I get a succession of visitors to Spring Cottage and it’s rather like revealing a glimpse of your soul. My last one was young and had olive skin, golden eyes and the sort of Italian accent women dream of. A garden designer, who actually knew his plants, he adored minimalist gardens with simple green schemes like those often designed by Tom Stuart Smith and a Spanish designer I had to Google after he’d left – Fernando Caruncho. What a name!
Italian gardens are often green and sculpted: they soothe the eye in summer when the landscape is often parched. Conversely they warm you up in winter when skies may be grey, even in Italy. Green and elegant is nothing new and not always the province of the Italians either. Gertrude Jekyll (1832 – 1932), artist turned gardener, famously used bergenias ( or elephant’s ears ) and allowed a fine-leafed, black-stemmed aster called A.divaricatus to tumble over them at Munstead Wood. I use it here with box balls on the shady side of the summer borders. I adore ferns in the woodland garden, which is a cool retreat in summer. I wonder if my Italian visitor noticed my quieter corners.
At Brodsworth Hall near Doncaster in Yorkshire ( www.english-heritage.org.uk/Brodsworth ) you get Italian style in a northern climate because the man who built the house and garden between 1861 and 1863, Charles Thellusson, was born in Florence in 1822. He was heir to a famously disputed fortune, over which a protracted, very public battle was fought in the High Court for almost 60 years. The dispute partly inspired Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the interminable case at the heart of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. The garden is full of clipped evergreens and particularly good on a bright winter’s day, when it has an Italian elegance.
I don’t really do elegance and by the second half of summer my Spring Cottage garden is undergoing a metamorphosis from a pastel English debutante, full of roses, peonies and campanula, to colourful butterfly. The colour schemes include most gardeners’ bête noire – vivid orange. By mid-August it reaches a crescendo with the emergence of a bright-orange poker called Kniphofia ‘Prince Igor’. Right now, the bright-red flowers of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and a black-stemmed sunny-yellow heliopsis called ‘Summer Nights’ are kicking off the show.
I admit that this part of my garden is as brash as a Henry James heroine and I blame my mother. She gave birth to me at the end of July, rather than in late-August when I should have been born. Arriving at the correct time I might have been a precise Virgo, that means fussy in real terms I think. I’d be helpful too, which is astrological code for interferring I think. My garden would be neat and orderly and very controlled.
My garden is straining at the leash, like a dog on heat, and it will soon break away because I’m a Leo. I have all the annoying traits. I’m full of energy and I like to make things right. I’m honest to a fault and being from Yorkshire compounds the situation. I’ve lost count of the time friends have said tell it like it is Val. I’m loyal and generous, well as generous as any Yorkshire-bred person can be. So I’m drawn to colours that say sunshine.
I wish more gardeners would embrace the sunshine spectrum of orange, yellow and red. You can use it in two ways. Play safe and blend it together so that it radiates sunshine and harmony, like blends of closely allied colours always do. Or you can add a contrast to create floral fireworks, because opposites cause a clash. You can probably guess what I do. I add blues and purples to the sunny mix, to get vital energy into my borders. I use Agastache ‘Black Adder’ and Aconitum ‘Spark’s Variety’ among the yellows and oranges and I have lots of dusky foliage courtesy of an American aster which has almost-black foliage and stems. Now renamed Symphyotrichon laeve ‘Calliope’, it will soon produce lavender flowers helped along by the European hybrid Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’, a vision of blue. I love this autumn border and, as the days diminish and the light levels drop, the colours pulsate.
My garden gives me the perfect opportunity to express my personality in a creative way, to be true to myself. If my Italian visitor found the garden overwhelming, he was too polite to say so. He did like the warm flapjacks straight from the oven though. And he is coming again.