Shaun asks: ‘Can i have a word with you?’ Of course he can, and I am led off to a small enclosure, defined on three sides by a beech hedge and, on the fourth by clipped Leyland cypress screening a dilapidated garage. This ‘room’ should form the finale of my garden tours and, as such, I admit it is a disappointment. I find myself leading any party away from it, and back via the ‘great vista’ which focuses on the triumphal arch, to make sure that we end on a high note. ‘It’s all green,’ Shaun rightly points out.
The green consists of the hedge, five varieties of quince, two yews that I intend to topiarise, and a couple of figs trained across blue trellis. It lacks artefacts and colour. As a first step towards improving things, we opt for clematis climbing through the quince trees, and off I go to our local nursery. Everything must be planted by the first open day. My two-volume Royal Horticultural Society plant bible tells me that there are 200 varieties of clematis and, inevitably, most of the ones I hoick onto my trolley are not in it.
The colour range I am after is lilac pink to deep purple; as well as plants with purple foliage, to contrast with the apple green leaves of the quinces. On the whole, we want early flowering varieties. I select that old, but pretty, warhorse, Clematis montana var. Rubens; also the montanas Warwickshire Rose which has bronze purple leaves and another with the ghastly name of Mayleen. Then I pick a later flowering viticella clematis called M. Koster that promises deep purple flowers, and another spring flowerer called Rosy O’Grady, with bell shaped blossoms. These, I think, will do the trick and Shaun assures me that there will be no problem getting them to thrive.
The first open day beckons, an event that always produces a frenzy of activity. I must have been mad to have agreed to no less than 13 open days this year, even if a number of them are to raise funds for charity. But there is no going back now, so we set to sprucing up the acreage. My contribution is to fill a plastic bucket with warm water and grab a cloth and an old toothbrush. Armed with kitchen cleaner, I head for some of the inscribed slate plaques which dot the garden and get down on my knees. Scrubbing them gently reminds me of cleaning an Old Master painting of centuries-old layers of dirt and discoloured varnish, and I am appalled to think that what I attempt to remove is one year’s deposit of grime.
Into the Rose Garden I plunge, sago broom in hand, to sweep up the leaves and gravel which have spread over the limestone slabs. More importantly, I snap off the pink and plum-coloured tulips that have somehow got into a formal planting of yellow ones flecked with red. A similar sentence is passed on any lingering pink hyacinths left in the rose beds. The vases of flowers resulting from this cull give me huge pleasure and greater pleasure is afforded by seeing the colour scheme of the Rose Garden restored.
I stand back from the great vista and think, ‘That’ll hit them between the eyes,’ but oh no! my eye falls on the urns flanking the entrance, one filled with a Cordyline australis Sundance, and the other forlornly empty, awaiting its pair, which has not arrived. Another trip to the nursery beckons. I have no luck with Sundance, so I grab two Torbay Dazzlers. With their bold cream stripes and margins, they should do the trick. And yes, they look splendid set against a wall of dark green yew. Meanwhile, Shaun battles against rain to get the mowing done. It is the final touch. Canes and string are put in place where he has reseeded the grass and I am warned to take visitors along a different route. Those who come will have to put up with a skip on the drive, and a posse of builders’ vans. And, to crown it all, on the first open day, a staircase is due to be delivered. But on with the show, I say: let the horticultural curtain rise!