Snapdragons of Autumn Twilight

At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
Love’s Labours Lost

Cerise snapdragon heads (Antirrhinum majus) nod gently each morning as I pass the garden at the top of Benslow Hill. The flowers are doubly surprising – out of season and out of time. This snapdragon has persisted well into November, whilst all around it leaves drifted or hung with marcescent tenacity on the low beech hedge behind the fence. Along with a couple of renegade scilla and bluebells, it is a survivor of an earlier garden, carefully tended by an elderly lady for the eleven years I walked the path and probably for many years before. The small front garden had a central circular depression in which her chaotic, life-affirming collection of spring bulbs and summer blooms, like a miniature amphitheatre, charmed me anew each year.

When the plot changed hands three years ago, the garden was excavated to make way for a new house. In its place appeared the mandatory paving, drive and hedge, but around the peripheries, echoes of the former garden remained. For a while, I felt wistful that the eclectic cottage planting was gone, that this once cherished space existed now only as garden in memory. Then I mentioned it to a friend and she remembered it too; she’d also felt the joy of the gardener in the exuberant planting and even now, like me, sees the old patterns beneath the new when she passes the garden. It pleases me to think of the collective nature of this recollection and I wonder how many more share these local memories and see this garden as a botanical palimpsest through which different layers of plants and memories can be unearthed.

The snapdragon itself possesses a collective past which exists in shared childhood memories. I remember the intensity of colour and texture when I made the hinged mouths yawn, the sudden transformation to mythic beast. The sugar-candy flowers never wore their colour as easily as the low mats of Mesembryanthemum, but their tactile heads drew me in – to squeeze, peer and dream. Now I grow tall red and white snapdragons: Antirrhinum majus ‘Royal Bride’ and ‘Crimson Velvet’. They don’t fit with the more naturalistic, largely compound flowers in the rest of the garden, but they’re comfortable companions, connecting my past with my children’s present as they pinch and wonder, much as I did. My plants also self-seeded this year – the resulting seedlings didn’t flower until late, but they persisted. Generally Antirrhinum majus (a short-lived tender perennial) is grown as an annual or biennial, but more recently it’s been surviving the milder winters in local gardens and now seems more able to spread by seed too.

It is, perhaps, apt that this Janus-headed flower spike simultaneously faces the past – our childhoods and the memory of landscape, whilst also looking towards the future – a plant which no longer needs the attentive gardener to raise it from seed or buy it as a bedding plug in milder areas of the UK. The snapdragon now fills a perennial niche in my local area and though its post-aestival blooms cheer the eye on a dank November morning, the fact that they owe their success to our warming climate makes their unseasonable flowering a bitter-sweet pleasure.

 

 

‘Crimson Velvet’ and ‘Royal Bride’

Thanks to all the gardeners who have contributed their tales of plants from the past and layers of history beneath their own gardens on the Blog, Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve also been receiving reports of snapdragons still in flower all over the country, some are now on their second flush – and overwintering during the past two to five years as far north as Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Skye. 

There are also plants still flowering in Edinburgh, Staffordshire, Derby, East Yorkshire, North Wales, Lincolnshire, Midlothian, Hartlepool, Worcestershire, Manchester, Cornwall, the Midlands and 500ft up on an exposed hilltop wall in South Yorkshire! Also reports of snapdragons blooming in Portugal and in the US in Portland, overwintering in NE Pennsylvania and in North Carolina they are winter flowers, put in during autumn as the summer weather is too hot for them. It’s been a fascinating insight into snapdragon growing around the world – thanks!

How Did Your Love Of Gardening Begin?

I was asked recently to write a piece on where my personal gardening passion came from. The origins of inspiration is a subject which interests me in both my work with children and my writing. This is what emerged when I put pen to paper…

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All it takes is someone to sow the seeds                                     Thank you Granny xxx

As a child scrambling though the scrubby heather on Conwy mountain, a world of sensations stretched out in every direction. Buzzards and herring gulls calling, the honey scent of gorse: a back note behind the salty warm air, bilberry foliage leading to the ripe, tight capsules, each a burst, a sharp tang, hidden treasure on the wild slopes.

