Autumn gardening: actions and alterations

October 19, 2006

This autumn has been both beautiful and prolonged with jewel like tableaux which stick in my visual memory. One is of the quite extraordinary plenitude of brilliant scarlet berries on the low, purple berberis hedge in the Fountain Court. I can’t tell you the delight that this has given me when the light strikes it. Behind, in the Small Orchard, a large walnut tree reaches its autumn apogee aflame with leaves of palest gold. On the other side of the garden, arches of Viburnum opulus frame the Shakespeare Monument at the close of the vista with leaves turning from green to plum. Marvellous.

But this is a time for action and alterations. Beyond the Small Orchard lies another small, rectangular garden, the final space anyone who visits The Laskett sees on a tour. It started as an orchard of peaches and nectarines with little luck. Then it housed some 10 of my wife’s quince collection, but let’s be honest: as a finale, it was a terrible let down. So, Shaun and I have set about changing it. Out went virtually all the ailing quinces. In this sense, gardening can be quite brutal with an ‘off with its head’ streak in which few gardeners care to indulge. But I believe in being brave. Into the space, we put a blue trellis arch for a rose, flanked by two yews which I will topiarise. Then, two circular beds were dug with figs planted at the centre, also against blue trellis, the beds thickly planted with white tulips. A culminating seat and arbour has yet to come.

By the middle of this month, the dramatic decisions you have been thinking about all summer now reach a head as to whether to be brave enough and do them or not. One was to radically reduce the height of the staggered avenue of fastigiate Irish yews along the pleached-lime walk known as Elizabeth Tudor. They have got out of hand and again it’s a question of ‘off with their heads’, this time reducing them from 10ft to about 3ft high.

And while I was in my Robespierre mood, sentence was also finally passed on the two remaining fastigiate junipers in the knot garden in front of the house. Their removal means that the new approach to the house will afford an uninterrupted view of its neo-Classical façade. Add to them the Rosa Wickwar in the Birthday Garden, and my list for the horticultural tumbril is complete, at least for the moment. No doubt it will be reactivated after the tree surgeons have made their annual inspection.

At last, I’ve decided that Reg Boulton, who has done so many of the commemorative artefacts scattered through the garden, should do a memorial in honour of our first cat, the Lady Torte de Shell. A capricious animal, she loved me dearly and used to go to sleep on my head. But now she’s to be commemorated by a bold vertical of slate which Reg has acquired and which will be sited beyond the Yew Garden in a quiet area where she’s buried amid spring flowers. Onto the slate will go her name and the wavy lines of her fur. But I must watch it, because all too easily The Laskett could become a cemetery, although we forget today that death and the garden are so closely linked. One thinks of that most famous of all garden inscriptions ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, death even in Arcady.

A final note. One day, Shaun took me into his confidence. There had been a dramatic thinning of Julia’s malus collection. There had had to be. Many I gave to friends to plant in her memory, and they have flourished. But up in the Kitchen Garden, there was a bed still jammed full of them for quite a time. And then, all of a sudden, they’d gone.

‘I’ll tell you what I did with them,’ Shaun at last confided. ‘What?’ I replied. ‘Well, I’d pop one or two into the back of the car and drive around, and when I saw a nice country bus stop, I’d think, ‘that could do with a good tree’. So I dug a hole and popped one in.’ Julia would have been enchanted, and in my case, it mitigated my feelings of guilt at having to uproot so much that she had planted.

So her memory in spring blossom and autumn fruits continues and is scattered anonymously through the lanes of Herefordshire. I was both charmed and moved.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on October 19, 2006