Garden note #14
8 August 2021
Patterns in the turf
Maze or labyrinth? Until recently I thought they were interchangeable, synonymous even. But not so.
I talked to my brother Peter, who knows about these things. He explained the key distinction. A labyrinth is unicursal. What an evocative word. A single enclosed line, space or path, from the Latin cursus, meaning course.
By contrast a maze is multi-cursal, following no single course, with enclosed spaces and blocked exits. The labyrinth that contained the Minotaur was really a maze.
Last year on a whim, my friend Artur, just before he returned to Poland, cut a pattern in the grass within an ovoid space enclosed by young hornbeams. It looked pretty handsome and I enjoyed photographing it in low winter lights, as well as in frosts and snow.
Unschooled in the detail, as we were, it was really neither labyrinth nor maze. One path led to the centre with concentric circles leading out from it. After the terrible explosion in Beirut in August 2020, I planted a small Cedar of Lebanon in the middle, as an homage.
Visiting friends liked this piece of ‘turf art’ but there was a complication. A few years earlier I had filled the ovoid space with daffodil bulbs, an early variety, nothing special, but welcome colour in the earliest days of pre-Spring.
This meant that the mowing could not be done this year until all the daffodils had died back, and the place had become a clover meadow.
Two weeks ago we strimmed it down in preparation for cutting a new path.
Informed by my brother, this time I opted for a true unicursal labyrinth. But this had to be something our hefty mower could cope with, whilst allowing for the limitations of the space. Labyrinths are ideally seven or nine circles, but ours would have to be fewer.
I found a drawing of a classical form with just three paths and a central circle. I sent it to Jules, who has been working with me in the garden since last August, and suggested we try to mark it out on her next visit.
I’m not great at spatial thinking. Thankfully, Jules proved to be better. Between us, aided by some rope, a piece of bamboo and some marker spray, we set to work.
At first there was quite a bit of head scratching and a couple of false starts. The main challenge was turning the line on the diagram into a raised band in the grass, interspersed with a low mown path.
Whilst I was making the coffee, Jules made a start. On my return she was beaming. Following a eureka moment, it had all fallen into place.
We had our first labyrinth, slightly ragged to be sure, but nothing that mowings in the coming weeks will not sharpen up.
Here’s how it looked after that first cut.
In the week since, I have ‘walked the labyrinth’ every morning and evening. On each circumlocution my social science scepticism falls away.
First, although quite a small area, walking into and then out of the labyrinth takes a few minutes. Precious time to set aside for uncluttering the mind and focussing on the moment. Second, there is something uplifting about unwittingly retracing one’s steps, without making a sharp about turn in order to do so. You simply circumnavigate the Cedar of Lebanon. Walking in and walking out of the labyrinth therefore becomes a single process. Third, I have found that as I concentrate more on my steps and my thoughts, arrival at the exit to the labyrinth brings a surprising sense of release and freedom.
Call this the pointless musing of a recovering academic if you will, but I find myself literally and metaphorically drawn into the labyrinth experience. I intend to explore it more.
In the meantime my thanks to Peter and to Jules – for getting me to this point. I will report further in due course, no pun intended!
Garden note #13
21 June 2021
‘All shall be well’
The field stone, a former gate post, was delivered to me about the time of the Winter Solstice last year. I first wrote about it here on the 14th of January. Sensing its potential, I contacted a stone carver who came to see it in situ, at a point close to what he told me was the ancient festival of Embolc. How fitting then, that the lettering work we agreed upon at that time was completed on the very day of the Summer Solstice, 2021.
Max Nowell is a man of many skills: dry stone dyker, small holder, artist and cider maker, to name just a few. He is well known in these parts for his ability to carve rope patterns into our local Locharbriggs Sandstone. I figured that a small piece of lettering would not task him unduly. On the first visit he examined the stone with interest, tapped and scratched and declared it fit to be carved. We then agreed what I considered a very modest rate for each letter in the inscription.
I had thought for some time about some words I would like to see in the garden. It wasn’t hard to settle on an epithet from the medieval English mystic, Julian of Norwich. I came to know about her from the late Cicely Saunders, whose biography I published in 2018. Julian’s book Revelations of Divine Love, formed at the end of the fourteenth century, is thought to be the first book in the English language to be written by a woman.
After being desperately ill and experiencing a set of visions, Julian, became a hermit or anchoress and had a little cell built on the side of St Julian’s Church in Norwich. There she struggled with the existence of sorrow and bad things in the world. I thought about her during the pandemic as we sought to question why such a thing can happen and what might follow from it. I don’t think it is necessary to be a believer to accept her injunction, made in the face of suffering and a vision of what might follow. It seems perfectly acceptable to a secular optimist such as myself: All shall be well.
I explained the text to Max and he immediately went away to find out more about Julian and the sort of calligraphy that would have been used in her day and in her book. I like the idea of mixing fonts together, and so we settled on a combination of Gothic and Times Roman. Returning in the summer, and over a couple of visits, with just a small hammer and chisel, he etched the text into the stone, working around the existing fleck marks that had been made by the mason who formed it – who knows how many years before.
Now, on my regular walks through the garden each day, I stop at the stone, ponder on the portal it must once have occupied, and give myself time to reflect on Julian’s words and the sense of hope they contain.
Garden note #12
19-20 June 2021
I readily admit that I am no plantsman. I frequently blank when talking about some flower or shrub in the garden, or when asked for the name of a particular specimen. These lacunae apply to the common as well as the Latin names, though just a few of the latter do stick. I use these as frequently as possible to imply a measure of horticultural wisdom.
In general my approach to the garden is to create an emotional effect that stirs the spirit. I’m interested in the full symphony rather more than its constituent parts.
But on a June weekend it was a real pleasure to have a close encounter with two particular plants, for which I not only know the names, but which also have a distinctly exotic air. Examining them close up enhanced my appreciation of their beauty, but also piqued my interest in their particular botanical features. And as it turned out, each of them had its own story of origins, associations and idiosyncrasies. Both are forms of lily.
The first, photographed here looking settled in the Dumfriesshire garden rain, is Arisaema Candidissimum.
I bought three of these plants last year at the Kirkudbright nursery of the excellent Elizabeth MacGregor. Its common names include the Chinese Cobra Lily and the Striped Cobra Lily. Given its delicate and esoteric look, I decided to plant mine in an old salt glazed agricultural trough, fairly close to the house. But seeing them now, I am inclined at the end of the season to move my three specimens into a damp and dappled-shade border, where they might sit happily, perhaps with other favourites, like Colocasia, Meconposis and Foxgloves.
I came across a much more knowledgeable blog about Arisaema Candidissimum here – in which it is explained that the plant was first introduced into Britain from Yunnan (the most south-western province in China) by George Forrest, in 1914. Well done him, I say. It is now safely ensconced with me and other gardeners, in the most south-western region of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway – though not so close to the Tropic of Cancer.
My second example is the Voodoo Lily, or Devil’s Tongue. Either way it sounds quite scary. Its Latin name is Amorphophallus Titanum. Not to be confused with Amorphophallus Konjac, which I first discovered at the Logan Botanical Garden, but have been unsuccessful in growing further east in Dumfriesshire.
With A. Titanum, we get into seriously strange territory. For one day only it gives off the smell of rotting meat, attracting associated flies that buzz around and inside the plant, in what when I saw it, looked like a frenzy of destruction. Rushing indoors I sought an explanation on the internet and found several, mainly from the USA. The flies apparently pollinate the plant. You can watch it happening here is a short video (not for the squeamish!).
On the whole, I think I would stick with bees and butterflies as my favoured pollinators, but the Devil’s Tongue does seem to have found an ecological niche. Sadly a few days after this treatment, my three plants, also growing in an old trough, looked anything but happy. Apparently this may be a passing phase, and before too long another shoot will emerge and produce an umbrella of attractive foliage. Either way, I think I will move them elsewhere too and away from the house – if they survive the tubers can become quite large (and even useful in cooking!) and also the fly-blown rotting flesh image is not one I wish to cultivate in my mind.
8 August – additional note.
The resurgence of the Voodoo Lily some weeks after it’s first bewildering appearance and disappearance did in fact come to pass. Here are the three plants in early August, looking handsome and content, with underplanted native ferns taken from a garden wall. Gorgeous spreading leaves and beautifully patterned stems.
Such is the seductive detail of exotic plants. They draw you in to their botanic narratives and surprise you with their oddities. Perhaps I should start looking more closely at the individual movements of the garden symphony and studying the constituent parts in more detail. I begin to see the endless possibilities of getting closer to my plants – and even remembering their names!
Garden note #11
4 June 2021
Twenty seconds of camassia magic, with birdsong. Filmed in the ‘arboretum’ next to the main garden. I planted the camassias in a circle of nine hazels, in which from time to time they get new botanical neighbours that blow in from around the plot. In the middle of the circle is an (imaginary) well. This is the well, surrounded by the nine hazels from which the Irish giant Finn McCool took the salmon of wisdom. It’s said that if a day goes by without Finn’s name being mentioned, then the world will come to an end. So I’m glad I thought of him today.
Garden note #10
25 May 2021
The big border
When visiting large gardens, I’m often inspired by the long border that is so frequently to be found running in front of a massive hedge or impressive stone wall. Crammed with herbaceous plants and shrubs, sometimes sprinkled with topiary or elevated by decorative trees, it is often a thing of splendour that stirs the horticultural ambition. Such a border can unfold its bounty in phase after phase of forms, colours and movements, revealed through the rhythms of the year.
Which is why, when I began to rent the field next to my garden in 2015, I quickly decided to start something like it myself. Six years on, it has come to be known, rather prosaically as ‘the big border’. Please excuse this extravagant gallery of pictures, and then read on!
Roughly 24 metres long and 8 metres wide, the big border runs more or less east-west, and has a southerly aspect. But with no protecting wall or hedge it can be prone to cold blasts that sear in, especially from the north east, as well as the wet volleys from our prevailing south westerlies. Add in the fact that the entire border sits on a drumlin and is also at the edge of a field where ploughed out stones have been dumped since Patrick Miller began his improvements here in 1785, and you can quickly see some of the challenges.
All that said, I have been more and more pleased with the big border as each year goes by, and love to watch it springing into life, especially from about this time onwards (though to be sure, this year things are rather late).
I’d originally thought the big border could be divided into four sections, each one showcasing a particular season. But this soon broke down as a concept when opportunistic purchases or random gifts of plants, including welcome donations of others’ cast-offs, were all readily accepted and assimilated. ‘Beware gardeners bearing plants’, I was once told by a nurseryman. They are certainly the enemy of design, but I still rather like the mash-up of things that occur when breaking free from the original plan and giving way to playful planting.
Of course, it’s always possible to re-design along the way, and this I did a few years ago in creating a square of roses, demarcated by four ferrous obelisks made by Russell Goodrourn of New Abbey. The flowers and the ironmongery give a sense of order to an otherwise shaggy border and I have tried not to mix in other things with the roses, though I know this is fashionable.
From the early daffodils, hellebores and arums, to the Jacob’s ladder, then the azaleas and on to the coppery red Great Dixter euphorbias, and the bronze elders – the big border cranks into gear and doesn’t let up. After these come the geraniums, the self-seeded white foxgloves, the irises, lupins and lavender, Indian love grass, eryngium, oxeye daisies, the day lilies and the colocasia. By mid-summer there are countless plants I’m struggling to name, their labels lost or never present, and of course the David Austins and their companions are blooming at full-tilt. Soon we have the crocosmias – orange, yellow and deep red – and then a little later, the Japanese anenomes, verbena, sedum, asters and heleniums. Some of these, along with late flowering roses, can keep a worthwhile display going until late November and right up to the gates of Winter, frosts permitting. When all flowers are gone, the clipped box, juniper, cryptomeria and western red cedar gradually appear to the eye and make for real interest in the shortest days, slowly disappearing from view again when spring returns.
I’m lucky to have the big border, I see it each time I leave and return to my home. It’s a haven for bees and birds. Yes, it needs ‘deep weeding’ a couple of times a year and a robust haircut in January. But beyond that it looks after itself for much of the year and at its height, offers up a daily menu of perennial favourites and the occasional blow-in or gifted surprise. It provides interest of some kind for 12 months of the year: a perfect garden almanac.
Garden note #9
16 May 2021
The Himalayan Blue Poppy, Meconopsis, has a special place in my gardening affections. Over the years I have bought the occasional one, alive and vigorous from the garden centre, only to see it disappear in the autumn, never to return.
A couple of years back, I made progress and got a small clump established, the product of gifts from two or three successive Father’s Days. They vary in shade. Some are an informal pale water-colourish blue that makes an excellent foil for the yellow centre. Others are a deep China blue and are simply jaw dropping in their dignified presence.
So in the autumn of 2019, with the poppy seed heads nice and ripe and in the nick of time as a visiting deer started to nip them off for a tasty snack, I collected a paper bagful. I then cracked out the fine black seed before storing it carefully in a labelled envelope.
In March 2020 I filled several trays with scattered seed on damp compost and then sprinkled fine grit over the top. Having no greenhouse at that time, I left the trays on a low wall where they would attract some sunshine, but not dry out.
By May I had a patchy but gratifying array of seedlings. By July I was pricking them out and re-planting in four-inch pots. Some grew faster than others. Some poorer specimens struggled and died.
But by mid August, when a sense of early autumn pervades the morning air in these parts I felt confident they could be planted out. There they sat for a few months, in their new location near a rill that runs from the burn into the pond.
Over Winter they slumbered beneath the leaf mould. Returning hesitantly in March, they were un-phased by the frosts of the late Spring. If they took a knock in the early hours when the April chill descended, they were soon back in business and giving me hope of a return on my efforts.
Today, to my delight, I have my first two flowers, their blooms not quite fully unfolded but looking majestic in a porcelain deep blue. I feel ridiculously pleased about it.
I gather that the Meconopsis has many named varieties and that these are often shrouded in debate as to provenance. I’ve read that the blue poppy was first cultivated by the French botanist Viguier in 1814. Privately, of course, I intend to call my new arrivals Meconopsis Pennylandis, after the lovely burn that runs by them.
Unlike last year, I now have a rather splendid greenhouse. I suspect it will be packed with Meconopsis seed trays next Spring. Assuming of course that I’ve not been thwarted by the deer.
Garden note #8
21st April 2021
During these past few weeks and up to the 19th of the month, perhaps the most memorable feature in the garden has been the heavy frosts we encounter each morning. Following a cloudless night and usually just before light is about to break, the sharp sub-zero air has descended, so that by the 7am dog walk, a white carpet awaits us, already set off by the sun’s slanting rays – and with them – the promise of warmth later in the day.
The early morning scene, though beautiful, brings a sense of disappointment. Many flowering plants are dipping their heads in mourning. Narcissi of all persuasions, short and tall, look funereal in their stooped posture. Hellebores lay in flat fans on the frosty ground, awaiting the sun’s CPR. Ceanothus, magnolias and early azaleas suffer most, their leaves blackened and emergent blooms cut down before their time.
A thin layer of ice sits on the pond. In shady spots it is unbudging the whole day through. We wonder when the cold will end and we search for signs of new growth to mitigate the chill. And then, as the month of April turns into its final stages, the air suddenly warms, scything winds moderate, and the garden breathes its relief. We look ahead with hope, perhaps to six frost-free months?
Postscript 23 April 2021
I am afraid that as Rafiki said in the Lion King, I was ‘wrong again!‘
Garden note #7
4th April 2021
This note is exactly five years old and was written in Chipping Camden, during a stay in the Cotswolds in April 2016. It concerns a visit to the garden at Hidcote Manor, now under the stewardship of the National Trust, but originally the creation of Lawrence Johnston, who worked on it for some 40 years.
A delightful morning. Rain clearing and sun emerging. We breakfast early and are among the first to arrive at Hidcote, just a short drive away.
My six year old daughter enjoys walking around the garden with a map. Having previously been here only in summer, I also see the garden in a new way. The bare bones are revealed.
There is much restoration in progress near the house, so some of the beds look messy, though there are spring bulbs and some blossom. But the overall effect remains completely inspiring.
It becomes possible to see that the ‘rooms’ are often not on the flat at all, or even on levelled ground. Rather, ingenious uses of terracing can be seen here and there, and in some places paths cut through and across the slopes, to make enclosed spaces possible.
There is a lot of rectilinear in the hedging but it is somehow superimposed on the ululations and varied camber of the ground.
Johnston’s principle, inherited from others, is also worth remembering. Form and structure close to the house – including parterre, terracing, paving and tiled areas – gradually gives way to more informal and then wilder planting. But from most vantage points there are vistas, enhanced by framing in archways or with gates as a distinct focal point.
These things are all worth remembering, whatever scale of garden we have.
Garden note #6
18 March 2021
The tell tale signs began to emerge a few weeks ago. Shifting a pile of newly delivered logs, a couple of semi-comatose puddocks required relocation to a safe damp spot. Then one wet late evening as I left the house for a dog walk, an inquisitive member of the family Ranidae, hopped straight towards me in the porch before making an abrupt right turn and then dissolving quickly behind a green Wellington boot. Next day the builder rescued a couple of Rana Temporaria from a watering can.
The accumulating evidence was clear. Frog season was upon us.
According to my records, this very short annual event has in recent years usually taken place on a Saturday in March. Presumably the weekend leaves more time for the participants – their quotidian tasks complete and out of the way – to concentrate unidisturbed on the new matter at hand. But this year the important event began on a Wednesday, the 10th of the month, in the afternoon to be precise. Maybe those involved had been given the time off for games.
At any rate, the players went about their sport with considerable enthusiasm. Urged on, rather than deterred, by gusting winds and heavy rain, they set alive a shallow rather scruffy spot on the edge of the garden pond with their urgent need to reproduce.
Gurgling with energy, sending pulsing ripples in concentric bursts across the surface of the water, the frogs were now vibrantly alive after their winter sleep. The water became a cauldron of energy, back legs producing improbable, almost caricatured leaps. Heads like little basalt pebbles in the water, bulging eyes staying alert for predatory dangers. However slowly I walked up to them, however urgent their task, sensing my presence or that of the inquisitive spaniel, they would dive for cover, suddenly lost in the dark water, indistinguishable from vegetal detritus, bits of twig, or a sunken oak leaf.
Next day, in a spot of March-bright sunshine between downpours, I could capture the results of their leap-frogging. A fecund hubble-bubble of spawn brimmed at the surface of the water. I gazed on it to a sound track of watery grunts, croaks and sloshes as the frogs, with ballooning yellow-white throats, continued their mandate to mate.
‘Frog he would a wooing go’ is said to be a Scottish verse from the 16th century, found along with well known border ballads like Tam Lin and the Battle of Chevy Chase. It first appears in The Complaynt of Scotland of 1549, as a satirical rejoinder to the ‘rough wooing’ by which Henry VIII sought to break the auld alliance and have Mary, Queen of Scots, marry his son Edward. In that version it is entitled ‘The frog cam to the myl dur’. It may well have become more popular still in 1579 when the Duke of Anjou sought the hand of Elizabeth I.
In the song, Frog wants to marry Miss Mouse, but needs the permission of Uncle Rat. After various versifications, each with some repeating refrain or other, consent is duly given, albeit with numerous diversionary circumlocutions along the way. But then – check for yourself – despite the anticipated ceremony and the accompanying celebrations, in most versions things end badly and by predation. As the great Dick Gaughan once said, whilst introducing one of the bloodier border ballads, ‘this is the one where the guy gets killed’.
Meanwhile, two days after the rough wooing in the pond, all was calm. The tapioca spawn lay exposed, protein rich and vulnerable. The frogs lolled in the shallows in numbers I had previously never seen. The progeny of bygone frog seasons was everywhere, with much more to come judging by the extent of the spawn.
Then, as I gazed across the water from the house, a movement caught my eye to the right. A prehistoric-like winged creature flew in, head hunched in its grey-blue plumage, its beak like an awl. It landed in the shallow littoral with crazy backdrafting wings hard at work. Then took up position right next to the largest and most bulbous batch of eggs in their glutinous caul.
Froggy did a wooing go, but now the heron was here – and seemed to have supper in mind …
Postscript 21 April 2021
Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried. As you can see from this short film taken today.
Garden note #5
4 March 2021
Time to act
Derek Jarman, film maker and horticultural improviser, once said ‘if a garden’s not shaggy, forget it’. His view is one to which I mainly subscribe. Untrained and untutored I developed the Dumfriesshire garden from a mixture of bog, nettle beds, dead ash trees, thin stony soil and rough pasture. It was never going to be a garden of formality.
