AN ADDICTION to gardening is, in my view, genetic and in our family runs down the female line. It is now unto the fourth generation, with my daughter Josephine outstripping her forebears by achieving professional qualifications as a garden designer.
My grandmother’s first garden at St. Albans had long walks with clipped hedges, island beds in which standard roses were underplanted with white alyssum, formal rose plantings and lawns. By the time she got to Golsoncott, Robinson and Jekyll had stepped in: no more bedding out, with roses as the central feature of a paved and sunken garden brilliant with primroses and jonquils in spring; elsewhere there are informal Robinsonian walks, swathes of snowdrops and bluebells, a tumbling-stream garden with bulrushes and yellow flag irises.
My mother’s Egyptian garden made its bow to Robinson by way of a wild and shady water garden with bamboos, papyri, irises, arum lilies. There was a pergola walk, a lily pond with a weeping willow, a formal avenue of clipped conical evergreens. But there were also geometrical arrangements of beds near to the house, with roses and seasonal plantings. The garden was much admired and considered quintessentially English.
By the time the addiction got to me, standards had slumped. The first garden of my married life was behind a Swansea semi-detached. Neither Jack nor I had suspected a dormant gardening gene, but in fact we both had it, and property ownership set it rampant. We fell upon our rectangle of sour turf, matted beds and overgrown shrubs. It was very early spring. All over the place were tender, little rosettes of brilliant green, springing from the decay of winter: certainly something to be cherished. We cleared out a derelict bed and carefully transplanted them, one by one. A few weeks later my grandmother came to visit. She surveyed our treasured territory with barely concealed dismay. “I think that if ever I had just a pocket-handkerchief garden I would grow just one thing—really well,” she reflected. Then she turned her attention to our green rosettes. Her dismay was replaced by interested amazement: “Why have you planted out all that willowherb?”
For novelist Penelope Lively, change and continuity are twin threads in the garden
We learned, over the years and in subsequent gardens. But we were never more than semi-literate, in terms of serious gardening. There was too much else going on, for both of us: gardens were an essential interest and diversion but could never be a central concern. If I were to have my time again, I would be a real gardener.
Today, my daughter is creating the heir of the Golsoncott garden, the descendant of her great-grandmother’s enterprise. Downsized, once again. It is the garden of the cottage that my grandfather built in 1929, just along the lane, as a home for the Golsoncott gardener. This is where our family retains a toe-hold in west Somerset, all set for another hundred years, I hope.
Gardening style, 80 years on, in a small country garden for the 21st century: the emphasis is on structure and planting. A clever design of curved beds, circular lawns in a figure of eight and embryonic yew hedges divides up a wedge-shaped plot, creates interesting discrete areas and makes the whole thing seem larger. There are a little orchard, gravel paths, planting in swathes of color—the warm yellows and oranges, the cool blue-and-silver bit. Dramatic use of sculptural plants at focal points—stipa and miscanthus grasses, acanthus. A number of the plants would have been unknown at Golsoncott—all of them popular garden-center items today and a demonstration of the traditional interdependence of gardening fashion and commercial enterprise.
The Golsoncott garden as it once was exists now only in the head. But I can still conjure it up and move around, from space to space, from plant to plant. I can see it, but I now also hear it—as a global mnemonic system. Here we are in west Somerset—lavish green growth, the gray skies from which washes down all that useful rain, the rich pink earth—but much of the rest of the world is here too: the mountains of China and India, Japan, Mexico, South America, Greece, Turkey… The garden is both then and now, here and there. H