The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Of Psyche— Of an Old Garden— Nil Desperandum— Of Branches bearing Beauteous Fruit.
September 17.— That is not to-day! Time has since been sliding on faster and further away from summer into autumn. Yet I have a fancy to mark the date of as sweet a September day as ever shone upon this garden. I believe the people who got most enjoyment out of the sunshine of that marvellous day were the butterflies. There was a real butterflies' ball held in the long border of single Dahlias! An hour before noon the flowers, beautiful in all the brilliance of their rainbow dyes, were visited by a dancing throng of Atalanta butterflies. Yellow, red, orange, lilac, white— every flower had its Atalanta or two. They were the finest butterflies of the kind I ever saw. Strong on the wing, and faultless in the perfection of their white-edged black velvet and scarlet suits, they were the very embodiment of joyousness. [Probably Red Admirals] Not a jot did they care, in their pride and joy of life, though a hundred deaths surrounded them. They knew nothing at all about that, indeed. Life in the balmy air with the sunshine and the flowers was all in all to them. A few shabby Gamma moths, and hosts of humble bees, combining business with amusement, mixed in with the butterflies. By noon the whole gay company dispersed. Later in the day I found those fickle Atalantas disporting themselves upon some yellow Everlastings in another part of the garden. Butterfly life varies in our garden year by year, but I never saw so many Atalantas. This summer we have seen few Peacocks or Tortoiseshells. Orange-tips (Euchlæ cardamines) were unusually plentiful in the spring, as were our White Cabbages throughout the summer. So much fair weather as there has been required a good supply! since two white butterflies in the morning are the sure sign of a fine day— and this summer they had always to be about in pairs. Often, a large brimstone has floated calmly by. The chalkhill blue (Polyommatus Corydon), for many past seasons noted as appearing about the Yew hedges in March, has failed us this year; there have been no humming-bird sphinxes, and the far-scented Auratum Lilies, where often on warm evenings I have sought great Hawkmoths, seem to have attracted nothing but scores of very inferior-looking Gammas. It is an intense pleasure to watch these various most beautiful beings, in all the freedom of their wayward wildness. No inducement would to me seem powerful enough— now that the barbarity of youth is past— to cause their capture and death, were they never so rare as specimens.
And now the rain and the falling leaves recall too vividly the true date (Sept. 28), reminding me that I have to tell of the garden's autumnal desolation; yet if the days would only keep fair and bright, enough still is left to make one happy. The single Dahlias have won their way quite since last I wrote, and now I love them dearly. They are alone sufficient to light up half the garden. Our chief border is made up of seedlings, an exquisite variety of colours, mauve or rose-lilac coming least often, and a yellow with reddened or burnt-sienna tipped petals by far the loveliest. Named varieties are along with the Sunflowers opposite. White Queen I like the best— such large pure white flowers. A White Queen with an Atlanta butterfly settling on it is a perfect little bit of contrasted colour. I am schooling myself to say Dah-lia, but habit is strong, and Daylia will persist in coming out. In Curtis's Botanical magazine of 1803, vol. xix., p. 762, "Dahlia Coccinea, scarlet-flowered Dahlia," is figured. There is a note— "So named in honour of Andrew Dahl, a Swedish botanist; . . . not to be confounded with Dalea, a plant named after Dale, the friend of Ray." The pronunciation settled, the magazine goes on to say the Dahlia is "a native of South America, and may be considered as a hardy greenhouse herbaceous perennial." These beautiful flowers are especially valuable, since rain has no effect on them, though rough winds so easily break the brittle stems. The double Dahlia is unknown in our garden; it has never been admitted. Fine as it is in form and colour, the dislike to it seems, perhaps, unreasonable, yet through some far-off association, I can never disconnect the double Dahlia from a sort of mixture of earwigs and pen-wipers! The clumps of Japanese Anemones, both white and rosy-grey, are full of an unfailing charm. We try to prolong their existence by snipping off the round seed-heads. One might as easily make ropes of sand. . . . The same service done to Dahlias is just within human possibility. The dark red-mauve variety shows an individuality which gives it great value in the autumn borders. The irregularly shaped flowers, whose narrow petals manifest an inclination to double, last longer than those of the other two kinds. rain and wind have destroyed the beauty of Salvia Patens; it will bloom out again, however. The rich blue of this well-loved Salvia contrasts well with white Anemones when mixed in the flower-glasses. As for cut flowers, they are always a doubtful pleasure. I gather them with a pang, and would rather enjoy them blooming their full-time out in the garden. And yet what other ornament is there— even of finest porcelain— to compare with fresh-cut flowers? Nor are picture, nor rich satins of Italy, sufficient without flowers to make your room look bright and habitable. Even that best decoration, walls well lined with books, is the better for a few flowers on the table. So that I am not yet prepared to follow the example of the old lady who never allowed one flower in her garden to be cut, and filled her glasses with artificial Roses! Sunflowers are sprouting round their strong stems, and surrounded thus by constellations of similar suns, are perhaps even handsomer than before. We have two curiosities of Sunflower at this moment— curious as demonstrating a resolve to exist and flower under any circumstances whatever. One is a large thick-stemmed plant, which must have met at some time with some violent discouragement; it lies curled round flat on the earth, looking almost like a poor starved cat with a large head; for, though quite overgrown with summer Phloxes and Roses, etc., one large flower at the end of its stalk tries to look up, while two or three of smaller size, growing along the stalk, do the same. In contrast to the deformity below it, a miniature Sunflower, slenderly graceful, with blossom no larger than a florin, springs out of the mortar between two bricks high up on the wall. There is no visible crevice, but some tiny nail-hole there must be where somehow a seed had lodged.
Though many borders have now begun to look forlorn, we feel the garden has done well. It is still quite full of flowers, in some parts gay, even, as it could never have been with the dulness of the most brilliant "bedding out." The entrance court is bright with Nicotiana, scarlet Pelargoniums, Zinnias, double white Petunia, and blue Lobelias. The long-desired pink China Roses, intended for these beds once, could not be found anywhere. Such simple loveliness is out of fashion, it seems! Torch plants (Tritoma) are alight in all the edges of distant shrubberies. There are Japan Anemones and Oenothera everywhere. The Sweet pea hedge by the tennis-court is out again in bloom. Marigolds take care of themselves . They keep going off and coming on again, shining out in the dark where least expected. Our marigolds are of the deepest orange-gold. The seed was brought from Cannes, where their colour is always fine. They incline to turn pale with us, so we have to weed out pale faces in order to keep the stock black-eyed and fiery. Golden Rod is plentiful and useful, and I like it for the sake of old remembrance. Eighty years ago, as I used to hear, the gardens at Hampton Court knew no other flowers at all.* (*In the royal gardens, however, at Hampton Court, rare plants were cultivated so far back as 1691; such as the green-flowered Knowltonia Vesicatoria, etc.) The great square beds were simply filled with Golden Rod. Those must have been happier days at Hampton Court, before carpet bedding was known— when Yews were in all their beauty, and the fountain sent up its single lofty jet, and children played upon the mimic harp wrought in the beautiful iron gate of the Pavilion Walk, or peeped through the bars at the browsing deer.
Amongst what may be called the ruck of flowers throughout the garden, are deep crimson Snapdragon, Zinnias, of all shades of colour; Verbenas, pink, white, red, and striped purple; low Phloxes, flesh-coloured and crimson— more beautiful than they ever were in their proper season; Musk, Michaelmas Daises, Euphea Platycentra, Mignonette, Lobelias— the bronze-leaved Lobelia Cardinalis; lilac and white and pink Everlastings, white Marguerites and red Pyrethrums, Princes' Feather, yellow Heartsease, and Mrs. Sinkins Pink in a grand dash of second bloom—an endless variety, all making the effort to put forth their best, now that the last times draw so near. We might gather baskets of flowers and fill the house with them, were we so minded, and still hardly miss them from the garden. And yet has it not been said, "Bright tints that shine are but a sign that summer's past"? And full well I know the garden's pleasure is even now growing towards the end. Roses, it need scarcely be said, abound; even Charles Lawson id red with a second bloom. A few Damask Roses are coming out by mistake. They look very strange, putting one in mind of a long-for-gotten Rose, the Rose des Quatre Saisons. I see it clearly now, as I knew it in other days— pink all over with its October blossoming— in a garden whose loveliness lives only in the past. "Quarter Sessions" Rose, the ancient guardian of the place not unnaturally used to say! Shall I try to paint that garden? for surely none such exist any more. It was Shelley's poem of the "Sensitive Plant," full of the poetry of trees, and grass, and flowers . . . A nearly level space cut in the depths of a hanging wood; no enclosing boundary to be seen, save here and there, between the Rhododendrons, hints of a mossy low stone wall, or the sweet briar hedge at one end fencing off a stretch of Cedarn turf. On the upper edge of the gently sloping lawn a grand old Beech tree with silvered bole caught the rays of the morning sun. There was a giant Larch, all bearded with long grey lichens; a Tulip tree, a standard Magnolia. Here also was the orangery; up its columns were twined trumpet Honeysuckles and Passion-flowers. In front, a sunny plot— oblong beds, with narrow walks between— was devoted to Carnations, Ranunculus, and many choicest favourites. A walk wound round the lawn, and upon the smooth grass were beds full of lovely old-fashioned flowers. Large tree-roses, yellow briars, and Scotch Roses (white and red), and the old Queen of Sweden, and tall poles covered with climbing Roses, loose petalled and cherry-coloured— Noissettes, and Souvenir de Malmaison grew also on the turf, with arches of Honeysuckle and thickets of incense-breathing Spice plants. On the lower shady side of the walk went on between bosquets of Kalmia and Azalea. Here also great heaped-up limestone rock formed a sort of natural wall between the garden and the wood. Every cranny was filled with rare and delicate Ferns and all shade-loving Alpine plants, while