Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where the plants seemed ever in bloom. They rolled into my consciousness only while in flower, materializing from the fuzz of green and fading back when the petals dropped.
Now, after a few years in the business, I often take more joy in a plant’s growth than I do in its blossoming. This must be common in gardeners; it is partially due to the pleasure of anticipation – those weeks between the first bulbs breaking and the realization that the tulips are blind – where one can imagine that this year the garden will be perfect. But it is also because plants all grow in uniquely fascinating ways.
Rhubarb has my favorite growth-habit, It prolapses up red and obscene in a way that signals Good Times Ahead better than any olive branch on any ark. This year I’ve also enjoyed watching duckweed on one of our ponds. The tiny Lemna minuta reproduces almost cytokineticly, like microbes on a petri-dish, and in July it only needed a hot weekend to cover the pool entirely. Another highlight has been seeing a team of swearing scaffolders fight summer long to save their erection from being swallowed by wisteria. The plant is one hundred years old and when cut back created a florid vegetable Hydra.
This, however, is not a blog about growth. For over the last few weeks I have added another gospel to my bible of garden appreciation: I have become a connoisseur of death. Two weeks ago I sprayed a deep bed of weeds with a lethal mixture of glysophate and sulfosulfuron, and since have been fascinated by the varied ways in which different species die.
The oxalis was the first to go. Its tiny leaves disintegrated, leaving a star-burst of un-garnished petioles. Sow thistle was next; it sagged around its upright hollow stem, the leaves drooping to form a washed-out skirt. Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) turned black and mushy in patches, like a supermarket salad too long in the bag. Most interesting was the chickweed, so dull in life, but from which the colour faded day-on-day until it was almost transparent – after a week and a rain shower I could look down from above and clearly see droplets of water hanging from the underside of the leaves. Finally the niccotiana succumbed; its giant green leaves prostrate on the ground, the exact colour and texture of a spent latex glove.
Since perpetrating this herbicidal massacre (apologies to the organic – had we the time and labour…) I have been in the thrall of Plant Death. At Chiswick House we currently seem to be losing a lot of aucuba, which is galling for two reasons: firstly because aucuba’s cardinal and single virtue has always lain in not dying, and secondly because when it does die it looks so ugly. The long serrated leaves sag, crumple and turn matt black, the whole thing looks like a giant sea urchin hung with old banana skins. In contrast the leaves of Viburnam tinus, another reliable evergreen, turns a lovely warm rufous red when it unexpectedly expires – something to consider when planning your next shrubbery.
My second favourite dead evergreen is ceanothus, and after a few of cold winters there are a lot of these about. The corpse retains its form, with stem, leaves and spent blooms intact, but it turns pitch black – like Wile E Coyote after an explosion. My number-one-favourite dead evergreen is the ubiquitous Deceased Miniature Conifer in a Window Box. Visually it is nothing special, a dry brown cone, but it contains an entire narrative arc. A spring morning, a sense of optimism, the desire to beautify and better ones surroundings with a brand new bag of compost. But then neglect sets in – summer is hot and watering a chore, the plant suffers. By autumn even disposing of the body is too much gardening.
Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where plants seemed ever in bloom; now I worship at the altar of death. Horticulture courses are currently enrolling at Capel Manor College.