That said I do have a rather fine clipped yew along with some smaller box specimens. But their smooth outlines are really there to enhance the general unshorn look of things that surround them.
Until this month.
Now, at the beginning of March, it’s time to get going and bring the garden into a state of readiness that will facilitate the splendour of spring. I don’t believe in ‘putting the garden to bed for winter’. Who would not take pleasure in fragile bracts dusted with frost, towering stems of rheum spikes turning hollow, dying grasses that rustle and sway in the westerly wind? Or birds feeding on meconopsis poppy heads and finding countless bugs among iris fronds, now spread like the fingers of your hand, across the cold earth.
All these things enhance our experience of the garden in winter, beautifully set off by a modicum of structure like the yew and box. But now it is all change. Out with secateurs and loppers, we are ready to say a sad farewell to last year’s growth as it makes way for the new.
Herbaceous foliage, brown and damp, is the first to go. That quickly shows up the perennial weeds that soon must make their exit. Now we see the scattered bounty of the thieving blackbird, as raspberry stems poke up where they are least wanted. It is at this point that I vow to push in new birch twigs and then mulch round where the peonies still lay dormant. Perhaps I will get it done before the new growth comes through, something I have never achieved before.
Elsewhere spring bulbs are appearing in droves, nudging through the leaf mould raked over them last autumn. A few more days and it will be reckless to tread in these borders.
Just one task remains. It’s one that I love but which also brings a bitter sweet sense of sorrow. Cornus stems – sanguinous, black stemmed, green stemmed – they all must go. Enjoyed for months in the winter light, in frost and in snow, now they must yield to the loppers. They are cut down into great bundles, bigger than your arms can hold.
I love dogwoods. Never mind that someone once told me they belong only in car parks and on roundabouts. They are welcome in my garden. Their gorgeous cut stems will continue to bring pleasure in the coming weeks. They will give an artistic air to the dead hedge. I’ll strike cuttings from a few of my favourites. Some I’ll bring into the house to sit in a large glass jar filled with water and pebbles, where they will open out in sharp green blades and be ready for decoration at Easter.
And of course soon our Cornus friends will be breaking into new growth out in the garden, and the whole cycle will begin again. Standing at the gates of Spring, it’s time to act …
Garden note #4
18 February 2021
Robert Frost’s evocative poem, The Wood-Pile, mourns a beautiful ‘cord’ of maple: cut, carefully stacked in the forest, and then abandoned. It is leaning precariously, sinking, long past its best and ‘far from a useful fireplace’.
Discovered by the poet, on a wintry walk, Frost considers the apparent quitclaim of such an impressive wood-pile. Surely, this must be the action of someone who flits from one thing to another, abandoning and forgetting past achievements – to leave so carelessly such a useful stockpile?
To the contrary, my own thinking settles on a more likely interpretation. Surely the person is dead. For what woodcutter would relinquish such a carefully assembled horde, other than through death?
I’ve long been a devotee of well constructed woodpiles, spotting them on walks, train journeys, from the passenger seat of the car, or occasionally in a film or something on television. As Lars Mitting showed in his book Norwegian Wood, his countrymen have huge expertise in this department, you might say elevating it to an art form.
My own efforts are more humble. No attempts at a wood-pile in the form of a leaping salmon, a perfect sphere, or a collection of small houses. My main goal is simply to get the firewood undercover, drying out and ready for a subsequent cold snap. But even that, I know, should be done with respect and diligence. I feel this increasingly as I grow older. Knowing from whence the wood comes, how long it has been cut, and the provenance of the trees becomes important. So too is attention to the stacking.
Which is why this week I was curious to receive a delivery of firewood (for next winter) where as part of the service, the logs would be stacked for me. I watched in admiration as barrow load after barrow load was tipped in front of a young man who then stowed them to perfection. Like a dry stone dyker, he selected each piece of wood with care and then placed it with confidence in such a way that the log sat snug and neat with its neighbours, eased into an almost pre-ordained position. In every case he was right first time. His spatial economy created an end-grain jigsaw of satisfying complexity, with never a need for a second try.