double white and blue Periwinkles streamed down everywhere. Alpine Roses, too, flourished here luxuriantly. On the lower side, at one corner, a vista was cut through the trees, so that over the Rhododendrons, here kept quite low, on looked through a frame of Beeches far away across the wide sunlit valley, across the corn and pastures, hedgerows, coppice, and farm roofs, to the long range of wooded hills, and the grey tower cresting the distant headland. A little wire gate, hid behind the rocks, gave access to the garden from the house by a narrow pathway in the wood. I never knew that garden in its prime. When I remember it the sweetest flowers grew amid long weeds and grasses, and it had all the wild grace of a deserted garden; for those who loved it were gone, and the old gardener could scarce hobble round to tend his "quarter Sessions" Roses; and now he too is long dead, and the place is— modernized. . . .
The Fantaisie has been an unfrequented spot of late. It is a wilderness of flower and seeding plants, somewhat damp and overgrown. "The Forest" will have to be remodelled, and we contemplate an annexe on the north side. Such rapid growth is made that soon the character of both garden and Fantaisie must wholly change. The larger trees are fast losing that look of smiling youth which so enchants us in young newly planted wood. Each little tree is growing tall, and each begins to spread itself in uncompromising isolation. Evergreens encroach more and more upon the borders, crowding out the flowers and crowding each other, so as to render necessary many a painful sacrifice. Twelve months ago signs of the coming change were hardly visible. Since regret is unavailing, new plans must be laid to draw new pleasures from the inevitable. I note with some pride that the experiment of beheading Cryptomeria Elegans succeeds so far that in every instance the trees bush out healthily, instead of running up into brown raggedness.
As I write, near the library window, a dim glory seems to be stealing round. The light from a stormy sunset has fired the Virginian Creeper and the apples on a large tree beyond the stone ball at the corner of the wall. The leaves glow blood-red, and the fruit shines like molten ore. The tree is decaying, with a huge brown fungus feeding on its heart. It is so old that a Virginian Creeper was planted to grow up the gaunt trunk, and Mistletoe is left to flourish over all the branched as it lists. Yet in a good apple year the fruit still clusters from the top of the tree down almost to the ground. And growing on its green lawn thus, one dreams a passing dream of the apples of the Hesperides, and the red Virginian climber is the great fiery scaled dragon gliding up through the leaves to gaze with dull eyes seawards. But there are no maidens dancing in a ring, and I have just seen three hungry thrushes attack the apples unforbidden.
Nothing is so uncertain as pears. There has been a first-rate lot on a young Flemish Beauty, growing against the Gardener's cottage. They have been gathered earlier than usual, which may be the reason why they surpass in flavour and juiciness those of last year. Williams' Bon Chrétien, always good, is this year somewhat impaired in outward appearance by black dots caused by the age of the trees? In one half of the Vine-houses long bunches of white Muscats are hanging still. They are crisp and finely flavoured, and show well against a purple background of Madresfield Court. Next season we hope for a crop of Frontignacs, to satisfy the wish for old-fashioned thin-skinned Grapes. Round the windows the Vines are yellowing, with green fruit ripening fast. These are unusually sweet for outdoor Grapes, and have yielded a fair wine in their time. Large green Apples (Reinette du Canada), in the walled garden, are nearly as beautiful as the trees of Blenheim Orange which are reddening in the orchard.
Very pleasant and Arcadian in the mellow autumn sunshine are these days of Apple gathering! There is no undue haste; the man on the ladder up in the tree leisurely fills his basket. Baskets, half full of fruit, stand near, upon the leaf-strewn grass. Children are sure to gather round, and there is an odour of ripe Apples upon the air. After an indecision of some years' duration, I have at last arranged my September bill of fare— in Arcadia!— grapes and Pears to look at, Nectarines and "the curious Peach" to smell, fresh Figs to feed on in the morning, Golden Drop Plums day long!
But, ah! there has chanced just now a golden drop of quite another kind. The last gold sand has fallen of the last hour of these dear garden days, and only one more word must be said— Farewell!
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins