Walking Through the Trees, part III, by Kenneth Radu

Quite apart from nineteenth century adventurers and explorers, there are other gardeners who have searched far afield for cultivars and who believe that what has grown in foreign climates can grow where they happen to reside, however improbable that may at first appear. Elsie Reford, the genius behind the wonderful Jardins de métis (Reford Gardens) in the Bas St-Laurent region of Quebec, had the inspired idea of attempting to grow the blue poppy. She did not, however, travel to India or Tibet to find the fabled flower whose common name betrays its provenance. Knowing that the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh grew them successfully, Reford ordered seeds in the 1930s, created a spot for them, and to this day, they grow in stunning profusion. One June day not so long ago, I had to be dragged away from her exquisite blue poppy glade.

On a less grand scale, occupying considerably fewer acres and devoted to the pleasures of individual gardening more than public recreations, are semi-private gardens. Here, gardeners and their apprentices maintain perennial beds, herbaceous borders, garden rooms, hedges and seed beds without worrying about games and spectacles designed to attract a paying crowd. Such gardens abound in England’s green and growing fields and villages, not to mention in our own back yards. Many have become justly famous and are open to the public like Rosemary Verey’s Barnsley House, which was not on my itinerary given the time available. Verey passed away several years ago and her home in the Cotswolds was sold and turned into a B&B, but the gardens have been maintained.

The azalea and camellia gardens at Cornwall’s Llanhydrock, in addition to its perennial beds, invite one to linger long, which I did for hours, viewing both grounds and manor house, now operated by the National Trust. I should really use the term plantswoman or plantsman, as Verey did, which apparently is what professional gardeners prefer to call themselves. I dislike the appellation because it sounds unnatural to my ears. Moreover, it reminds me of plantain which, although related to the ever-serviceable Hosta of infinite variety, and is the name of a useful fruit, is also a medicinal weed used as a laxative.

Great Dixter, the topic of several BBC productions, whose creator Christopher Lloyd has become a legend among gardeners, illustrates the genius and joy of the semi-private garden. As a matter of interest, Sir Edwin Lutyens had a hand in the layout of the grounds. By semi-private, I mean gardens that continue to grow as a result of their proprietors’ passion and hands-on efforts. These are gardens meant to live and work in, and not only visit. The Lloyd family lived in their authentic Tudor manor house surrounded by brilliant gardens. In one program, Lloyd dismisses the concept of “low-maintenance” gardening, designed for people who prefer not to do the work, and which suggests both stasis and indifference. The ultimate in low maintenance gardening is the grave covered with grass and marked with plastic flowers. Even then the grass must be cut. That is not Lloyd speaking, but yours truly.

A bus ride from the mediaeval town of Rye, where I happened to be staying for a week, and a fifteen minute walk from the bus stop through a very quiet residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of Northiam, Great Dixter gratified my efforts to get there. Unlike Kew or Heligan or Llanhydrock, it was unpopulated by tourists at the time, so my perambulations were never blocked. The only people I saw were a few labourers repairing shingles on an out building, and one gardener in Wellington boots pushing a wooden wheelbarrow. Water, walls, stone, extraordinary plantings: I thought I had died and gone to … well … paradise.

Great Dixter is famous for Lloyd’s long border of vivid perennials of various heights thriving from early spring to the winter, a garden for all seasons. Moreover, the estate gardens are divided into “rooms,” a now common gardening concept also evident at Sissinghurst and in Virginia Woolf’s garden at Rodmell. Perhaps the most remarkable “room” at Dixter is the one devoted to topiary and giant yew bushes, so susceptible to pruning and shaping. Surrounded by master works of topiary, I did feel a twinge claustrophobic and envious, probably because my own gardens are unwalled, planted in what used to be a farmer’s field, and not rigorously clipped into birds and mammals. Alas, my gardens lack the attributes of greatness, but they are my own. 

It is not original to say that gardening is, and has ever been, a universal instinct or desire, present throughout the globe in all peoples with the possible exception of dwellers in arctic lands or deserts where terrain and climate forbid. Hence, the variety of gardens reflects the variety of human cultures: from perennial borders and cottage gardens on English estates, to Moorish, Italian, and Chinese gardens; from plots of functional cabbages and superfluous roses behind carved wooden fences in Romania, to patches of gourds and corn planted by the indigenous peoples of North America, we inhabit a world of gardens. It’s worth remembering that the word paradise traces its origins to the word pairidaeza, which in the ancient Iranian language Avestan, means a wall constructed to enclose cultivated grounds or a small grove of fruit trees. There is the wall again. As for Eden, that fabulous paradise lost, one need say no more. 

© Kenneth Radu, 2013

Author Kenneth Radu among Camellias, Llanhydrock

Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.

Photos: Courtesy Kenneth Radu

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