Friday, 27 May 2016

Another Look around Mum's Garden

The house is sold, cleaners are in the house and I wander around the garden for my penultimate lap of honour. It's proving very hard to say goodbye to Mum's garden. 
I am looking around with affection in my mind, not acquisition. But luckily I've got a spade because I've seen 4 Cyclamen graecum and I think, oh, I can't leave them behind. (The buyer bought the house unseen; is he a gardener? Besides, they're in heavy shade and not flowering; odd, for mum was a great plantsman; the tubers need moving!) But they seem very deep and I just can't get to the tubers...until I realise that all the leaves, or sprouts of leaves, belong to one huge tuber (27.5cm across I find later!) which I dig out with care. It's probably 25 years old, maybe 30. This treasure goes home with me, a reminder of Mum, and into a large pot so I can monitor its moisture and sunlight, and gently (anxiously at first!) give this tuber the (sunny) `baking' this species is said to like.

Next I notice a sweet little cranesbill (true Geranium, left) has thrown up a flower - a lovely thing of soft pink-lilac; the leaves look like it's a G. pratense, maybe. Out comes the trowel and a few pieces go into a plastic bag for home; Mum and I both loved cranesbills.

And a few pink and white Japanese windflowers (Anemone x hybrid, below left) pieces to pot up for my sister.

But now I take a deep breath and look at the huge tree peony. (below)
I find it hard to leave this treasure behind: at over 6 feet high, in fact over 2m high, it has an aged, queenly presence, and was a plant Mum truly cherished.
But this Paeonia suffruticosa ssp rockii must be decades-old and who knows how huge the root ball is? So I'm pretty relieved when a compromise occurs, between leaving behind the peony (to probably unappreciative new owners), or digging it up and thus maybe killing it (oh, the guilt!). Yes, a perfect compromise: a side branch, almost 2m long, ugly, comes away with a reasonable ball of roots, leaving a plant more upright and frankly more attractive (it's looking pretty skeletal right now), and hopefully less likely to get the chop from new owners (or, gulp, renters).
And I get this tall tree peony branch, reoriented into an upright habit, with fat pink buds, almost 2m high. It's such a special plant that it really needs its own attractive large pot - and fortuitously, I've just been given such a one. It's a really big pot, in the coppery brown I use and like so much, mended by my father-in-law. How strong is it? I was going to put a water well pot within it but...there it is, just when I need a lovely container so badly, for my newest, oh-so-special acquisition. In she goes.
I've written that this was Mum's last, and (I think) favourite garden.

She was a good story teller, so I can visualise her first garden too: crocuses in window boxes on her Bristol (UK) flat, when just married, in the 1950's, as she would reminisce. The pleasure of these spring bulbs (her first grown flowers sprouting from her father's present of little corms) was very evident..or so she always said. It was decades before my aunt mentioned the vegetables Mum had grown out the back, 3 floors down, as well (displacing another woman's flowers, my aunt said). Mum found great satisfaction growing vegetables, later feeding half a dozen children from enormous veg patches over the years (in fact (checking Google Earth), my childhood years of raiding pea plants were from a 1/6 acre (over .07ha) veg patch she tended daily with a further diaspora of 7 apple trees, 5 citrus, 3 plums, an apricot tree (the bottling sessions!), an almond tree, gooseberries and raspberries to filch from taking up a lot more of the roughly 0.14 ha (over 1/3 acre) garden in Melbourne). A garden described as `very English' by the curate (I had no idea what he meant). Maybe the many perennials and bulbs as well as the ubiquitous shrubs? So many flowers (there was always a vase of flowers in the house)? And no evergreen shrub clipped within to an inch of its life?
Just as I loved my mother's garden (with its 2 tree houses, lawn for playing footy, areas for making mud pies and 4-leaf clover plant), so did she love her father's. She spoke about the clipped (?yew) peacocks and how, for fun, sometimes he'd pick carnations to pop in as eyes. I don't remember this grandfather, who visited Australia once, when I was about 3, but I had a sense of his English garden, described myth-like (did they really find a Bachelor's Button in Black-Eye Susan's Bed?); so I was staggered and oh-so-thrilled at Great Dixter to unexpectedly see a gentle echo of these emigrants stories some 40 years later: perennials and bulbs mixed in a style to suit to owner and who-cares-who-else, that mixed border and - oh! - clipped peacocks (top picture).
But that wasn't her first gardening at all. While she was 13 at the outbreak of the Second World War, and this may not have occurred for 2 or so years, at some point Grandpa took Mum (the eldest) aside and showed her how to prune the fruit trees. It made a huge impression: `We don't have time to do this, you have to do it.' As there were box hedges around the vegetable beds - with Madonna lilies alternating with peony roses along the main axis - I suspect there was plenty to do.

But then, there's often plenty to do in an interesting garden.

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (

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