Nature was a constant thread in my life, from my two year old self in red wellies gardening with my dad, to a teenager walking the Welsh lanes with Granny, who loved nothing better than knocking hazelnuts down with a long stick, teaching me about wild flowers and scrumping in nature reserves, much to the horror of my father.

When I look back to where this connection with nature began, how it evolved, the end of the thread eludes me. It is woven into my past by inspiring individuals, my father and grandmother who spoke the language of the natural world, biology teachers who revealed the minutiae of plants and my English professor pointing out the spots where Wordsworth saw the Borrowdale Yews and the ‘host of golden daffodils’. My first garden gave me space to experiment with blackberries, daffodils, pelargoniums and mallow; each an exciting foray into new botanical worlds. Twenty years since this first garden and my love of working with plants and making garden spaces has grown far beyond the reach of secateurs or loppers.

The family allotment often sees three generations enjoying planting, sowing, harvesting or simply watching as the red kites and green woodpeckers fly overheard, or the wild poppies and purple salsify attracting bees in the verges. We share our astonishment at the immense size of our sweet tromboncinos and I wonder if the teachers will be concerned when my children tell them that raspberries are yellow or carrots purple.

Our garden is a place of fascination, experimentation and happiness. A modest space where edible and ornamental plants lovingly cohabit. Flowers for cutting are welcome residents in the vegetable beds and our front garden, ostensibly suburban in style, conceals a hidden allotment in its Chilean guava hedge, thyme path and green-roofed binstore. The side strip of garden, a blue drift of drought-tolerant planting with globe thistles, lavender, Russian sage and morning glory, is all the more satisfying for its communal nature as we garden it with next door who own half of the border.

There’s so much joy in reaching out to others through gardening. My adventitious roots are now firmly buried in my local community garden, I design outdoor spaces for local families, often surrounding areas for play and relaxation with edible, wildlife-friendly and scented planting. Engaging others through language, design and the sheer exhilaration of feeling your hands in the soil completes the growing cycle, this tapestry of intertwining natural threads that teaches, nourishes and inspires.

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We always had a bag or pot in hand!

This piece was one of three written for a Gardeners’ World magazine competition which I was fortunate enough to win. The feedback from the Gardeners’ World panel really made my summer:

‘stand-out winner of the writing competition: it’s Nic Wilson. Lovely writer, lyrical and reflective but also showed the strongest appreciation of style – general journalistic tone and magazine voice.’

It’s so interesting to consider how people first become engaged with the natural world. As a teacher, it has been fascinating to see the different responses from my students – some are inspired by their reading, their peers or their teachers, others by childhood experiences or learning new skills as young adults.

I’m keen to know how other gardeners first became engaged with the natural world. Please leave me a comment – I’d love to collate responses for a follow-up blog post (if respondees don’t mind). The answers will also be helpful to inform my work with children and my writing – I’m currently working on the chapter of a book considering how our relationship with nature begins. Many thanks and happy gardening!

Quick update: the response to my question about where our gardening inspiration comes from has been overwhelming. There have been stories about RAF gardens and air raid shelters, Victorian coal cellars, memorial gardens, knowledgeable friends and family members, and wonderful pictures of gardens and the people who inspired them. I’ve spent the past few days reading and responding to over 200 gardeners who have shared their stories about the origin of their love of gardening and nature.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to over 25,000 words about a love of plants and where it began. I’ll be reviewing the material in more detail over the next few weeks for a follow-up post and working it into a book on our relationship with the natural world. But in the meantime, the most common ways gardeners have been inspired are: through friends and family, individual plants or gardens, smells, tastes and textures, for gardening’s healing properties, through childhood experiences at school, through a desire to interact with nature and attract/protect it and through an early reading of the fabulous I-Spy books!

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Happy times!

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Remaking The Seasons

Charting the year’s progress through seasonal celebrations is comforting, but can it eclipse the wondrous yet understated transformations taking place each day outside our back doors?

Autumn is a big word, a catch-all for subtly shifting seasonal changes. On 2 September this year, a colleague remarked that it was nearly Christmas. Behind this provocatively jovial comment is a reductive modern mindset which I have a tendency to fall into if I spend too much time inside. Condensing the year into a parade of seasonal celebrations involves turning away from a reading of the year which delights in its rich, heterogenous and ever-changing beauty.

So autumn is gentle, hearty and comforting. It arrives almost imperceptibly; there’s a morning coolness, the slight weight of dew in the air, but I can still sit outside writing at 6.30am in my pyjamas, the crocs haven’t yet disappeared into the loft and the plastic croquet set and buckets still adorn the lawn. I can hear strident geese calling behind the murmur of tits and soft sub-song of a hidden robin in the birch tree. Elsewhere the geese are massing ready for wetland reunions, the knot are beginning their winter murmurations which we caught, enchanted, in Norfolk last week and the hirundines have already deserted our autumn shores.

My garden hasn’t shed its summer garments yet; the scented pelargoniums still line the paving, zinnia, dahlia and cosmos still blaze and the sweet peas are ready for cutting again. But there are shifts – I can see the blueberry foliage burnishing slowly in the fruit cage, the acer tips are reddening and the quinces swelling. The waning of one phase allows the waxing of the new and this is surely one of the joys of autumn. In spring, as the crisp, pale winter days reluctantly give way to warmth and life, I rarely feel the pull in both directions – I’m too impatient for dawn warbling, primroses by the writing bench and the first tentative sowings. But autumn gently mixes memories of long summer days with the incipient excitement of allotment soups, warm jars of quince and crab apple jelly, woollen jumpers and stout walking boots, chilli harvests, hazelnuts, falling leaves and bonfires on darkening evenings. Each week the temperature, the colours and the atmosphere in the garden and the countryside changes and to appreciate these shifts is to engage with the natural world in all its diversity and richness.

As a child, each yearly remaking of the seasons denoted by the behaviour of familiar plants and animals, formed the backbone to my temporal self: a secure calendar against which I measured time and my progress through it. Nowadays this is no longer always the case as climate change establishes new rhythms as yet unknown, but not unfelt. I find these changes deeply unsettling. Apple blossom in August, snowdrops in December or even, a couple of years ago, a small tortoiseshell butterfly drifting past the fairylights on Christmas Day might be thought seasonal treats, but in reality, they are troubling abberations, early signs of more significant changes to come.

Unless we understand the subtle progression of the seasons, unless we appreciate autumn as something more than the beginning of a new school year, Hallowe’en and Bonfire night amidst the falling leaves, we will lose track of our natural rhythms and the opportunity to be inspired by each season as it unfolds, and we will miss the profound changes taking place both naturally and unnaturally outside our backdoors. There’s a physical calender in the garden, through the fields and along the hedgerows. Seasons are changing slowly, miraculously, whether we notice them or not. They are there to be appreciated, to teach, warn and inspire, and we should celebrate that.

 

Still Life

I went on an early cycle round the Greenway yesterday, with the field margins and hedgerows full of movement and vigour, wildflowers, birds and fruit, whilst the field itself seemed stilled and characterless, until a skylark gave it life. This is the prose-poem I wrote when I returned… 

Silver lifting, undersides of leaves blown back in the dancing hedgerows, flashes of sloe gin, damson jelly and hazelnut brittle. This foragers’ fringe, ablaze with ripening abundance and the verge beneath, a study in vetch and clover, irregularly spiked with pink sainfoin beacons. Finches thrill above me, flocking, dipping, two-dimensional as they turn, absorbed by the air then wheeling, blackening the sky with their profiled presence.

Within all this elasticity, this marginal vigour, an absence: the ploughed void. September movement stilled, the colours muted, diversity subdued, until my eye adjusts to a sharper focus. Then a skylark twitches and, for a moment, dun uniformity is replaced with form and colour. Tawny feathers shake against the fissured landscape and the lark assumes its customary stillness, its pebbled mantle absorbed again by the ploughed earth.