Why should such things matter, I ask myself? I am not by temperament a perfectionist or an obsessive compulsive. But the perfect order in a wood shed full of beech, sycamore, birch and ash brings an inner pleasure. It is not for abandoning.
In fact this woodstack pays a double dividend. It will warm my home when next winter comes, and it warms my spirit now, as I pass it each morning on my way to the garden.
Garden note #3
Snowdrops at Candlemas
2 February 2021
For such diminutive plants, it was a Herculean feat. After something like a month of frost, with the ground as hard as bell metal, and then with fresh snow falling, our old friend galanthus nivalis made it through in the nick of time. I find snowdrops always take me by surprise. After days of watchful waiting, you turn your back, and there they are.
We are blessed with many snowdrops around where I live.
From the kitchen window I have a wonderful view of an entire bank of them sweeping down to the Pennyland Burn. Across to the right I can see expanding clumps of what I understand to be more specialised varieties, ‘well worthy’ of any galanthophile. All these are in my neighbour’s garden.
Under the stone dykes and hedgerows round the fields, along the farm tracks and loanings, snowdrops grow in abundance, and in sheltered spots these are often the first to appear. They are completely wild.
In my own garden I have a clump near the burn that catches a good bit of sun when it’s available, and I have more recently transplanted some ‘in the green’ to a couple of dogwood circles in the ‘arboretum’. I am patiently waiting for them to spread.
Beyond the common form, the only snowdrop name I can recall is ‘Three Ships’. It is prized for being in bloom on Christmas Day. But the snowdrop’s main association is with a different festival, Candlemas.
Now I came to this by a diverse route.
In the late 1970s I got completely drawn into the BBC dramatisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre. Each episode ended with a beautiful choral rendition of what I came to know as the Nunc Dimittus. The haunting music matched wonderfully with Alec Guinness as the mournful George Smiley, brought out from retirement to find the ‘rotten apple in the barrel’.
The Nunc Dimittus opens with the words ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. This is the utterance of Simeon when he observes the infant Jesus with Mary, together in the temple for the first time, and knows he has seen the light of the world and can now himself leave it. The scene was captured beautifully by Rembrandt in one of his final works, Simeon’s Song of Praise. The occasion was part of a ruling described in the book of Leviticus, nowadays one might say appropriately forgotten, of ‘purification’ 40 days after childbirth.
A Christian tradition grew up around this particular day. It came to be known as Candlemas and is celebrated on 2nd of February. It marked the occasion described by Simeon but was also the end of the 40 day Christmas festival, a much more extended period than the 12 days we know today.
Yet its timing resonates with something far more ancient. The day in question is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is adjacent to Imbolc, the Irish festival that later became the day of St Brigid – one also associated with fertility. This day, the very middle of winter, was a time for light, for hope, for saying goodbye to the darkness and waiting for the harbingers of spring. It was undoubtedly important to the earliest people of these islands.
Later, it also became an element in the agrarian cycle – a time for hiring labour, for paying rent, and for settling debts. Candlemas is one of the Scottish ‘quarter days’, along with Whitsuntide (15 May) Lammas (1st August) and Martinmas (11 November), when such duties are similarly discharged.
By the Middle Ages, Candlemas was fully established as a festival in the Christian calendar. Like others, it had been successfully grafted onto older stock, along with some added bells and whistles. There were candle lit processions, pageants, plays and municipal feasts. The white ‘Candlemas bells’, often planted in churchyards, were gathered into bright bunches for church decoration on the appointed day in February, and deemed unlucky to pick before it.
The Reformation did much to dispel Candlemas. Secularisation did the rest. Yet the snowdrops remain, and this year they have taken on another significance for me. Eagerly awaited, delicate yet tough, they have arrived just when we needed them most. This year perhaps we see them in a new light, emerging through the iron-gripped cold of lockdown and leading us, we must hope, beyond it.
Garden note #2
14 January 2021
During an intermission between lockdowns, I was picking up some bags of compost in the yard of a young gardener/chimney sweep/entrepreneur of my acquaintance, when I spotted a beautiful sandstone gatepost lurking in the back of his yard.
It wasn’t hard to imagine a spot where this magnificent piece of stone might sit in my Dumfriesshire garden. I was thinking about an adjacent field, that I began renting and planting five years ago. It is known as the ‘arboretum’ by some, the ‘pagan garden’ by others, and ‘David’s crazy idea’ by the insightful few.
Seeing an opportunity, I immediately went into acquisitive mode. Without further ado, a price for the stone was agreed and the deal done – to include transportation.
A few weeks later my purchase arrived. Delivery was by something called a Manitou, a piece of expensive machinery that is commonly seen in these parts. I was given 10 minutes notice of its arrival (the Manitou, I suspect, having somehow become ‘available’ that morning). Its operator had no difficulty in deftly dropping his payload within inches of my chosen site, where it lay flat on a wooden pallet.
In the days that followed I got to inspect the sandstone gatepost more closely. It nudges towards seven feet in length and is a little under two feet at its widest point. Estimated weight (and here I go metric) 150-200kg. Its rounded top sweeps down elegantly to the base and the edges and two broad faces are flecked with markings at 45 degrees that I would guess are the product of a scutch hammer. One side is almost completely covered in these flecks, like snow in a blizzard. The other side finds them in small patches, between which the surface is smooth.
The task was to secure the stone in an upright position. It seemed that improvised experimental archaeology methods would be required. Luckily I’ve read quite a bit about the construction of Stonehenge. The challenge would be to lift the stone sufficiently at the top to allow it to be pushed onto a round fence post. At this point it would be rolled forward and would drop into an 18 inch deep slot I had excavated for its foundation. From there, at an accommodating angle, it could (fairly easily, I thought) be pushed upright.
On St Stephen’s Day, aided by two pandemically rusticated students in our family, the placing-manoeuvre was duly accomplished, just as planned, and I’m glad to say without mishap. We then re-used the rounded ‘stob’ to pack the excavated earth and small water-worn pebbles around the base of the stone. Within a few days it stood safe, firm and solid. I was content. After all, as the Manitou driver had said, ‘it’s not as if any cattle are going to rub up against it’.
Now, of course, a single gatepost does not a portal make. Newly sited, it stands alone, the sandstone equivalent, you might say, of one hand clapping. A passing neighbour on seeing it for the first time even asked my wife if someone had died. But despite such mordant humour, this erstwhile gatepost is now a fieldstone-with-impact. Likely to disappear among surrounding foliage during Summer, in the leafless months it already has undoubted Winter presence.
I hope a local stonemason will carve some words for me in the smooth patches between the fleck marks on the stone. I have chosen a phrase from Julian of Norwich, the Medieval mystic, who despite all her multiple sorrows and tribulations, proclaimed repeatedly that ‘all shall be well’.
Her words can surely bring hope for 2021, and perhaps even for years to come?
Garden note #1
4th January 2020
For over a week the garden ground has been frozen hard. Occasional light snowfall settles and turns to ice, carapacing a crusty thin layer that crunches beneath trudging feet. Along with sporadic sunshine that is almost warm in sheltered spots, this makes for a propitious time to undertake winter pruning. The rose arch is most in need of attention, but tangled in whippy stems and fierce thorns, it makes an uninviting prospect.
I demur and turn instead to easy-going hazel stems, Corylus Avellana, leathery barked and massing in vase-shaped clumps, topped with emergent catkins. Choosing the older specimens, I bring out my newly purchased pruning saw. It has come from Japan and sits snugly in a wooden sheath, hiding its tiny steel teeth and with its curved handle, looking for all the world like an 18th century pistol.
I proceed respectfully, for the hazel is said to promote wisdom and inspiration. My saw makes light work of the task. After each cut I pull another stem free from the clump, letting in light and air. I set aside the best staves and the rest are quickly dispatched for kindling.
Turning back to the long, elegant poles, clipping off the side shoots is easy and satisfying. Some thinner stems I weave into the top of the dead hedge, making an inexpert but satisfying trim.
The longest and straightest stems are destined to form two wigwams in the kitchen garden. If my skills allow, they will give elegant height and a sense of order in the raised beds. When the snow and ice are long gone, I hope these hazel poles will support fresh green legumes – to grace a summer lunch.
Please enjoy these horticultural and related musings, but do be aware they don’t constitute advice in any way. All errors of practice here described are entirely my own.