The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Of Field-Mice, and the Thorn of Joseph of Arimathea— Of "Poor Johnnys"— A Lilac Gem— and greenhouse Flowers.
January 5.— A large body of the army of the small ones of the earth has attacked us, and it is no fault of theirs if we are not despoiled of the best of our spring delights. The field-mice have at length found out the Crocuses; we, on our side, have set traps in their way, and large numbers have fallen - quite flat, poor little things! - under the heavy bricks. We believe we should have slain many more, had not some clever creature made a practice of examining the traps during the night, devouring the cheese, and in some way withdrawing the bit of stick, so as to let the brick fall harmless. Suspicion points towards one person especially - the old white fox-terrier, who lives in the stables, and is master (in his own opinion) of all that department, and whom neither gates nor bars can prevent going anywhere he chooses to go...In the days when there was always a hawk or two hovering over the ploughed land, or keeping watch over the green meadows, and when we used to hear the owls in the summer nights, and saw the white owl who lived somewhere near sail silently in the grey of evening across the lawn - in those days we knew little of the plague of field mice. But now we have changed all that; cheap gun licences have put a gun into every one's hand, the vermin is ruthlessly shot, and the balance of Nature is destroyed.
It is rather a fearful pleasure that we take just now to mark the unwonted earliness of green things of all kinds. One cannot help dreading that some great check will happen later on in the year; and yet it may be an omen for food that the birds' full concert has only just begun. The saying goes in Scotland, "If the birds pipe afore Christmas they'll greet after;" and so far as I know, not a note was sung till December 30...
I do not remember having seen before in mid-winter a Hawthorn hedge bursting out into leaf! At the end of last month, however, there were strong young shoots and fully formed leaves on some of the Quicks in a hedge planted last spring in our lane. I have known nothing like this, except the Glastonbury Thorn. There is one of these strange Thorns, a large tree, growing just within the park gates of Marston Bigot, in Somersetshire. It used to bloom with great regularity in mild winters about this time. Tufts of flowers came out all over the branches, smelling as sweet as Hawthorn in May... The emerald green of turf, thickly sprinkled with Daises, seems also an unusual sight for January. The first green glow on the grass and the first Daisy we are surely used to hail as signs of approaching spring. On the lawn, too, a yellow Buttercup, careless of the heavy roller, has dared to hold up its head!
Jan.— 8. The weather has been for many weeks so dark and gloomy, that the rare sunshine which shone upon the land to-day was as welcome and nearly as unlooked for as May flowers in January. The house stood blocked out in sun and shadow. Magnolia Grandiflora, which covers the south-east gable, looked grand in this flood of radiance...The eye, soon tired, however, of so much dazzling brilliance in the polished foliage, each leaf reflecting back the sun, follows the ascending lines of beauty up above the pointed roofs, where the soft golden rust of the topmost leaves' inner lining meets the deep blue, cloudless sky. Next the Magnolia, just under the painting-room window, is a Flexuosa Honeysuckle which has not lost a leaf this winter. New shoots and twists of brightest green, set with young leaves two and two, are springing all over it. One tender shoot, indeed, has had the heart to curl twice round a branch, sending out a length of spray beyond.
Hard by the Flexuosa flourished once a fine Gum Cistus. To my sorrow, it perished in the frost of two winters back...We lost that winter all but one of our Gum Cistus, and their destruction was so universal that there was a difficulty in replacing them. I like the Gum Cistus best when growing upon the lawn. The snow of fallen petals on the grass seems right, and gives no sense of untidiness, there. The loss of the Cistus, however, made room for better growth to the old Maiden's-blush Rose in the corner, by another window. She has hard work, anyhow, to hold her own against the flowery smothering of an Everlasting Pea, which persists in spreading beyond all bounds, notwithstanding the hints it yearly receives from knife and spade. Further on, still under the south front, a white Hepatica (Poor Johnny) is already shyly blooming...
Primroses have been with us more or less since September last, and now they are more abundant than ever - all colours - red, brown, yellow, white, sulphur: the garden is quite full of Primroses. Roses, also, we have scarcely been without all winter. Within the walled garden there are real red Rose-buds, rather tightly closed up, but capable of opening any day. Many Rose-bushes have never lost their old leaves, and some are already putting forth new. On the top of the wall I perceived to-day a white spot - it was a Gloire de Dijon - looking very pale, but fully opened...A space of kitchen garden wall by the north iron gate is resplendent with Jasminum Nudiflorum, and close by, the bare branches of a Fig tree are already pointed with green...But the gem of the whole garden just now is a small, most delicately yet brilliantly tinted lilac Iris (Iris Ensata)...It is only in the mildest of winters that it ventures to appear. Last year the date of its blooming first was February 10...Even Nature herself does not make use of lilac so freely as of other colours - yellow being, I almost think, her favourite...The dear little winter Aconite - each bud of pure clean yellow surrounded with its green frill of leaves - appears here and there among the damp dead leaves. Snowdrops are showing daily whiter and larger above the ground...
We have got through some rather important work within the past three weeks. A new Beech hedge has been planted on the open side of a green walk or close, already hedged in on one side. I once read somewhere of how it is reckoned good for the health to walk between Beech hedges, the air being purified and freshened by passing through the leaves. An old border, full of bulbs and Damask Roses, has been dug and rearranged. The Roses, which are old plants, will be refreshed and improved by the moving, and we shall add some day one or two York and Lancaster Roses...
There have been two days of frost and bitter cold, and yet the impatient flowers are not discouraged. At the further end of the broad walk, down among the broken Fern and withered leaves, a sense of colour is felt in the border as one passes by. Omphalodes Verna (would that dear English names were possible) is wide awake, and little eyes of cærulean blue are looking upwards. (Since writing this, I learn that the English name is French Forget-me-not, and that is a flower once beloved of Queen Marie Antoinette). The Rock Roses are full of bud...but the strangest of all is a Foxglove, spire of buds, rising well up from its leaf-crowned root on an ancient stump of Wisteria.
The mention of all these flowers would make it seem, I fear, as if our garden were even now a sort of flowery Paradise. The truth is a sad contrast to every such idea; for though the beautiful things are all in truth here, it would be difficult to describe the heavy gloom and damp of the whole place. And so one turns more often than usual to the greenhouse for consolation. Small as ours is - only about fifteen paces long - it is large enough for as much pleasure as I desire, under glass. To me the open garden is daily bread, the greenhouse "the honey that crowns the repast." There happens at this time to be a chord of colour there, worth noting - ivory whiteness of Roman Hyacinths, green of all exquisite gradations, pale yellow of Meg Merrilies Chrysanthemums; others of a warmer yellow, and pure white; fairest pink of Primulas, and a deep purple note, struck once or twice, of Pleroma. What a flower that is! how charming in its way of blooming sideways on its stalk, to let the sun shine through its violet translucence!
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins