The white wisteria wafts its scent across the veranda. I can smell it as I sit here writing with the French doors open. The pale purple blossoms of the melia tree, sometimes called the Persian lilac, are scenting the night air too, this tree being the nearest we can get to the real thing in this too temperate climate. Lilac is my favourite shrub, I keep meaning to order a root from afar – actually the South Island – and pile ice around it in winter to fool it into thinking it’s living in a cold climate. I miss not having any lilac.
The cabbage tree- not an attractive name – puts out long stems of blossom at this time of year covered with the sweetest smelling tiny flowers, which turn a creamy brown when dried, with black stems; like the melia tree the scent seems strongest in the evening. Sweet alyssum wafts its fragrance in sunshine, and best of all, my precious Reine de Violette rose in the pot by the front door is now blooming.
I’ve carried it in a big square terracotta pot from garden to garden, and its scent pervades the little courtyard by the door for the month that its deep pinky-purple tightly layered petalled heads bloom. So many petals – between 50 and 75 – according to the official description, and bred in France in 1860. Grown from a cutting given by a friend. Later in the summer, the blue petunias in pots will send their sweet smell through the garden, also strongest at night. My summer garden would be incomplete if I didn’t have masses of foaming pale blue petunias in pots – Cambridge blue is their description. And in midsummer we’ll have the strong, night scent of queen of the night, and the datura tree growing in the wilderness part of the garden which spreads its pervasive sweetness when the sun is going down.
In a few weeks fragrant star jasmine will be blooming, it’s crawling up the walls below the veranda, sprawling over the arch with pink Albertine roses and ivy, and growing outside the bathroom window. And I’ve topiary-ed it so it billows out of two big blue pots the same blue as the petunias, just outside the French doors. The scent will drift everywhere… I’d love to have the exquisite perfume of sweet peas in the garden, but alas, I’ve never been able to grow them successfully.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve whittled down the elements I want in my garden, and top of the list is fragrance, closely followed by white flowers which show up in the dusk. So apart from my blue petunias and pink roses, there are always plenty of white lilies, white geraniums, Shasta daisies, fragrant syringa, white Japanese anemones, marguerites, self-seeded valerian, white agapanthus as well as blue, and my favourite white climbing rose Alberic Barbier. That isn’t to say that there aren’t blue hydrangeas shimmering under the trees, a glorious pale gold rose called Crepuscule clambering up a telegraph pole out on the road,( see above) or pink beauties like Jean Ducher which bloom palely all the year. And then there’s Mutatibilis rose which looks like a bush covered in deep pink butterflies about to take flight.
There are two other requirements for my garden – masses of green – so ivy everywhere, box plants and acanthus, and I also ask my long-suffering plants to be undemanding and easy-care, though I contract to water them through the droughts. It’s not a tidy or orderly garden, but an exuberant, prolific little plot, with wilful self-seeded plants welcomed wherever they choose to settle, and every chosen flower and shrub scrambling into its neighbours, cosying up, sharing their space, flaunting their freedom.
Rampant growers like honeysuckle and ivy are allowed to enjoy themselves, instead of wilting under the criticism of real gardeners who despise them for being so invasive. Wandering flaming red and orange nasturtiums have even turned themselves into climbers and threaded themselves through the climbing rose up to the roof, and entangled themselves in an orgy of colour among the pinks and blues of ageratum and lavatera down below in the garden. If it grows, it’s welcome… so though I’m not a discriminating gardener, I am a grateful one!
I learned about flowers from our appropriately named gardener called Mr Appleby. I was nine, and we were living in a rambling Tudor house in Yorkshire while waiting to go to post-war Germany. It had been a monastery before Henry VIII’s Dissolution, and behind it stretched a high walled garden, built of weathered rose-coloured bricks. On either side of the lawn were deep herbaceous beds, the fashion of those times, and indeed, since Edwardian times. At the end, sheltered by the high wall was the vegetable garden, and after we had been to see Bertram Mills circus and I had fallen in love with the trapeze artist, Lady Elizabeth, I tried to practise my rudimentary trapeze skills on top of this wall, unseen from the house.
The end of the lawn was dominated by a big pear tree, where we sat in striped deckchairs in its shade having afternoon tea, and where my step-grandfather would sit on summer evenings reading the Times while he smoked a cigar, it’s rich aroma reaching my bedroom window as I peeped out.
