A three-for-the-price-of-two offer for weedkiller has arrived in the post, with a photograph of wildflower meadows and that Chinese proverb printed in the sky: ‘If you would be happy for a week, take a wife; if you would be happy for a month, kill your pig; if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden.’
This irritates on many levels. The three-for-two deal gets on my nerves because I always feel as if I’m being cheated if I don’t want a trio of shampoo/pineapples/weedkiller. ‘But you’ll pay more, Madam,’ says the cashier. ‘Madam’ gets on my nerves as well. And why show a meadow of wildflowers to sell weedkiller? The best meadows have never been sprayed at all or just spot sprayed to get rid of the thuggish nettles and docks.
I won’t even go into the brevity of happiness promised by a wife and a pig, except to point out that the Chinese didn’t get where they are today until they stopped sitting around thinking up proverbs. More to the point, planting a garden isn’t undiluted happiness. It’s hard work, and, although it gives you a sense of virtue that hours at the prie-dieu can’t rival, it’s also a source of chronic anxiety.
I say this even as my garden is a patch of paradise. It’s the time of year that Robert Frost described best: ‘Nature’s first green is gold/her hardest hue to hold.’ The garden has that golden haze that says ‘Glory be to Spring!’. White tulips stand as erect and elegant as brides dressed by Balenciaga. Ceanothus, which we used to lose every third winter, is the radiant blue of a pack of Gauloises. The apple and cherry blossom have truly never been better.
But we are desperate for rain. We’ve only had half an inch since the beginning of March. And the rain I long for will batter the tulips and decimate the blossom. Another dilemma eats into my happiness, an annual weed that pokes up each year at this time and takes over. To label or not to label. This is not a simple conflict. My husband is the real gardener, I’m the interloper.
He believes in labels. He also believes in Latin names, so the large field of snowflakes is Leucojum aestivum, the field of snake’s head fritillaries is Fritillaria meleagris, and the last daffodil of the season, pheasant’s eye, is Narcissus poeticus var recurvus. I genuinely love the common names that have the poetry of the folk songs. I feel like a botanical huckster when I produce the Latin name.
But back to labels. I think a private garden should feel like a personal garden. Although we are open to the public, we aren’t a botanical garden, we aren’t the National Trust. Usually, there is someone who can tell the curious or frustrated visitor that the tree in the kitchen garden is Paulownia sometimes called the foxglove tree the twins in the knot garden are weeping white mulberries. If I’m on hand, I cheerfully explain the paint colours on the seats and the various breeds of fowl taking their dust baths where the new bedding plants should be (note: dust baths wreak havoc with labels).
In one of his earlier guides, the late Christopher Lloyd, a friend I miss every day, ended with a list of nine reasons why he didn’t label his plants at Great Dixter. He gave all the obvious ones labels are expensive both in materials and time, they are frequently removed and slipped into pockets, beds are trodden on to get a better glimpse but he includes one that even in print rings with the Christo snort: ‘I hate the look of labels. Like a cemetery.’
I quote Christo during my anti-label crusades, but I know he would shudder at my new obsession: labour-saving ground cover. He was bored by talk of low-maintenance gardening and firmly believed that it is the effort that brings reward. But then Christo never took short-cuts to happiness. He needed no sage proverbs to persuade him of the lingering merits of the garden over wife and pig.