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  • Glynis Roache

April’s Staff Of Green

Updated: Apr 29

Viriditas (Latin, literally "greenness," formerly translated as "viridity") is a word meaning vitality, fecundity, lushness, verdure, or growth. In April it is all around us. Trees are leafing, grass is growing, birds are rearing young, lambs are jumping, up and down, up and down, king of the castle on any available hummock … It’s a verdant, flourishing world.

      And in the view of Hildegarde von Bingen, a twelfth century German Benedictine Abbess, viriditas is something that not only happens around us but, if we are receptive to it, also happens within. As a religious contemplative, she viewed the lush greenness around her abbey as the result of a plant’s natural response to the largesse of a universe which she held to be divine. Less disposed as many now are to the concept of something greater, we may be more inclined to view the burgeoning greenness of the April world in terms of plant photosynthesis - a process in which a pigment known as chlorophyll absorbs most wavelengths of visible light except green, which it reflects back. For all the undoubted smarts that have gone into the scientific elucidation of photosynthesis (including its quantum aspect) the science does, in many ways, miss the underlying profundity to which Hildegarde was trying to draw attention. Plants, nature, she said, have a readiness to receive the nurture that the universe offers - in this case the light from the sun - and in absorbing and using it they are able to grow and transform the world around them. Indeed, it is thanks to the evolution of photosynthesis (around 2 billion years ago, science tells us)and its by-product oxygen, that we can breathe. That we were able, in fact, to evolve at all on this planet. Another benefit of photosynthesis is the absorption of carbon dioxide from the air and its transformation into the carbon that underwrites the organic matter of a plant’s tissues. If this is a long-term situation, as in the trunks of long-lived trees, it is called carbon sequestration - a process which has become hugely pertinent in the current climate change debate.

      Furthermore, plants have provided us with medicines, shelter, fuel and food. So they are, in truth, invaluable co creators of this world. And wherever there are plants, it’s predominantly a green one - to such an extent that the word green has become almost synonymous with worthiness - Greenpeace, green energy, green banking, green gardening … plus greenwashing, of course, which is the inevitable exploitative response of the less scrupulous.

      So Hildegarde’s message is a fundamental one that bears repeating : just as plants respond to light and use it for the perpetuation of their being and incidentally our being, she felt it was essential for people to recognise and respond directly to the magnificence of the macrocosm. To be inspired by it in a way that enhances their own being by stimulating the flowering of their innate capacity to become. To become artists, writers, musicians, designers, healers, scientists, agriculturalists, horticulturalists … moved by the physical world around them to contribute in one way or another to its spirit and its development.

     The surge of April’s greening has certainly inspired a lot of poets. From the multiplicity of poems about April’s beauty, I picked out a single verse that rather echoed Hildegarde :


Young Spring stands on a hill-top

With a beckoning staff of green

Till I meet his eyes With a swift surprise

And feel my soul swept clean—

     Edna Meade


      Hildegarde herself wrote music, books, and grew and studied healing herbs. She was a fount of creativity. And she believed that, when the magnificence of the macrocosm stimulates us to reach for that which is within and we express the resulting creative effort in a ‘conscious’ way, we can move beyond ourselves in a metaphysical sense so that offering what we create to the world becomes a form of consecrated action.

     If the latter concept seems over saturated with religiosity we can leave that aspect to Hildegarde in her abbey and look to modern psychology which pays significant attention to the personal benefits of creativity. Like Hildegarde, the psychiatrist Carl Jung regarded creativity as a form of self development. And he stated that it could be could be frankly therapeutic if done in its purest form without a commercial eye on the product. He wrote : ‘Aware as he is of the social insignificance of his work, the patient looks upon it as a form of self development’.

    And though we may not be in need of therapy as such, we sometimes find ourselves in need of a new life, a new way of living - circumstances have intervened and self development to the level of complete revisualisation of certain aspects of self is forced upon us. We have to do some internal refocusing in order to bring out parts that could now be of help but have, hitherto, been either reticent, latent or merely sidelined.

       In coming to Showborough, Andrew and I were accepting that it was no longer possible for our lives to proceed in accordance with the things that we were, at that time, most qualified and predisposed to do. An illness that left me, at age 42, with significant physical limitations meant that when Andrew was due to retire from the RAVC (which career had already been a somewhat forced decision due to the economics of farming in the late seventies) we had the choice of his accepting one of the veterinary orientated civilian posts on offer or we moved on together - to something totally different. To a project in which we could both be somehow involved.

     Showborough is that project. And combining my interest in plants and gardening with Andrew’s unexploited interest in sculpture to create a space in which we could run outdoor exhibitions necessitated the finding of a suitable place in which to do it. Showborough is that place. A lesser house would certainly have sufficed. One that wasn’t so overtly mired in its recent incarnation as an old folks’ home with a maze of single bedrooms and an industrial kitchen would certainly have helped.

