Our gardening year begins at last…

November 2, 2006

Two telephone calls confirm that there will be no hibernation for us yet; that the game is still afoot. The first, from Langley Boxwood Nursery (www.boxwood.co.uk), tells me that my new box hedges are ready for lifting and shipping. Bare-root box is cheaper than the potted equivalent and a doddle to settle into the garden in the cool, damp months.

The second call, from Claire Austin Hardy Plants (www.claireaustin-hardyplants.co.uk), announces the dispatch of some bearded irises. These are always better if lifted and planted now, and better still for the wait. It was at the Chelsea Flower Show back in May that I decided I had to have the damson plush Iris Coalignition and black crêpe Dusky Challenger. Both are, at last, within my grasp.

I am also feeling the benefit of all those months of drought. Little could be done in the way of planting while the fear prevailed that some Thames Water SWAT team might pounce, preventing one caring for newly installed prizes. Now, after weeks of autumn rains, I can finally plant with safety a delightful prospect. We are surrounded by potted perennials (I didn’t stop buying just planting) and about to enjoy gardening’s main creative activity, when we would usually be heading for the fireside.

This new autumnal lease is reminiscent of the old days when plants were almost always bought bare-rooted, not potted, and deployed during the dark months. By far the busiest time in the garden, autumn was prospective rather than retrospective. So it is again this year for many of us who spared the spade during the drought. The only catch will be recalling what all these pots of withered top growth (but healthy roots) are meant to look like. My advice would be to buy now and go mad with planting this autumn with picture book in hand, if necessary.

At apple time each year, that great champion of British fruit, the Brogdale Trust, holds a public event, the Brogdale Lecture at the Linnean Society in Burlington House, W1. This year’s lecture, at 11.30am on Saturday, November 25, outlines the flamboyant life and lonely death of Edward Ashdown Bunyard, one of England’s most gifted and civilised horticulturists. It will be given by Edward Wilson, Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, whose volume The Downright Epicure will be published in early 2007 by Prospect Books.

His legacy was immense, and in some ways, we are only now working out how to spend it. The scion of a great dynasty of Kentish nurserymen and fruit growers founded as long ago as 1796, Bunyard was the leading pomologist of his day. He was both a pioneer of the emerging science of genetics and a connoisseur whose appraisals aspired to the condition of poetry. Here was a man at ease in the world of science as well as that of the arts, if not always at ease in himself.

He brought the same approach to ornamental plants, and especially to roses. We have Bunyard to thank for the revival of interest in antique rose varieties and for the selection of the better forms of more recent introductions such as Rosa filipes. An aesthete in spirit and period, he also knew how to use these plants to make gardens of rare romanticism. Over a lunch of woodcock, foie gras, truffles and Château Yquem, Vita Sackville-West picked his brains when planning Sissinghurst, and he was no less influential on the great Mediterranean gardens of Lawrence Johnston at Serre de la Madone and of the Hanburys at La Mortola.

Like many suicides, Bunyard was distinctly on the side of life, a bon viveur whose love of wine, of exotic travel and food, of glorious gardens and fine art expressed itself in some of the best English non-fiction prose of the early 20th century. Plenty of it appeared in the pages of Country Life, which is reason enough to make a pilgrimage to Burling-ton House. He lived as he died before his time.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on September 7, 2006