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.
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.
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.
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.
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.