The Best Beloved and I have been at Spring Cottage for eleven years, almost to the day, and I’ve had to learn to share and that’s not an easy thing for me. You see I am a twin and I had to share everything from a scooter, to a toy piano, to roller skates. It wasn’t easy. Whenever a packet of sweets appeared it was doled out between us with great ceremony. This was childhood torture and you might think it did me good, but sadly no. It’s made me less altruistic, rather than more so. One of my guilty pleasures is to buy a packet of those ‘less-fattening’ brown chocolate balls and consume them in secret, in the car going home or in the bath where no one can get any!
Being the youngest, smallest and the only girl in my immediate generation led to series of tatty, hand-me down dungarees and shirts plus a six-weekly trip to the downstair’s barber beneath male clothiers Montague Burton’s – he of the full ‘monty’. I emerged, in my male garb, with a short back and sides to frame my very round face. As a result of Monty and those dungarees I developed a passion for feminine clothes. I relish jewellery, hairdos, perfume and any other feminine frippery and thankfully I’ve passed my obsession on to my youngest granddaughter Jessica! It wasn’t all bad though, for I grew up playing ball games and I’m one of the few women who
knows all the fielding positions in cricket and the off side rule in all its many changes. Ladies, if it’s got men in shorts and a ball I’ll watch it!
You can understand then why I’ve struggled to share the garden at Spring Cottage, having had my own plot for so many years. However eventually the Best Beloved and I divvied our third of an acre up amicably. He looks after the edible side containing vegetable beds and a fruit cage and I manage the spring summer and autumn borders. I can’t start the lawn mower, so he also does all the mowing. There have been a few sticky moments, especially over the chickens, I might add. I installed an L-shaped gravel path and blocked up a grass path in the summer borders, while he was out. This did not go down well as the chickens could not be wheeled on to the main lawn which they had been churning up for two or three years. That gravel path still wrankles with the BB, but what a result – a perfect chicken-free main lawn!
For the past year or more the garden has had to look pristine enough for Marianne Majerus to photograph it for my new book The Living Jigsaw, which is out next spring. She has done a brilliant job at making the borders look better than they are. Writing the book, tweaking the garden and doing insect photography has taken its toll. Although the garden’s looked very lovely, I’ve fallen behind with regular jobs such as sowing winter salads and I wasn’t able to tackle many problems in the borders either for fear of creating a gap.
So about a month ago I was faced with lots of pots of snowdrops and nowhere to put them. They had to go in the ground because snowdrops don’t enjoy being in pots and they will rot off and die over winter. I pot my specials into square 8cm waterlily pots and sink them into the ground in a vain attempt to stop Poppy Cat from scratching them up. To cut a long story short I’ve bedded them into one of the vegetable beds – when the Best beloved was out – and will have to move them on next spring. He took it quite well but I felt as uncomfortable as when I’d grabbed the roller skates and fled, having hit my twin brother on the head with one! Gardening à deux is not as easy as it sounds, but my snowdrops will survive!
I think the most successful gardens have one clear voice and Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter clearly expressed the sort of lively colour and drama worthy of a man who apparently cracked open the Champagne quite early in the day. Christopher Lloyd’s books have the same joie de vivre and if you haven’t read one, do pick one up. I often reread mine for their pure amusement value, but they’re also full of gardening know how. Underneath the mirth, this man was a very practical gardener.
My favourite bit is from Lloyd’s Clematis book, still very relevant today, and it concerns a splendid Viticella clematis called ‘Étoile Violette’. He recounts that the name will “never sound the same again” after a man was overhead asking “what a clematis had to do with property leases.” The man, in a crowded bar at the time, had heard the name as ‘Twelve Year Let’. I have hearing issues myself and was once caught for speeding. Don’t get too excited, this ex-infant teacher and Brown Owl was only doing 33mph. However on the course we had to name and shame ourselves and one man on my table muttered something and I asked him to repeat it for me. He made the mistake of asking me what I thought he’d said. Well, I thought you said you were a sadist. “No, Mercedes.” It’s one of my many hearing-related tales.
Fergus Garret first visited Great Dixter in 1986 and became head gardener in 1992. He understood the garden and its raison d’être because the two men became very close friends. Christopher Lloyd loved his dahlias. However Dahlias almost sank without trace in the 1970s and 80s due to the garden style police who would have us all grow box and pink roses. Christopher defied so called style and stayed adventurous to the end and one of his books was actually entitled The Adventurous Gardener. As Fergus Garret says in the introduction “he challenged fashions, flouted convention and poked fun at correctness.”
The gardening establishment were often rude about him, especially RHS crusties, but Christopher Lloyd will be the one remembered forever and not them. My friend Sibylle Kreutzberger, one of the two ‘Sissinghurst gals’ lives nearby and is now in her late eighties. She gave me an insight into his puckishness. Christopher loved colourful shirts and Fergus once showed a slide of twenty or thirty perfectly ironed ones piled high, like a leaning rainbow. Pam and Sibylle were frequent visitors for many years and when Sibylle asked to do a picture he would always race away and create a clash ensuring his pink shirt would have a yellow background. This used to annoy Sibylle, rather a purist when it comes to colour, no end and that of course is why he did it!