The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
"My Sunflower"— Of a Garden Sunday— Of Ghosts in the Twilight— Magnolia Grandiflora.
August 6.— The Lime avenue is pleasanter than ever now, on these bright afternoons when the low sun strikes amber shafts through the branches, and light shadows lie on the parquet of brown and yellow leaves beneath. With every breeze hundreds of the winged sea-vessels, like queer little teetotums, come twirling down. The wrens are busy with their second or third nests— without counting the cock-nests at the beginning of the season; the porch swallows are thinking of a second brood, and scatter straws of hay and patches of wet mud untidily upon the stones beneath their nests; thrushes go about the lawn followed by two or three great awkward young ones (their third family this season), too foolish to pick up worms for themselves. As for the sparrows, they are hard at work with probably the sixth or seventh nest of their series. Roses are coming on in their second bloom; low bushes and standards of La France show large buds and attar-scented blossoms; while crimson Roses of many names glow in richest bloom here and there all over the garden. Precious as are these late Roses, the chord of colour has changed so much since Roses were in their prime, that fresh pink or crimson seem almost misplaced among the fiery reds and scarlet. White Roses are seldom so beautiful as one feels they ought to be; but a small plant of the Japanese Rosa Rugosa, in its first season with us, has been a great pet this summer, with its large white petals; the Macartney also is welcome, flowering as it has for the first time in its life here. The buds have hitherto always fallen off, without an attempt at unclosing, and it has only kept its place on the wall for the sake of their lovely evergreen leaves and yearly promise of abundant bloom. But the only perfect white Rose, the White Moss, remains still for me a dream and nothing more. There are tall old bluish-pink Roses at the back of the Beechen close which have been blooming in almost rank luxuriance. They, with a few Cabbage Roses and Maiden's Blush, and a yellow Banksia, were all of Roses the garden had when first we came here, eleven years ago. At that time they were thought too ugly almost to live, and were banished to the outskirts. But time has brought them round to the front again; and now these relics of a bygone Rose age are beloved for their redundant and perfumed bloom, and for their most uncommon colour, the red in them being so largely mixed with cold blue. The York and Lancaster Rose— long lost and long coveted— will, I hope, ere next season be established with us. For the other day in Somersetshire we found one growing near a ghostly house in a deserted garden, and from this plant we have some healthy suckers. I cannot keep pace with the new Roses; they are mostly too large and heavy. They seem to run too far from the flatness of a really typical Rose type.
We have not made pot pourri this summer; but the Lavender harvest is gathered in, with spikes unusually fine. I am mot sure that they smell much the sweeter for their great size. It is a pleasant time when the Lavender is laid out in trays, and the house is full of the sweetness of it. On these bright windy mornings the Broad Walk looks its best. Looking up from south to north, the end of the walk, framed in with trees, is bounded by a low Quickset hedge, beyond which lies meadow-land, with glimpses of yellow corn-fields. Beyond all is the soft blue of distant wood. Along the Yew hedge, on one side, are long borders in the turf of single Dahlias, in succession to Sweet-williams (Bearded pink); and the other side under the wall is enriched with scarlet, of those tall Lychnis which the children call "Summer Lightning" (Lychnis chalcedonia, flower of Bristow and Constantinople). And there are sheaves of finely dyed rose-red Phloxes, pyramids of blue and white Campanula, and clumps of dark blue Salvia; grey and feathery Gypsophilia Paniculata also— priceless for setting off of delicate Poppies and other refined and frail kinds when cut. Yet the mass of colour would be far more brilliant but for the bulbs which lie hidden under the earth. They must not be disturbed by planting in amongst them, so all that is in the border has its place there perennially.
Spaces in the wall behind— where the ancient pear trees have perished from old age— are sometimes dressed in spreading Vines. Last month a tall blue Larkspur, near one of these Vines, was caught by the wandering tendrils, and so they grew together, the Larkspur upheld by her friend the Vine with a strong and tender grasp. Green streamers of this Vine also wreathe the head of an iron gate empurpled with intermingling Clematis. Here also, close to the old wall, at regular intervals, are our Sunflowers; some of them grow to nearly ten feet in height. After many trials of other spots, we think they seem to do best planted thus. The shelter saves them all conflict with wind and rain, and they are tall, and straight, and full, having no cares of weather to divert their gradual growth to beauty. I did not love Sunflowers. Their constant repetition as a kind of æsthetic badge can scarcely fail to tire. In those days they had no place in the garden, or only in some out-of-the-way obscure corner. But once I found a little song of William Blake's, and ever since, for the music of it, the Sunflower has been beloved, with the feeling that to know her is to give her your heart.
"Ah, Sunflower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden prime
Where the traveller's journey is done,
Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin, shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go."
Perhaps there is not much of common sense in the words! but they surely are most musical. How grand these Sunflowers are! and there is a sweet and gracious look in the Sunflower's open face. With all her grand mien and stately stature, she never stares up direct at her god; the golden head half bends down; downward also point the symmetrically set broad leaves, delicately shaped en cœur. The whole aspect is one of contemplation, or at least one fancies it is to be so. There is also a sort of majesty in the one strong single stem, from which proceeds so fine a show of buds, and flowers, and leaves. Yet I have never been happy enough to see her act the part of the poet's Sunflower— the real Sunflower of our earthly gardens could never turn her head so fast; all that I know she does is to bloom on whichever side of her the sun rises. Poets, nevertheless, are true seers, and without doubt they know what they say. The French name, "Tournesol," would seem to imply a popular belief that the flower follows the sun.
The silly Dahlia would turn her face to the wall or any way. Brilliant as are these single Dahlias, they are rather trying in their ways; so much rank leaf and stalk, and so little flower; the plants sometimes too large and bushy, sometimes too thin; and then it is so irritating when their backs are turned as one passes along the walk! The so-called Cactus Dahlia is not at all tiresome; it is beautiful both in form and colour.
August 26.— Sunday Morning.— After a hundred years, if the Seven Sleepers awoke on an English Sunday morning, they would certainly at once know what day it was. There is nothing else like it for the feeling of intense repose. No other stillness can compare with the deep calm of a Sunday morning such as this. No leaf stirs; there is no cloud moving about in the hot hazy blue; the clatter of the iron road has ceased; the very birds are still. Swallows alone are ever on the wing, and the silence is so profound that the beat of their wings can be heard as they dart by in rapid course. The busy corn-fields lie empty in a golden rest. Only here and there, where the harvest is not yet gathered in, the sheaves, like praying hands, stand together on the field. In the green pastures the grazing cattle seem to tread with hushed and silent step. And there is a sound of church bells on the air, coming clear yet faint across the level country. There will be no church for the tired harvestmen whom we saw yesterday lying on the dusty grass by the roadside. They are too tired, and too ragged and dirty; but we may hope for them also some restful influences from the quiet of the day, under such a blue sky.
The early morning is always the time of all others for the garden, while the flowers are refreshed with the dew and darkness and cool of night, and are rejoicing yet in the light of a new sun. Soon they will begin to flag in the dry weary round of burning hours. To one who only knows the garden after 8 o'clock a.m., a walk round it between 7 or 8, or earlier, would be a revelation. On this special morning the flowers in the east border soon penetrated through and through with the rapture of existence. Each Sunflower stands with half-transparent shadow sharp cut upon the wall behind it, its petals fresh gilt, its centre sparkling with dew; rose-red Phlox and flaming Sword Lilies (Corn-flag), blue Salvia intermixed with many-coloured stars of Dahlias, and an indescribable mob of smaller, more insignificant things. Round the corner a great mass of common white Clematis fills the air with fragrance. It is all whiteness and sweetness; it is a summer cloud, a white cumulus of surpassing beauty. One of the stone vases of the gate pillars is completely hidden under the white foam. But this matters not; nothing matters but that we should have the Clematis there, in its loveliness! The Tigridias in the entrance court are wide open, and none would guess how brief their hours were to be. There are few perfect Roses— morning glories (Convolvulus major), and orange Tropœolums ("Larkheels trim") with bluish leaves. The dew lies upon all, and one may say in the garden the Psalmist's words about the valleys thick with corn, for the flowers all seem to laugh and sing with joy. Ten glorious days of almost uninterrupted sunshine have made us very dry. Daily waterings help to keep things alive, but the grass is a little brown in some parts of the lawns, and there are yellow leaves on the Elms and the older Laburnums. The dead dry leaves rustle so thick under foot in the Lime Avenue, that one looks up to see if any green is left.
Most of the German seed Grasses are already gathered, though a few have still to ripen. We always sow a good variety; they look so fresh while growing, and afterwards are dried for the winter. There is the pretty Tussock Grass, with soft downy tufts, and the long feathery kind, like waving hair; and one, most delicate and spray-like, is a sort of miniature Bulrush, with a green curved head; and then there is a little forest of our English Bashaw Grass (Bromus aspen). This is very handsome and gigantic in size, and came up of itself in one of the wild bits of the garden. The handsomest of all our Grasses this year is a fine blue Grass (Lyme Grass, Elymus arenarius), from the dunes of Holland. The colour amongst other greens is absolutely blue. It grows so strong, and the leaves so long, that it might almost be mistaken for an Iris. It is strange that this Grass should thrive apparently as well, or better, in a Buckinghamshire garden, than in its native sands! Near the old Syringa (Philadelphus), on the turf at the greenhouse door, two large pots of white Campanula are stood out for a change of air. They are so tall that as one passes by in the gloaming, one is startled by these tall white people suddenly appearing out of the dusk. Others of the same pyramidal Campanulas remain in the house. They are pale pinkish blue and white. Hundreds of blossoms cover up and hide the whole plant, and nothing is seen but the mass of wide open flowerets. So cleverly are the flowers arranged, there is no sign of over-crowding— and one asks how this is, for they seem to be set quite close and even. "To questions such as these Nature answers, 'I grow.' " The Auratum Lilies had vainly promised to open for so long that I almost lost patience. The dry weather may have caused them to delay. Constant watering seems now to have begun to take effect, and there are two or three superb blooms. The bulbs are not taken up for the autumn; they are only covered over with fine ashes or cocoanut fibre. If a plant will consent to live in its own place winter and summer, it seems so much more real, somehow. I wished to try the plan with our Spanish Irises, but in their case it proved a complete failure. Our large roots of Salvia Patens are seven years old; they are yearly cut down and covered with ashes.
The parterr is at this time in its full perfection. In other gardens I observe the blue Lobelia has done flowering, but our seedling that we raised, with bronze foliage, is as fine as it was two months ago. I cannot say the blue is so cool as the others, but the staying power of this special kind is of real importance, and the beds are most luminous. I am greatly enjoying a beautiful large blue Agapanthus in a green tub, placed on the grass near a trimmed Box tree, with a black Irish Yew for background. The scarlet Pelargoniums (must that long name be always said?) glow so hotly, they seem to want as much blue and green as we can give them. Never has our Magnolia Grandiflora flowered so well; I have counted nine great blossoms on the two trees at the same time. The texture of no other flower comes near to the beauty of the Magnolia. I remember long ago a white-chested beautiful boy, whose mother called him in play her Magnolia boy. That little child was the only flower I ever saw that could compare with the Magnolia!
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins