The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Land of Mandragora and the Serpent Flower.
"There never was a juster debt
Than what the dry do pay for wet;
Never a debt was paid more nigh
As what the wet do pay for dry!"
February 13.— If the West Country farmer's rhyme prove true this year, the "dry" will have a heavy debt to pay! Some of the gravel walks in the garden are quite green, along the sides where the almost ceaseless rain flows down. All or dressed stone - sun-dial, vases, steps- is discoloured and green, and will all have to be scrubbed with hot water and soap, like the rocks in the great rockery once described in the Gardener's Chronicle (vol. xviii., p. 747). A large part of the grounds has been under water nearly all through the winter; the "wet," however, in which they sometimes stand ankle deep for weeks, seems not to do any harm to the evergreens here; whilst we get from the floods charming landscape effects. I could almost wish the glassy meres, with their clear reflections of tree or sky, to be permanent.
I have been looking over and making notes of our Fir trees- we have only about a dozen or so, I am afraid! I find that Pinus Austriaca thrives better than any other here; it is a regret to me that we did not plant numbers more of them, instead of wasting years in trying to make Scotch Fir succeed. Spruce never seems to do well in this part of the country; we have two or three old Spruce Firs which are mere poles, and some much younger, which must be cut down to relieve our eyes from that garden misery, a sickly tree. Only in the "Fantaisie" are our Spruce Firs successful, and there, from overcrowding- for there are at least ten- they are well-nigh spoilt. This little spot has proved good for them, I imagine, because it was new ground, taken in from old unbroken pasture and well trenched...I know no successful Spruce plantations anywhere in the neighbourhood. The soil is gravelly, with chalk and flint; and sometimes trees seem to strike their roots down into subsoil- perhaps an intermittent layer of greensand- and then they go off...Excelsa Grandis flourishes equally with Pinus Austriaca...The Balm of Gilead Firs, a few of which we put in along one side of the turf walk, have failed entirely. I meant each to become a little rounded beauty, like that one planted by my father, which I remember long years since as a wonder of aromatic greenery; but these are grey and stunted, and they all wear such a look of age and decay as I fear we cannot endure to see. The crisp leaves, however, are as sweet when crumpled in the hand as they ought to be. With two or three of these piteous little trees, the branches show, without losing stiffness, a certain tendency to droop or turn downwards at the extremities. It is rather curious, this droop, affected by a few individuals in a Fir plantation! For they do not begin life with that intention...Our Douglas Fir (Sir Bedivere) has known this temptation to droop...
In various odd nooks and corners of the garden, I know where to find a few little old Cephalonian Pines, all that remain out of a number we once had. They are only 4 or 5 feet high, yet they were grown from seed over a quarter of a century ago. Like poor old useless retainers, they have followed the fortunes of the family, and we have become attached to one another. One amongst the original number became a fine specimen- and perished. The rest have never had a chance... At times the space of ground over which we reign seems to be very much too small; and I incline to envy the possession of land, with room enough to plant; for there can be no more engrossing interest of its kind than to watch the growth of trees, their manners and customs. I would plant at once acres of Ilex Oak. What a shelter they would make! And in a congenial soil they would not be too slow of growth. There should be broad bands of Beech and Oak, and long groves of Larch, delicious in spring for the fragrance of their green and pink-tipped tassels. And there should be plantations of Fir- Scotch Fir, for the delight of their healthy blue-green in youth, and for the glory of their great red stems in age; and Spruce Fir, with all their charm of deep mosses underneath, and the loveliness in spring of starry Winter-green (Trientalis Europa) and "the rathe Primrose;" and for the music of the winds among their branches, and the velvet darkness of their colour under summer skies. (Mem.- The Winter-green would have to be sent us from the North.)
Our great work of last month has been an alteration at the east end of the garden. A Quickset hedge, forty or fifty years old, is moved back, so as to take in from "the park" a bit of waste ground, the gravel path that ran under the hedge is widened, and a block of Laurels cut through. By this means a turf way, leading north and south, is made to enter the improved walk, whose chief attraction is the border of old damask Roses. Plum trees and Pears stand along the border amongst the Roses, and a large perennial yellow Lupin, in which thrushes have been known to make their nests. In the middle of the hedge grew a fine young Elder. I had long promised that Elder it should never be cut down, so when the Hawthorns were removed the tree remained, arching across the path to meet a Plum tree on the other side. An Elder in full bloom is such a beautiful thing that it is painful to feel obliged to destroy it; but Elders have such an unfortunate knack of appearing where they are not wanted! The birds sow Elder seeds in the clefts of trees, in chinks of walls, flower borders- all sorts of inconvenient places- now that the berries are no longer requisitioned to make Elder wine. In old-fashioned days it was worth having a cold, to enjoy a night-cap of Elder wine from the saucepan on the hob! So this one tree is preserved in honour, as compensation for those others which are no more...
I think I never saw a finer show of white Arums than we have just now. There is the grandest luxuriance of foliage, with thick tall stems, crowned by spathes in spiral lines of perfect grace. The rich texture of these flowers is marvellous; white as the drifted snow, with a lemon scent. Our success is perhaps due, not only to good management, but due to what one may call imported bulbs. Four years ago they were thrown out of a garden in Cannes, as worthless rubbish, on to the road side...I immediately gathered up some for myself, and they were done up in newspapers and packed in our trunks and brought home...My window is full of Paper Narcissus- Narcissus is Remembrance; and for the sake of past days, I love it- they succeed a set of blur Roman Hyacinths, dear also from association, and beautiful in their full tones of blue and green. The perfume of both flowers brings back vividly the sweet South, where I knew them wild. I must end with a little bit out of a letter sent me from that southern land which has the power to create lovers of Nature:-
"I am longing for sunshine, to bring to life all the flowers I am watching for near the torrent beds. My ignorance of flowers has this advantage, that each leaf is a mystery to me, and I know not what flower it frames, so each will be a surprise as it appears."
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins