Monthly Archives: February 2014

Children & gardens


Rowan fruit

While walking round the major gardens, such as those of the RHS, there’s plenty of opportunity to observe my fellow humans. The parent-child situations generally arouse the strongest of emotions.

Three things I have enjoyed:  1) a bitter morning with slushy snow, and a father crouches down to explain the snow-caught prints of birds’ feet to his enraptured daughter; 2) a child who gathers dandelions from a grassy path to take home to her father; 3) a child totally excited by the lush foliage and flowers of the American skunkweed (Lysichitum americanus). Obviously a new window had opened in the child’s imagination.

Three things I hate: 1) parents who call a child away from something the child finds interesting, using the words “come away, it’s poisonous” (generally, it isn’t); 2) parents who take no interest in the object of a child’s fascination with a plant, preferring to call the child away with the promise of ice-cream; 3) those who provide a lecture that displays their expertise, but don’t notice the child becoming bored and resentful. By the way – not having children I am a perfect parent.

Finally, the most amusing incident ever. This took place in the fenced yin-yang garden (within the herb garden) at the RHS garden at Wisley a few years ago. Three small children are tearing round this fenced garden. Mother calls them out with “come away, those plants are poisonous!”. The garden is immediately entered by two young boys, one of whom pees on the pebbles. Mother calls them out and hustles them away. Two further children quickly enter the garden and play with the just peed-on pebbles whilst their mother watches approvingly.

Now, thinking back to early childhood and the plants that first entered my consciousness. These include a rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia). This is an enormous tree to stand under when you’re pint-sized, and the lush clusters of fruit are magic. I have always planted a rowan tree in my gardens. Then there’s silvered, fairy-money pods of honesty at our neighbour’s door (Lunaria annua), and a rich pink rose (Rosa ‘Dorothy Perkins’ probably) that tumbled over the fence and is the prototype for that dream garden that is still an aspiration. These early memories and their family associations provide a direct, be-jewelled link from that distant past to the present fabric of my life.

Rosa Dorothy Perkins_C

Rosa ‘Dorothy Perkins’

You may just use a garden as a safe place to meet friends for a gossip whilst the children are allowed to run wild. BUT, if there’s emotional space and time to enter the clarity and wonder of a child’s perception, you may be planting a deep seed. That seed may grow to become an inheritance, one that entwines your life with that far distant future which lies beyond your physical presence.

Susan A. Tindall


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My herb garden

st valery herbarium view 2_C

Herb garden

At intervals I emerge in my herb-gathering garb: a full-skirted dress with dainty floral motive. A floppy hat secured with a large ribbon. A trug and some scissors. I waft and snip in the sunshine. My trug is layered with the texture of aromatics, touched with the blue of borage, the orange of nasturtium, all the scents of summer, romantically laid.

Returning to the kitchen and the allure of rich aromas that arise from the slow-cooking stews, and simultaneously seduced by the prettiness of dew-crisp salads, I sip a fresh-brewed herbal tea. I am seated beneath bunches of herbs drying overhead, and bottles with herbs flavouring olive oil and the rising dough for rosemary bread.

Outside, the un-corseted herbs are comely bushes. Carpets of thyme bounce under the hand like freshly laundered towels, and bees and butterflies flit and gorge. Slugs don’t nibble and though organic the garden is naturally free of weeds.

It is exactly like this in my herb garden, and my herb garden only exists in my imagination. I don’t have a herb garden, the garden is too shady. In the shade the sun-loving herbs stretch towards the light, gangle gracelessly and flop. The mints the slugs don’t eat romp and wage war. Thyme gets patchy and fennel reaches for the sky and self-seeds everywhere. Then there is the couch grass and the bindweed. Your herb garden implies control and management. Exquisite naturalism requires an exacting attention to detail. It requires that you are in control of your garden. This scarcely happens with me. Jobs don’t get done or are completed too late. I like plants to self-seed and destroy my plans, and plants mostly seem to break the rules. Anyway I’m too fat for a full skirt, prefer trousers, and the trug exists but is always full of gardening tools.

If you want to see a herb garden that works visit the discreet walled idyll of the St Valery herbarium in France. They do it right.

St Valery herbarium 1_C

St Valery herbarium

Susan A. Tindall

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Cyclamen gemstones


Cyclamen coum

The gems of autumn and winter are the miniature cyclamen. In my garden, at this time of year Cyclamen coum is in flower. Their colour is a crisp magenta. The bloom, less than a centimetre high, has petals folded like a napkin. It is raised on a slender stem but bows its head, gaze absorbed by its own beautiful foliage. The leaves, plump and rounded, are like fat rugby balls, patterned exquisitely in shades of green shaded from dark to cream; each individual a perfect miniature.

This small colony started over two decades ago. I bought a few large and hoary tubers from a basket displayed in a local hardware and gardening store, long deceased. I expensively added a few more, of modest proportions, bought at a garden centre. These tubers were planted in a difficult area, largely shaded by the vigorous many-stemmed hazel. The area is seldom watered in drought. They rapidly established themselves, self-seeding on the slate surface of a raised bed, in the crack between stepping stones, tangled in the roots of ornamental grasses and growing in a muddle with Arum italicum pictum which also self-seed there.


Cyclamen hederifolium

The Cyclamen hederifolium were started around the same time. Their leaves are generally larger, lobed and pointed, reminding me of heraldic shields. A few years ago I bought three upmarket silver-leaf forms at the Cyclamen show at Wisley. As ownership was transferred I was regarded doubtfully as an unsuitable custodian: “On no account put them outside till there’s no danger of frost”. They lingered in the conservatory for ages before the one-way ticket to the great outdoors. I think one died (or was eaten by mice) but the other two thrived. The best is in a hostile spot, inches from the base of the hazel. It is a large clump; the leaves have the same grey sheen as the costly cat-litter our old cat Derek required as a prerequisite to performance.


Cyclamen coum & Cyclamen hederifolium

Now the showy seedlings are occasionally apparent, mostly in an uneasy jumble with the smaller Cyclamen coum. Though the autumn flowers are long gone, the foliage, joyously, remains.

A few years ago I decided it was advisable to establish two further colonies; one, in an exposed position, is struggling. The other is near the awkward, evergreen shade of a holly tree. The cyclamen like this spot and have begun to spread. Two days ago I moved a Hellebore out of their way. Another is poking its nose through the foliage of an established Pulmonaria. They are in that hinterland between cherished treasure and pernicious pest. Treasure wins, so far.

They are secretive, disappearing for months in summer and then looked for like the return of swallows. Perhaps they too, migrate.

Then, dabbling in the earth to plant bulbs in autumn I find a single hederifolium leaf. It is attached to a lax stem, several inches long, seeking light. The corm is smaller than a shirt button. I clear a space for it, and hope.

Susan A. Tindall

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