Ready for your close up?

God but flowers are amazing. How are we not worshipping them daily? All these were taken today at Great Dixter Gardens – and I would have walked past them all without really noticing if I hadn’t stopped at the first one and then started looking properly. And for more awe and a writing exercise, see here...

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Why gardeners should read (and write) poetry

It was Cicero who said that if you have a garden and a library you want for nothing, and I’m proud to have an essay in the RHS The Garden magazine about why gardeners should read poetry.

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It was a joy to share lines of some of my favourite poems in the essay, and if you have come here from the magazine wanting to read more, here are links to find more:

The Trees, Philip Larkin

Alice Oswald, Mother of Thousands, from Weeds and Wild Flowers

Marge Piercy, Attack of the Squash People

Louis MacNeice, The Sunlight on the Garden

Esther Morgan, The Long Holidays 

John Updike, September

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If this encourages to write your own poem, here’s a creative writing exercise for you, I’d love to see any results if you wanted to post them here…

Take your notebook and pen into the garden and set your timer for ten minutes. Record all you can see, hear, taste, feel, smell during this time. However tempted, don’t turn this into a ‘to-do’ list of jobs you notice, but let yourself stay aware of all your senses. Do this as often as you want to, but even f you make sure you do this at least four times a year – spring, summer, autumn, winter – you are engaging with your garden in a new way. When we are not being so deliberately mindful, too often we privilege our sight so I guarantee you will find something in your notes, both as you write them and when you look back after, that surprises you.

And in the article, I mention the wonderful Lost Words book by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. I’d also like to direct you to my recent TEDx talk which concentrates on the everyday words we use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The News From the Garden

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is earthshattering,
a blackbird’s made its nest
in the hawthorn tree,

and breaking as I write,
seedlings planted a month ago
are bursting forth, teasing

us with their rainbow hints,
but if you rub 
a leaf
between finger and thumb

you can smell summer
already; a baby is kicking 
its legs
in response at the clouds

rolling over her like a news tape
filled with sun-bites,
while over by the swings,

a camellia 
leads an uprising
of blood red against the privet,
tulips and bluebells form a late coalition,

and even the grass strengthens its position
near where this morning, at five past eleven
dizzy with dandelion flowers

the cat let a pigeon fly free.
Only the plane tree, obedient
to the season follows the prompts

while propped up against the wall
already warming itself for glory,
the first rosebud waits for her cue.

A garden poem for meditation – walking in Stand Wood above Chatsworth House


We were too early to get into Chatsworth House so walked up to the Hunting Tower in Stand Wood while we waited. It was as if we’d wandered into a magic kingdom, and I suddenly realised how many times I’d walked here before in my imagination during meditation visualisations. Here’s the poem that came from it – and a video to enjoy at the end…

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And then Imagine a safe space

Even when they say beach, I’m here:
a messy set of steps, rocks,
the sound of water, and always trees,
their roots clambering
to hug the landscape, the touch
of moss on bark, branches entwining
and above, light filtering through leaves.

I’ve been here when I can barely listen
for crying, when I want to punch
that calm voice telling me to breathe,
and even those times feeling so helpless
that pressing play has been impossible
but still within minutes, I’m there,
this place I dreamt up in my imagination

and yet today, I walked inside it,
you’re here, you’re safe, and best of all
I could walk out of it knowing next time
I shut my eyes, it’ll be waiting,
this grove deep inside me, my body shifting
to make room for it, heart growing.

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And now I’m interested – where do YOU go when you meditate?

What do you do with all your garden guides?

We went on a ‘grand tour’ of the Peak District and Yorkshire last week – only one garden a day but even so I’ve ended up with an armful of guides.

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But what to do with them now I’m back? Write a poem about them of course…

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You need to have a plan

They sit on the bottom shelf
entwined with travel books
as if Chatsworth may take up wild swimming,
Castle Howard plan a weekend break
to Finland, and just maybe Hardwick Hall
could manage the night train to Russia,

and in the same way, on winter afternoons,
I’ll pick one out to remember
the cascades, curse how I didn’t find
that fountain, reassuring myself
with how next I’ll be armed with knowledge
of every Duke in England’s family tree.

It seems the lighter the garden’s spirit
the heavier must be the plan,
but at least now I can always trace
that moment we paused,
hit by the smell of rose petals
and how the rainbow entered the lake.

 

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Gods, jade and sulphur – the Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens in St Lucia

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Looking out at grey skies today, it’s a joy to go back through posts from just a month ago and pick out ones from our visit to the Botanical Gardens in St Lucia.

The gardens from part of the legacy of the Devaux family who owned the land since 1713, and which used to be part of a working plantation that once produced limes, copra (dried coconut kernels) and cocoa.

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The jewel of the gardens is the Jade vine, according to the vine ‘first seen by westerners in 1854,’ and still making us gasp…

and a different sensory experience, of course, is the mineral baths and waterfall – the minerals in the water apparently helping those suffering from chronic rheumatism, respiratory complaints or ulcers. I guess sometimes you don’t want the water to run clear…

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We ‘took’ the baths, seen here as they are now and after a less welcome visit from Hurricane Tomas…

…stood admiring the extraordinary waterfall…

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And gloried in the glories of our guide, Alexander (the Great)…

 

St Lucia of course is also the home of Derek Walcott, the poet and playwright and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here’s an extract from The Prodigal which sums up the island for me…

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And here’s a photograph of the Pitons, just up the road from the gardens. We climbed the Gros Piton, easier than the Petit Piton unless of course you are Alexander the Great.

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Snowdrops rising like lanterns

 

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Winter Garden
by Sarah Salway

Like the pilgrim divests himself of worldly goods,
the garden’s stripped back to a skeleton,

only the vertebrae of paths holds its truest form
and even as trees hold blossom close, buds aching,

it’s still the cutting back that matters most,
while through it all the river’s artery rolls,

a trust in what lies beneath, snowdrops
rising like lanterns to show the way.

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Remembering Capability Brown – Lady Nature’s Second Husband – and a little bit of Compton Verney

 

The English landscape gardener, Lancelot (Capability) Brown died 236 years ago today, 6th February 1783 – and fittingly is remembered on Twitter, via @BrownCapability:

“Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday” wrote Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory on 7th February 1783.
Above is a photograph of that very front door – next to a branch of Prezzo. Would Lancelot have been on Twitter, would he have popped out for a pizza?
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It’s lovely today then to think of where he might have felt at home, one of those places being beautiful Compton Verney where he designed the landscape and I was lucky enough to have a residency last year. Here are some photos from that time, and below them a poem to remember him. The form of the poem is a specular or mirror, which feels appropriate given the constantly changing reflections on the lake at Compton Verney.

 

Views Reflected
by Sarah Salway

Brown’s contemporary, Richard Owen Cambridge, longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it.

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.

Silence in the nature reserve

And a happy new year to you all! I think it’s still all right to say that, but this has been my theme recently… just a little too late!

We spent the weekend after the new year in the middle of silence. It was beautiful. I’d been wanting to stay at the Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey for some time, and it was everything I dreamed of.

We took the little but beautiful Salt Box, which contains a bed, kitchen and bathroom but more importantly this view when we woke up in the morning….

We didn’t take advantage of the outdoor shower – surprisingly! But we did spend time reading, thinking and walking. I made a list of all the gardens I’ve visited this year and haven’t shared with you here, so – again late to the party – I’ll be catching up with them soon.

But in the meantime, enjoy this video taken just outside our little cabin before I sat down to write…

 

Which made me think of this poem, Silence by Billy Collins. Here’s an extract:

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
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Ernest Wilson – keeping one eye open

There’s a little gate off the main street in Chipping Camden. You might not even notice it, but step inside, and you’re … not in Wonderland, but almost in China!

It’s a memorial garden to the plant hunter, Ernest Wilson who was born in the town in 1876. Here’s his house, just further up the street…

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It’s hard to imagine how different this stone and brick must have been to the paradises – and horrors – he found himself in during his time as a plant hunter around the world, but so famously in China that he became known as Chinese Wilson.

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The garden is a cabinet of curiosities of some of the plants he brought back, some so common now that it feels odd to imagine how exciting it would have been to have seen them flower for the first time. Ernest Wilson is certainly one of the great collectors, he’s thought to have been responsible for introducing about 2000 Asian plant species to Britain.

And of course the names give a clue…

My personal passion for garden history follows my heart more than my mind. Back when I used to hang around my mother’s garden library, it was always the books about plant collectors I’d choose. (And Ernest Wilson was one of my favourites. Perhaps I knew I’d have a much loved Chinese sister-in-law and nephew one day?)

And indeed, this garden is rather like a book you can read, although instead of illustrations we have samples of the plants he brought back, 60 of which were named after him.

His adventures weren’t without trouble. In 1910, his leg was crushed during an avalanche of boulders. Apparently he set it himself with the tripod of his camera, but walked afterwards with what he called his ‘lily limp’. However, he was responsible for introducing the regal lily to the west.

He ended his life in the US, where he was keeper of the Arnold Arboretum, and died with his wife in a car accident in 1930.

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In the garden there’s a tree planted by his granddaughter. This poem came from one of the information boards, which says that in later trips to Japan when staying with headhunters, ‘it is a good idea to sleep with one eye open.’

Sleeping with one eye open

So as not to miss a moment
of the world’s beauty –
bark peeling like sunbaked skin,
petals as fresh as parchment,
the uptwist of a lily,
and a lion’s tongue of an iris,
and at night to dream of birdsong
like the skylark from home,
daisies in the churchyard,
a glimmer of silver on the river,
the honey-stoned Silk Street,
before waking to a fresh morning
on the silk route, searching
every day for one more miracle.