Spring 2020: The Year We Made the Garden Better, to Make Ourselves Feel Better Too

April 27, 2020

I say it every year. April is where it starts. The most beautiful month. When I look back on Aprils gone by, they’ve all been ‘enchanted’ in their own way – The Little Flower School (where it all began); the one with British Flowers and Bronte Tales; the one where we saw the most magical garden at Allt-y-Bela and last April spent soaking up sunshine and snipping Epimediums in the (best ever) garden at Cambo. Each year there have been tulips, which is how I best remember them, from the hundreds of photos I’ve taken as a ‘record’. This year there has been something more. The fritilaria. A whole batch of rare varieties planted by me and Jill Shaddock back in Autumn when we were ever hopeful. 

(Right-hand photo by Jill Shaddock)

Of course, there’s been a virus beginning with C too. A virus which caused the whole world to stop, and re-calibrate. A virus causing suffering, angst and so much more, but they are not things I want to dwell upon here in a piece of writing that is supposed to be a celebration of spring. Although, inevitably I will need to mention this strange new way of life because it’s shaped this spring, and, if I’m being realistic, the rest of the year and maybe even beyond that.

On Monday 23rd March (a week early), the day of the first full-day class, a class that was of course cancelled due to the ‘pause’, I rang my mother, who can occasionally provide sound advice. A retired teacher and keen observer of life and dry wit, she offered up a gem: “Tell all your pals who are ‘home schooling’ to follow my ‘sort of  Montessori Method’. On days when the weather is good, get outside in nature and on the other days do lots of reading”. I didn’t need to share this with friends because I could see that early morning walks on Portobello beach led seamlessly into science and then the art of painting a shed, with a background of Stephen Fry and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Another friend’s daughter could speak Mandarin at the age of 6 and sent me a box of eggs saying ‘To Sarah love Ella’ in such exquisite handwriting, I accused her mother of having done it herself. A friend with teenagers said it was actually quite easy, as long as they stayed in bed until lunch. Our nephew was becoming like Elton John on the piano and our godson had started his own cookery Instagram account. I predict that @chefjames will become a household name in years to come. Ralph in North Yorkshire was making a new cutting garden with a treehouse. Nothing to worry about there at all.

(Photo by kind permission of Rachael Scott)

So instead, I took on board my mother’s wise words and, for my own sanity, went out into the garden, and haven’t really been back inside since. 

Here it is then, the visual record of ‘what’s occurring in the garden – early Spring 2020’, aka the one where the world stopped and the garden raised a huge salute with two very green fingers. 

Each day begins with a pint of tea, and a quick look at the view – usually to see how many badgers have shuffled through over night. The new way that our happy valley sounds is possibly the thing I’ll most remember about this spring. Without the cars and distant trains, the lambs have their own dawn chorus, competing tunefully with the blackbirds. Every ‘tour’ of the land is to the background music of gentle bleating. The woodpecker is the loudest bird by far with his Morse Code messages on tree trunks distributing far more uplifting news than the 5pm daily bulletin from Boris. I might be kidding myself but the air seems purer and there’s a different quality to the light too – a clarity that I’ve never seen before. 

Many people I’m sure will say that this ‘pause time’/period of cocooning’/whatever you want to call it (I detest the phrase lockdown and if you’ve ever been to Strangeways or any of our other English Victorian prisons you’ll understand why) has been reminiscent of childhood. A time to be still. A time to just look closely at all that’s around and see things as if for the first time. I grew up on a farm with a grandad who would take you out and make you give everything a ‘coat of looking at’. Five minutes spent just quietly observing a scene, be it a field of pregnant cows or a garden of slowly emerging spring flowers, is time well spent. You’ll see things that are important, like the potential new jackdaw nest you might not want near your head at night or the tiny Fritillaria pontica dug up and thrust aside by that bloody badger. The first sighting of a new lamb is on a par with the emergence of the long awaited Tulip Insulinde and the rest of our small ‘historic’ collection, and no day is complete without going to see Betty and Frank, the two incongruous sheep who we think might really be Yorkshire Yaks. 

The new allotment is taking shape. The raised bed stone structures so carefully crafted by Mr Snug in a colder climate are all in place and, as the soil (worked to a very fine tilth) begins to warm, Jill Shaddock’s unusual veg bed starts to form with hazel bean poles and perfect rows of jazzy lettuce, radish, chickpeas and many more; all originally planned to be eaten at workshop lunches or for use in ‘floral scenes’. A chickpea tendril looks really good in a bowl – honestly. On the west side, my roses seem much happier with their newfound space, and the ‘useful foliage’ bed will ‘come in handy’ by the end of the year. A few species tulips compete with the lambs for our attention as we patiently wait for the Sissinghurst Iris collection to show their faces. The entrance way is still under construction but let’s just say that I feel sure it’ll be the kind of edible archway all the autumn brides will want. 

(Photo by Ed Chadwick)

Back in the garden, a never-ending project, we have a new path. A path which has become a metaphor for the year ahead. Whilst the dog may have her log of contemplation, I have a stone ledge in the wall alongside the path, where I sit (with tea/wine/Turkish Delight if it’s a Friday night) and ponder. A few good ideas have been formed just sitting here, kicking my legs and looking into the distance. From this seat I can see if Brierley is around on his tractor or if Betty and Frank are grazing in the field. It’s the seat where I sit for all the phone chats I’ve been having with the flower fettlers whose classes have been postponed, setting them small tasks to keep them sane with flowers. It’s the seat where I read all the books I’ve been sent by kind friends in the post.

(Photo by Ed Chadwick)

From here I can see the whole cutting garden. In a few months’ time my view will be through tall dahlias. I can’t wait…..although I must patiently wait, because before then there are tulips to watch, to record, to photograph. Then there’ll be foxgloves and roses and a selection of annuals of vast proportions. And best of all, there’s a new ‘kitchen’ garden….tiny but perfect. The work of moments by Mr Snug, ready for Jill Shaddock to gather ‘really unusual edibles’ quickly for workshop lunchtime garnishing and within steps of the workshop door so that I can borrow some fancy violas anytime I like. 

Talking of music….we have all begun to whistle. Before Roger went off to his better woodshed, he kept playing me The Floral Dance. It amused him no end. Now, from each corner of the small corner (because of course we are all appropriately distanced unless you’re a dog) you can hear at almost any given moment at least one human pretending to be The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band…..with woodpecker percussion and lamb appreciation. 

Where will we be next April I wonder? I honestly have no idea but I bet you any money there’ll be tulips and lambs. 

Oh, and a final thought, one that again came from my mother as I dropped off the weekly shopping (what do the over 70’s do with all that yogurt?). “Have you seen Captain Tom, isn’t he just brilliant?”. I nodded. “What are you doing then?”. I politely told her that I really wasn’t sure that someone who just does flowers and takes photos had much to offer the world and that it was a good job Captain Tom was doing it all on his own. But of course I came away and pondered. So here it is, the best I can think of.

There is no doubt at all that time spent in a garden, or with flowers has a beneficial effect on wellbeing. There are many, many people who at the end of all this might need a day of escapism. If you have a friend or loved one in mind, who is either a key worker, or who has been affected by the virus, or who has done something brilliant during the crisis and needs some small reward, then we will put together a day of rest and relaxation with flowers here in the small corner. Just send me an email with the person’s details and a brief note about why they need a day away. A fair selection, from a tub trug of names will be made one Friday night in better times. I wonder if I can persuade a small brass band to come along too….