I didn’t go to school while we lived there, and had lessons in the afternoon. In the morning it was my job to arrange the flowers in every room throughout the beautiful old house, and keep them freshly topped up and watered. It was bliss. I had carte blanche to pick flowers! Mr Appleby tended to guard his glorious peonies from me, but let me have enough to keep the vases looking quite ravishing. He taught me the names of his precious plants, and became a great buddy. From his big saggy pockets, he would drag out for me giant gooseberries from his garden, pinkish with long soft hairs all over them, his biggest strawberries, juicy, golden William’s pears, yellow-fleshed purple Victoria plums and red russet apples. I used to hide in the pear tree so as not to have to share these treats.
He told me the names of the tall, smoky blue delphiniums, rosy hollyhocks, pink foxgloves, serried ranks of pastel coloured lupins, and golden rod. They were massed at the back of the borders. Then there were the middling sized flowers, lavender, peonies, pink and white and deep red, dahlias, (I didn’t pick them, too many earwigs crawling around inside) purple irises, stocks and phlox and larkspurs, day lilies in deep maroon, snapdragons massed in mixed jewel colours, delicate grannies bonnets, scented sweet Williams; in the front of the borders were clusters of cat-mint, the soft, furry sage-coloured leaves and pink flowers of lambs lugs,(the country term for ears), yellow cotton lavender and clumps of pinks, the fluffy ones with a gorgeous pepperminty smell.
Then there was purple ajuga and harebell-blue campanula, and snow-in-summer nestling in crevices among the stone flags of the terrace. The names felt like poetry. And smothering the trellis which hid the dustbins outside the kitchen door were pink Dorothy Perkins roses.
Mr Appleby was a weather-beaten, wiry little Yorkshire-man, who wore battered old trousers and an unbuttoned jacket which in novels would be called rusty black, with a grubby white shirt with no collar – in those days you changed the collar, not the shirt, using collar studs, front and back. On his head he wore a flat cap, and he had bright, beady black eyes. He spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent that was hard to understand. Sometimes he took me on walks around the countryside where I learned the North country lingo of becks and scars and fells, which I later learned were the ancient Viking words for stream and cliff and moor. Once he showed me a tiny field mouse peeping out of its miniature nest which was a round grass ball, slung between the top of the stems of two cornstalks growing amidst a forest of other golden stalks, blue cornflowers and red poppies.
Those things I learned from Mr Appleby one summer nearly sixty five years ago have never been forgotten. Who knows what we ourselves unwittingly leave in the memory of the children we encounter? What words, what thoughts, unconscious sharing of experience, spontaneous gifts given without intent, moments that lingered down the years… what imperishable knowledge that helped to lighten ignorance and enlarge understanding, what fragments of fact that sparked a child’s consciousness ? To be the person behind those memories … that must be a very special sort of immortality.
Food for threadbare gourmets
This is a filling meal I make for my husband when I can’t think of anything to give him! Dr de Pomiane, the French-Polish food writer adapted it from a French peasant dish, and this recipe is a much dollied up version of his solid peasant dish. Remove the skin and pips from a medium sized tomato (soaking the tomato in boiling water loosens the skin).
Toast two thick slices of sour dough bread on one side. Spread the untoasted sides with Dijon mustard, grate two ounces of cheese – Gruyere is recommended for purists – I usually use cheddar which is in the fridge – and pile the cheese mixed with the tomato on the mustard side of the bread. Grill until the cheese goes golden, then lay a couple of rashers of streaky bacon on the cheese mixture. Grill until the bacon starts to brown, and serve with black pepper. (De Pomiane didn’t use bacon or tomato – instead when thick slices of cheese had been grilled, he put butter ON the melted cheese!)
Food for thought
“The characteristics of the English are largely unsensational, and since they do not readily fire the imagination they easily slip the memory, but they are nevertheless fundamental and formidable. A love of law and order and a respect for government by consent. A belief in honest administration. A dislike of hurting people and if a hurt be done a great effort to put it right. A tolerant people, offering a hand to victims of intolerance. Skill in devising ways of improving the lot of mankind but a dreadful inability to follow those ideas through. A sweet countryside, but appalling ways of cooking what that countryside produces.”
President Truman describing the English, on being honoured with an honorary degree at Oxford after his retirement. Dreadfully honest, I suppose you could call this somewhat measured and restrained tribute !