Survival guide to opening your garden

August 3, 2006

Thank heaven garden visiting is almost over. In my case, 11 down and two more to go in September. In all, I will have opened 13 times. Too many, too many. But oh, how easy it is to say yes a year in advance? and then comes the reality. A whole day vanishes, a morning and afternoon performance by me with no short-changing, not to mention the sprucing up that has to be done by Shaun. It ends up like being in a long run of a play with matinee and evening performances.

And yet, in another sense, I love it all, because not only does it feed my latent thespian instincts, but also, after each occasion, someone writes in gratitude for what they’ve seen and the stimulation they’ve been given. Many have found themselves transported into a magic private world, as each twist and turn has brought them yet another surprise. And what is the point of creating all this without sharing it a little? How garden owners who open several days a week survive, I know not, but then I don’t think that they go in for repertory performances and just let the visitor loose.

By early July, let’s be honest, the poor garden was getting decidedly fluffy and I felt a bit ashamed of it in parts. The feeling that the moment had somehow gone was exacerbated by heavy rain, which flattened the roses, followed by drought, which made plants that hadn’t been flattened just flop and droop.

Everything has, in fact, grown like blazes, not only thanks to that late onrush of moisture, but also to last winter’s tree-felling and branch-lopping. It is a salutary reminder to gardeners to look at your domains during the summer months, noting where trees cast shade and block the light to other plants, and making plans to prune in winter.

One of my favourite lines to stir up an audience is: ‘Remember flowers in a garden are a sign of failure.’ That remark is always guaranteed to send shockwaves across the room. And yet, if thought about, it contains a real truth, for flowers, however spectacular, are embroidery onto structure. In the case of The Laskett (and thanks largely to Shaun), signs of ‘failure’ have multiplied in all directions. Indeed, the garden has become more floriferous than ever, somewhat undermining my horticultural stance.

Shaun is acutely aware of habitat so that sometimes I remark that I don’t remember seeing such-and-such a plant where it now is, to which he replies: ‘I moved it.’ As a consequence, many a flower that was struggling has suddenly burgeoned. In this sense, I let him have his head and the results speak for themselves, particularly in the case of a large new border where everything has filled out and spread in a couple of years in a way I find incredible.

He is also enjoying himself in the kitchen garden, where a redun-dant light metal alloy stepladder (we go through one a year) has been sunk into a bed and now has the leathery leaves and curling fronds of a squash ascending its steps. It looks wonderful glinting in the sun and is a perfect essay on how we’ve changed our perception about ornament in the garden.

This is a page lifted from the world of the surrealist garden designer Ivan Hicks in which any found object, from an old broken typewriter to a rusty circular saw, can be brought into play to evoke a whole range of responses from shock to peals of laughter. A kitchen garden is a good place in which to indulge in this. Elsewhere it could be disruptive, but here it only adds to what, by late summer, is a rampant composition and there is usually so much to hand in the way of broken or discarded garden bits and pieces such as tools to collapsed seats?from which to improvise.

On the last day but one of July, I picked the last of the broad beans to make a huge pot of an Italian vegetable soup, with potatoes and artichoke hearts, also from the garden. Into the freezer that went, to provide me with a hot dish for lunch in winter. It has released a bed for Shaun to plant another crop. I’ve noticed with a shudder that the French beans are about to take off.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on July 27, 2006