Worth the wait

Words by:
Steffie Shelds
Featured in:
May 2017

Steffie Shields recommends the pace of nature.
After thirty-two years in the Royal Air Force, notching up twenty-two house moves, my husband retired at the millennium. We settled in Welby, in an old orchard once part of the adjacent rectory grounds. Finally, we could put down roots, plant trees and create our own little corner of heaven next to the church! Looking back, I now realise just how patient we had been. I remember being full of hope and plans. We soon found out that patience was still needed, in spades! Forget today’s quick fix, throw money at it, instant gardens. A good garden does not happen overnight.

Luckily, as our old bones began to creak, gardening taught us serenity, perseverance, fortitude and staying power. If garden work is laborious or repetitive at times, there are always rewards along the way, especially when your own cuttings take hold and start to flower. Best from late spring onwards, when we can eat ‘al fresco’ and share restful views to borrowed landscape with family and friends. They all relax in the peaceful, seemingly carefree setting, and enjoy the traditional sight of village cricket and ‘leather on willow’ sounds on the Glebe Field.

As a child, it was always hard to wait for Christmas presents or Easter eggs. Back then, in school, any good piece of work earned a gold star, all the encouragement needed for further endeavour and learning. We lived in a block of flats with a large, rambling wild garden, with rhododendrons, bluebells and gravel paths. All the children raced each other or played buses on bikes, made dens inside bamboos or tried ‘padda tennis’ on the lawn. Here and on Common walks, as seasons changed, and nature repeated herself year in year out, I became fascinated by different flowers, their scent and colour. I envied those friends with ‘proper’ gardens full of roses and herbaceous borders. I studied leaf shape, bark texture, sampled hazelnuts and prickly sweet chestnuts, and longed to tend a ‘secret garden’ of my own.

Contemplating the orchard prospects, we gradually made progress and noticed new trees slowly develop form and height. Now ‘getting there’ with pleasing interest, our patch blends successfully with the surrounding countryside. This spring has seemed especially celebratory and worth the wait. Winter’s chill and gloom long forgotten, every fresh, sunny day brings a smile on the face of the garden, encouraging me outside, secateurs in hand, to shape shrubs and prune back rampant growth. I now empathise with the celebrated Edwardian gardener Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932): ‘A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; It teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust’. I would add, as a photographer, a garden teaches how to appreciate effects of ever-changing light and shade from dawn to dusk.

Little wonder the Royal Horticultural Society chooses May’s floral bonanza to award their medals at the famous annual Chelsea Flower Show. Apple-blossom Maytime is nature’s gold star. She comes out to play with bright, crisp freshness, enveloping the territory with hazes of lacy cow parsley, swathes of nodding bluebells and buttercups. An abundance of ‘darling buds’ is a treat for those gardeners who have battled against ground elder and pervasive bindweed, snails, rabbits and all manner of pests, to nurture flowers, vegetables and fruits. Tulips apart, I prefer this month’s palette of pastel pinks, soft yellows and lilac blues, all somehow very natural, English tones compared to the full-on, high-summer bright reds and oranges in more exotic borders.

Here are just three, happy-making, ‘gold star’ plants that I would hate to be without. The previous owners, two sisters who were teachers, planted a series of one variety of early-flowering rose with lethal thorns along the southern edge. A friend, a great gardener whom I admired, advised taking these old roses out and planting anew. I opted instead for a strict regime, pruning out old wood and feeding. Now, every May, Rosa ‘Maigold’ rewards me with glossy, dark green foliage and fragrant, semi-double, coppery-yellow flowers. In a good summer, she earns her keep by repeat flowering until autumn.

The eye-catching Camassia leictliniii also lifts the heart. The flowers, like violet blue ‘stars’ on spikes, opening one by one over a three-week span. Their large bulbs come from the north-west of North America, where they grow in damp meadows or along streams. This is a good time to see heavenly camassias on the hillside near an amazing river of iris in Brightwater Gardens at Saxby. They also look great naturalising in the unmanicured grass under our orchard trees, a striking combination with apple blossom and even with forget-me-nots or rich borage blues.

Top of my list of prize plants is a special peony: Paeonia mlokosewitschii, known as ‘Molly the Witch’ because its botanical name is an impossible mouthful to say, let alone remember! According to experts, grown from seed in full sun and with good drainage, it flowers after three to five years; I had to wait nine whole years before mine produced its first bud! I watched it swell and colour up, and remember that magical moment, that frisson of joy, when I spied that first bloom open. Far from witch-like, it was fun, like a child’s whirligig blowing in the breeze. Recently a muntjac family has taken to making a nibbling circuit of the garden, but, thankfully, this wondrous flower is both deer and rabbit resistant. This month, nine buds are nestling amongst the mound of blue-green, purple-edged leaves – the perfect complement for every clear, creamy-yellow flower. I can’t wait for the big reveal: gold stamens cupped by pale creamy yellow, tissue-paper-thin petals as delicate as Belleek porcelain.

Long before life was as fast and pressured as today, a nineteenth-century, American teacher and writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), penned this wise advice: ‘Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.’ So, take time off this month, slow down and sample her pleasures. If you cannot make Chelsea’s ‘instant’ show gardens, be sure to seek out one of the many Lincolnshire NGS gardens open for charity. ‘Master Gardens’ open to the public have refreshing ideas and planting combinations: The Potager and Lady Lindsey’s Grove at Grimsthorpe Castle, Doddington Hall’s Iris Parterre, with magnificent magnolias and rhododendrons beyond, or explore the jewels among early sweet peas and wildflower terraces at Easton Walled Gardens. Be inspired by the romantic Duchess Garden at Belvoir Castle now extended with acres of walks amidst prize-flowering shrubs supplied by Burncoose specialist nursery in Cornwall. Nature leads us on with her breathtaking exuberance, as if orchestrating an emotional crescendo in an Elgar symphony. Find the flowers you have been waiting for and award your own gold stars!

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