Year of Grace, Day 107. A contrary gardener

When I look back on the gardens I have created, one thing stands out that unites them all. I have, for some unfathomable reason, been rather contrary and grown plants that are not natives nor known to thrive there. Take for instance the Mediterranean garden I created in my front garden in Leamington Spa. Now Warwickshire – smack in the middle of England and prides itself on this by calling itself the heart of England – is as far from the Mediterranean as any place in England can be. For one, it rains all year round and the sun is rare as hen’s teeth.

But when one looks at closer range and observes the micro climate, then one begins to see possibilities where none seemed to exist at first. What did my front garden have? A southern exposure, and thus sun – when there was sun – all day. And a lack of moisture. But how could this be, with all that rain? Well, there was a huge Kanzan cherry tree there – such a beauty with its blossoms in spring and its brilliant leaves in fall – but such a thirsty tree whose questing roots hogged all the moisture there was, and only those plants that didn’t mind drought thrived there. Rosemary and Russian sage, a black bamboo, phormium, mahonia, nandina, and Sedum spectabile — the kind with huge bunches of flowers that go lusciously from white to pale green and to shades of rose and purple in the autumn. There was an existing box hedge no more than 30 cm tall at first; I let it sprawl and grow wide and tall. Over the years I had trained it into cloud-like billows that kept chilly winter winds at bay, and the Mediterranean plants loved the seclusion and protection. Alas when I moved to Germany, it was torn out and with it, some of my heart went as well. And in the back garden, despite cold North winds, a bay tree and a kiwi vine have flourished, planted against a brick wall that keeps them warm in winter. Another subtropical — a feijoa or pineapple guava — is there as well.

Bonn has the same rainy and sunless climate as Leamington Spa. And my front garden again faces south. But recent construction has left the ground full of pebbles and stones on top of the original heavy clay. And it is on a slope – thus promising good drainage. And in the summer, the clay bakes into a hard, crackly, uninviting surface. So I have planted a Mediterranean garden all over again. Artichokes, rosemary, lavender, a bay tree, just fronting the house wall that also absorbs the heat and protects the plants when temperatures drop at night. I’ve also put in a coca-cola herb with its grey-green filigree leaves. Coca-cola gewurz is how Artemisia abrotanum is known locally, and it does give off a weird cola-like scent when I brush against it. I rather like its English name, Lad’s Love, as it’s rumoured to be an aphrodisiac. More Mediterranean companions are acanthus with its spikes of purple flowers, sage, and clumps of medium-tall blue-green Festuca glauca grass.

These Mediterranean plants possess the colours that I adore — soft grey-greens and blue-greens and silvery greens, purple and mauve and claret — with varied leaf textures, some soft and wooly and others rather spikey. And the scents they release are so soothingly therapeutic. Could it be that my dream garden is actually a Mediterranean one – and I will always try to create this wherever I am?

Here is another of my dream gardens – the Priory of Notre Dame d’Orsan in Berry, Picardie, in the heart of France. It is a monastery garden, much like Brother Cadfael might have planted, had he also gone into fruits and not just herbs and vegetables. I love the structures used for trellises and seating, and have in mind copying some of them. When the trees were pruned in the back garden last autumn, I had the prunings piled up, ready for fashioning into seats and all sorts of plant supports in the spirit of this dreamy French garden.

A heart chair -- from Prieure d'Orsan. Photo from the book Zaubere Alter Gaerten.

A heart chair — from Prieure d’Orsan. Photo from the book Zauber Alter Garten.

Click here for Monty Don’s account of his visit to the Priory Garden. And here’s another one of the hotel and restaurant for which the garden was created.


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