The Perfect Garden
HOT SUNSHINE, bare feet on sharp gravel, a flowerbed and a nearby tap made my first memory of garden perfection. I filled a little bucket and poured water into the patch of earth until the mud developed the right consistency and depth, and then sat in it, feeling the delicious coolness over my limbs. My elder sister appeared and kindly offered to wash my hair and, as dusk descended with the equatorial sunset, we traipsed to the back door feeling invisible in the dimness with our darkened bodies. My East African childhood on a mission compound gave me year-round garden playtime, with a special love of early morning and evening, when the sun’s power met the Earth at a welcome tangent.
Our garden seemed enormous, though probably only a few dozen paces front and back. Out of a field of tall, tough grasses my mother developed a vegetable garden, shaded from the sun with shelters of dry leaves and grasses. With runner beans in great profusion, passion fruit, cape gooseberries and pineapples, it must have been Ceres’ basket itself, since the pig from the mission farm was intent on raiding it. My mother, usually so calm, would leap up to chase her out with wild admonishments in Finnish. A few shrubs sourced from the nursery at Entebbe’s botanical gardens adorned the back garden, my favourite being the gardenia, whose glossy green leaves, creamy white flowers and heady scent were the emblem of delight. A neighbour grew African marigolds: another irresistible smell, and perfect for a bunch in small hands.
Back in England we lived with my grandmother. The garden, a tiny yard at the back of her terraced house in Berkhamsted, was precious. Her family, once tenant farmers in Northern France, had been displaced by the First World War, and the land had been dug for trenches. After the war her family ousted her and her English husband, and over three decades later, widowed, she bought the house with the money her husband had earnt in Intelligence in the Second World War. The garden faced east, perfect for an early riser, and the whitewashed wall gleamed over the London Pride and mossy saxifrages edging the rose bed. She took a great interest in all front gardens when out walking: some a collection of favourites, others a temple to orderliness, others a celebration of abandonment; all were appreciated.
Some years later, made miserable by the confinement of boarding school, I found refuge in a new friend’s home. On the western edge of Cambridge a perfect English garden had been created: a wisteria-covered façade and veranda, a lawn smooth and large enough for croquet, a rough bank of grasses, cow parsley and Oriental poppies, a paved rose garden, a vegetable garden with an asparagus bed and an ample chicken pen. All of this was managed by a Mr Garner, whose joy in life overflowed in poems of wonder as well as in the wisdom of his hands. The chickens enjoyed all the kitchen scraps, and exuded a marvellous contentment on a warm afternoon, their crooning a perfect accompaniment to flute practice.
My parents were now living in Iran, where American-funded development was on the brink of destroying millennia of sustainable farming practice. Just in time I visited a village where the water was channelled from tunnels running back into the mountain and brought to fields of wheat, legumes, herbs, vegetables and fruit including the most delicious melons. Further on were orchards of peaches, apricots and pomegranates. We were introduced to all the animals born that spring, a baby donkey especially prized, and to the young humans still swaddled onto a board. The older man showing me around told me with some pride that they only grew what they needed, with a little bit to sell for buying in wool for the carpets they wove as a collective effort. That all of this had sustained a community in the arid mountain climate for centuries made a deep impression on me. Life’s physical needs, activities and soul’s delight were all met in this one place.
UNROOTED AS I was by my upbringing, war and wandering in our family history, it took my daemon to settle me somewhere. I hardly knew it was happening until twenty-five years later I realised the garden that found me matched me perfectly. A large garden is an accident of circumstance, not a precondition of interest, to paraphrase Gertrud Jekyll. I have more garden than I might have ever imagined as I admired the wilder ends of Cambridge college gardens. Haunted by the illusion of the garden’s distant heyday I spent hours dreaming of its potential, urging myself to better planning and greater application. My desires, circumstances and strengths have gradually shaped a way of working, managing myself being the key to managing the garden. Each year brings a softening of ambition and a greater contentment.
When we arrived all was mature, even congested: outgrown hedgerows with mature oaks and limes enclosed remnants of orchards and thickets of shrubs where birds, snakes and small mammals all made their home. From 1920 the garden had been cultivated with distinctive ambition by an erudite spinster, who poured her love of beauty and industry into a garden of many parts. Forty years after she died in her nineties those inhabitants of the garden that could really survive here remain. Around them the vernacular of English woodland has spread and multiplied: foxgloves, buttercups, campion and bluebell follow the daffodil, lungwort, primrose, snowdrop and aconite.
We weeded nettles, dock, hogweed and brambles, watched and waited, and old plantings reappeared. Colonies of giant arums flourished in the ditches; the peony collection was dug up, trimmed and moved to the vegetable garden where it now provides stunning bouquets in May. The rose garden, long expired, still occasionally gives up a lead label of a cultivar long obsolete, while the shrub roses planted twenty years ago regale us with scent and an abandoned flowering in June.
Nettles, bindweed and brambles always return, beloved inhabitants collapse and expire, and good ideas materialise and mature. There is a rhythm in the tide of growth, overblowing and human intervention; a participation with a cycle much longer than a year: a lifetime with a scant few years of mud baths for toddlers, years when a dozen rows of potatoes are all eaten by growing adolescents, and years when the empty nest is assuaged by a passion for tree planting. The balance of desires and frustration flow tide-like around those moments of perfection, when you step out into the garden and sight, sound, scent, taste or task performed is all you are.