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Featured in the March 2021 issue

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Steffie Shields ponders her spring garden walks.

The Old Orchard, first established in the grounds of a late Regency rectory, continues to bear fruit and pleases us more and more. Over the course of 21, fast-disappearing years, we have spent many happy hours gardening here – toiling, pottering, and occasionally relaxing! After tackling both under and over growth, and despite ongoing battles with ever-clinging ivy and ground elder, Mrs Elliot’s garden has at last become ‘our’ garden. 

We have done more than refresh and ‘dress’ the plot in new clothes. We have improved the bones, the structure, to create a varying circuit that wraps around all four corners of the house, looking out in all directions. Daily exercise, when the weather allows, offers great and changing views to the village church, St Bartholomew’s, down to the village roofs, and across the countryside. In all honesty, in this last most difficult lockdown year, it has become both our sanctuary and memory bank.

Have you ever wondered when the bible tells us: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’ (Proverbs 3:5–6) Why then, in the New Testament, did St John the Baptist go about preaching: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”? 

Not here! The formality of straight paths and tight clipped hedges would be somehow out of place in this rural garden overlooking fields. A straight line makes your eye zip along quickly to the end. Once there, what then? Which way should you decide to go? Far better, in my opinion, especially in an informal orchard, is a walk that wanders, curving gently in and out around the trees and shrubs.

In channelling ideas gleaned over many years of garden photography and garden visiting, I have come to realise just how significant ‘paths’ are to the garden experience. Our drive is gravel, so we both prefer the contrast of a lush, grass path, soft underfoot, to negotiate our ‘patch’ safely and comfortably. We should never be able to take in the whole scene all at once. Also, by creating a path that disappears around a corner, it creates intrigue. This makes us determined to venture further on – perhaps to come across some other surprise pop of colour unfurling. 

Our ‘Hellebore Walk’ resulted from a memorable trip to Hodsock Priory. The few I planted have now freely self-seeded amongst zillions of resident snowdrops. The sum of their multiplication has created a more impactful, varied mood along the narrow bluebell wood, sandwiched behind a giant Cupressus conifer and the old summerhouse. Ideally, I should have liked to introduce one or two mounds to raise and show off those long flowering, if poisonous hellebore blooms, related to the buttercup family. If we were to achieve a gentle undulation of ground, a change of level (as if a couple of Vikings were buried there!), this would relieve the flatness. Then we could more easily admire those nodding hellebore cups that shyly hide their prettily freckled faces down.

Since felling a mature aspen poplar that was shedding branches rather dangerously, all the perennials in that area have responded to greater light. The ‘Hellebore Walk’ is flourishing now with daffodils beginning to steal the show from the snowdrops, and vibrant, lime-green euphorbia amongst shrub roses and philadelphus. Soon drifts of lungwort, known as pulmonaria, with white-spotted leaves will appear, with pink flowers that turn blue, like little ‘girls and boys’, that are sure to attract the busy pollinating bees.

March will see me out of doors more regularly, determined to take firm and healthy-making strides around our 1/3 of an acre: time to assess the new spring bulbs I planted at the back end of the year, time to take stock and plan new planting, time to split and spread those clumps of still ‘in the green’ snowdrops along the paving that I recycled last autumn.

A new, wavy little path now dissects two big borders into more manageable sizes and allowing easier access for weeding and pruning. Let’s call it quirky, rather than crazy! Oh, must remember to spread more ivy-leaved cyclamens along the ‘Cyclamen Walk’ by the church and a few miniscule, deep magenta Cyclamen coum.

A Zoom talk this week mentioned how, at Chiswick, William Kent created a raised ‘Sweet Walk’ edged with fragrant plants for Lord and Lady Burlington to take advantage of views out across the River Thames. Do you suppose their gardeners planted hyacinths? Our ‘Hyacinth Walk’ stemmed from a visit to the 18th-century pleasure ground at Norton Place, north of Lincoln. This has quietly evolved with pink or blue varieties added year on year in random groups planted at the feet of the fruit trees, with complementary, elegant white hyacinth below the silver birches. I have to pause to enjoy the perfume, at the same time reviving happy memories of hyacinth fields in Holland.

The great portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough advised in painting: ‘There must be a variety of lively touches and surprising effect to make the heart dance.’ With longer daylight, I am certain the vivacious sight, brand ‘new to me’ bulbs I planted back in November, bursting into flower, will ‘make my heart dance’. Last spring, the inexpensive miniature iris ‘Spot On’, the falls a sumptuous violet purple, fluttering in the breeze like butterflies, lifted the spirit, even on the dullest of days. I find they do better in pots, well-drained with a pea gravel mulch.

My dear husband proposed to me, many moons ago one March evening not long after his 21st birthday, while we meandered along a Green Lane! Hence, there is one hybrid daffodil which never fails to make me smile on my rounds: the large-flowered narcissus ‘Mon Cheri’ (‘my darling’ in French) stands out from the crowd with frilly soft apricot-pink cups and creamy-white sepals. 

Returning at random in my thoughts, lingering views move effortlessly in and out of focus, as though replaying a silent movie or video at half-speed. No need for fantasy to feed my imagination. Should sentiments stretch towards exaggeration, the essence of our own ‘unforgettable’ little landscape remains real to me; a sanctuary perhaps, one to keep polishing.

Both month and garden are making hoped-for strides, with hundreds of flowers, darling spring gems, sparkling in early morning dew. After decades, this month it morphs into a vision, a fleeting sacred suggestion, a tiny corner of hoped-for paradise.     

Meanwhile, Heaven has welcomed a new hero. We will long remember the late Sir Captain Tom Moore and his mantra: ‘Tomorrow will be a good day’. Here was a marvellous man who, in his garden, and in his inimitable modest way, taught us all how to stride forward.

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