog. You have me sobbing here!
    Have a marvelous Christmas and thanks for sharing such a wonderful story.xxx

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Dina. Trust you to think of the dog. I don’ t know what became of Winston.. I love dogs but I was always scared of this one. He always snarled at me and he actually bit me once. He was horrible.
      Have a wonderful Christmas too.

  17. Kris P says:

    What a wonderful story! I was also a “free-range” child, although unlike you I wasn’t sent outdoors with a clean handkerchief or instructions to return for tea. Worse yet, there were no marvelous gardens to explore in the neighborhood I roamed. However, I do have fond memories of a beautiful garden attached to the home of a wealthy woman my grandmother kept house for, which I was privileged to visit on several occasions. The garden was rather formal and meticulously maintained by a professional gardener but my love for the pretty pansies I buy every year, even though they’re thirsty plants, was born there.

    Have a very merry Christmas! I hope the new year brings you a magnificent display of snowdrops!

  18. Cathy says:

    It brought tears to my eyes too, Chloris – what a delightful way to have been given your love of gardens and gardening, and how tragic that Miss Middle-Ums had to leave her very own secret garden to go into care. Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story with us, and in your very best story-telling style too. Best wishes to you and the Pianist

  19. Helen Johnstone says:

    What a lovely story. I also had a childhood where I could go roaming. A friend and I discovered a large derelict house with an overgrown garden and greenhouse and we used to pick flowers and wear them in our hair. Sadly no owner appeared to enlighten us. Like you my parents garden was immaculate in fact mainly lawn, the best garden was when they bought a house with a neglected garden and while they restored the house I used to spend my time playing in the garden which meant finding old roses and a small formal garden. They never encouraged me but reading your story reminded me and I wonder if that is where my fascination comes from. I still have an iris from that garden, well the grandchild probably of the original

    • Chloris says:

      It is interesting how many keen gardeners have vivid childhood memories of gardens they have known. I still have Papaver ‘Livermere’ from my father’ s garden. Lovely that you have kept your Iris going.

  20. Isobel says:

    hi Chloris

    Thanks for your bewitching story, and all your blogs, which I read with interest from Canberra, Australia. My childhood free ranging was in Sydney bushland, on the edge of Middle Harbour, near Bantry Bay: beautiful sandstone rocks, and lots of angopheras, casuarinas, and other native plants. We made stick houses from found materials, under the guidance of my great aunt, and were free to explore the neighbourhood. I delighted in the freesias in Spring, and choko vines which gave us free vegetables, without understanding that there was another way of considering these introduced species. I still have an interest in peering at other people’s gardens, and in fact have caused myself an accident not so long ago, due to coming off my push bike whilst trying to see over someone’s front hedge (I prefer to ride on footpaths as it provides a better view of gardens).

    Best wishes for Christmas, and I look forward to reading more of your blogs next year.

    Isobel

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Isobel. How lovely to hear about garden finds on the other side of the world. Do you have a blog?
      Funny you should write about falling off your bike peering at a garden. I have done the same thing more than once. The first time was when my daughter was tiny and sitting on her little child’ s seat. I saw some primroses and landed up in the ditch. Fortunately she was relatively unhurt. The last time I did it was about a year ago. I’ ve finally realised that if you turn to look at something your bike follows in the same direction.

      • Isobel says:

        hi Chloris, thanks for your response. No, I don’t have a blog. I only follow a few of you, and yours is one of my favourites. It’s nice to know you too have fallen off your bike garden watching, I haven’t been told that by anyone else – I have also noticed that connection between where I look, and the direction of the bike, and I am practising trying look whilst keeping the bike straight. I’m getting quite good now, coming up to road crossings, but it seems harder when looking at gardens, I’m not sure why – maybe because I want to look for longer. Thanks again, isobel

  21. That is a great tale to start Christmas. I am kind of envious of the wonderful freedom you had, but also of your braveness and tenacity. Miss Middle-Um was a characterful inspiration. As a child I used to play in the wrecked gardens of an abandoned prefab zone and spent many happy hours transferring bulbs and other finds to the garden at home.

    Happy Christmas to you and yours!

  22. Chloris says:

    Well, it seems that most gardeners have some sort of memory like this. Perhaps a true gardener is born not made. Happy Christmas Allison.

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  24. Peter Herpst says:

    Oh Chloris, your story is my favorite treat this Christmas. Thank you for sharing this special and formative garden adventure. What a magical tale of a time when children were free-range and mystery, witches, and grindylows played at will. How sad that children are now kept on such a tight leash. How will they find wild gardens to fuel their imaginations?

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Peter. I think modern children have lost something very precious by being constantly supervised. Not only the sense of magic and ability to use their imaginations but their connection with nature. I knew every tree and stone intimately and spending so much time outside I was in touch with the seasons and the cycle of nature.

  25. Alison C says:

    A lovely story, she gave you such a gift and so many memoriest to cherish. I remember running wild as a child and having such freedom.

  26. Wayne May. says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog. Thank you.

  27. With gratitude for your story and your blog. I loved The Secret Garden, and my garden is just like the witch’s garden. I lived in England for two years, and I have so many happy memories of gardens like yours and your mentor’s. I relive them in tending my own plot. Love from an American reader. And Happy Christmas.

  28. I love this, Liz. It reminds me of a similar experience I had as a child, and again as an adult. What a magical story you’ve written. thank you for sharing it.

  29. I was once, when I was very young, in a small but wild garden owned by the older lady who lived directly next to the school I attended. It was full of very tall plants and I remember being so enveloped and safe there, I didn’t want to leave. All of my gardens have this same quality – of bringing you in to a safe middle through a gate but it took me a long time to figure out why. Once I made that connection, my design, which was driven by emotion as much as aesthetics, made sense. This is a wonderful story and you are both lucky to have found each other.

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  31. Coming Home says:

    This is such an amazing story, it sounded so peaceful and magical and fanciful, just like a fairy tale honestly. I really want to meet Miss Middle-Um now and walk in yours and her garden.

  32. Quaintrelle says:

    That’s such a lovely story! (But how dare they knock it down!) I love the sound of her garden and the sound of Miss Middle-Um. Her garden is pretty much exactly what I’m trying to create. Rambly bushes, twisting paths, beautiful wild flowers and fragant roses a pond, tall trees, like something out of a fairytale.

  33. What a wonderfully enchanting story! I desperately want to spend time in Miss Middle-Um’s garden.

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