    But the faded grandeur still sang a song, the potential in the grounds was considerable and the proximity of the motorway together with the fact that the house had covenants restricting certain types of commercial development, meant it was an outstanding example of a family orientated fixer-upper that terrified anybody who could do simple sums. All of this meant that we could afford to buy it. We would, we assured each other, worry about the rest later.

    It took time to turn the house into something that more nearly approximated a home - an undertaking that, as with the house in Devon, involved all the inevitable coordination problems of direct labour artisans with the additional excitement of an effective rerun when, during the heavy rains of 2007, the entire cupola dome and hall ceiling collapsed over our newly plastered and painted everythings.

    In the meantime, however, we were making some progress outside. While Andrew had been labouring alongside plumbers, electricians and builders, I’d been giving considerable thought to the design of the garden. Obviously, we wanted a space in which to exhibit outdoor art. But what sort of space? It seemed clear that we needed something more structured than the largely field like vista that was presenting. It wasn’t going to be satisfactory to have sculptures just standing around like pieces on a chessboard. Each one needed something of a niche in which it could be viewed and, for preference, give some indication of how a prospective buyer could site and enjoy it in their own garden. And let’s not forget that the eventual materialisation of such sculptures was, at this point, an act of faith.

     The fact that we were calling Showborough a project and making a garden for a purpose did not mean that it became in any way a mechanical process. Nor was it the fantasy of those with money to burn. It was, as much out of necessity as ecological awareness, the fantasy of the secondhand, the repurposed and the upcycled - the little greenhouse that was someone’s discarded conservatory, the paving slabs that were to be broken up for hardcore when a commercial landscaping firm was changing lines and moving premises … Our hard landscaping could not carry the aesthetic emphasis that designers and landscapers were putting on it at that time. In truth, our best hope was that it would be overlooked.

     Gardeners may not consciously consider themselves to be

co creators. Indeed, applying Hildegarde’s philosophy at a personal level could be viewed as self-aggrandising.

Nevertheless, especially since the emergence of garden design as a distinct profession, I think that gardeners in general now pay a lot of attention to what they want to create. There is a slight separation into those who are primarily focused on plants per se, ie growing the exotic or the unusual for its own sake, and those who want plants to be part of their lives in terms of improving the environment and creating an uplifting aesthetic or ambience? Which immediately begs the question - which aesthetic, which ambience? And how do you go about establishing it?

       First, the thinking goes, you consult the genius loci. The spirit or genius of a place is a pre-existing atmosphere created by architecture, especially any historical/industrial archeology, together with the specifics of the location such as country/town, ambient noise, street lighting etc. All of these tangible features also contribute to the intangibles which one might call vibe or energy, including the spiritual/paranormal.

     One thing that struck me quite quickly about the house, probably because it is big and solid, rather unimaginatively square and effectively dominates the garden by virtue of its position at the top of a distinct slope, was the fact that it felt very masculine. It did not want roses round its doors or any frou-frou type climbers on its main elevations. To me, it signalled geometry. Fair enough. I liked geometry too - it was the time of Rosemary Verey’s constraining box hedges and that suited me. A desire for control comes over you when your own physiology has become unruly, so having the rigid pattern of a parterre immediately adjacent to the house accorded nicely. Together with two simply structured ‘foundation’ beds in front of the verandas, the parterre/terrace connected the house to the earth, settling it more comfortably into its surroundings. To further consolidate, we linked its walls to the evergreen clipped box by using geometrically clipped pyracantha.

       Farther out from the house, a regulated Greek chorus of evergreen shrubs/hedges seemed to be the way to create more discreet areas whilst simultaneously providing a sense of progression through the space. Essentially, this accorded with the recognised system known as ‘garden rooms’. We left an uninterrupted main lawn on the south facing aspect because small children need a place to splash in paddling pools and adults sometimes need to erect a marquee.

      Several spaces emerged as the hedges went in. Obviously, the hedging plants did not ‘go in’ of their own volition. The necessity to divert labour from ongoing house renovation to garden creation became obvious. Somehow, it never quite went back. To this day, there are skirting boards crying out for a coat of paint.

      In terms of finding labour, the proximity of Pershore Horticultural College turned out to be very fortuitous, as did a charity for training gardeners that was called WRAGS - ‘Women Returners to Work and Amenity Gardening Society’ - a continuation of a post-war scheme for land girls that is now unisex and rebranded as ‘Work and Retrain As a Gardener Scheme’. We worked with WRAGS to our mutual benefit for six or more years.

      Meanwhile, Andrew changed from labouring inside to labouring outside. If he ever wished he’d taken one of those much less physically arduous jobs with an animal charity, he never confessed to it.

     The spaces delineated by the hedges had to be made slightly distinctive, each according to its own potential. An air of formality naturally accompanies the geometric but there were, nevertheless, sufficient areas that could be loosely informal.

      In considering atmosphere and ambience, garden design gurus have looked at human psychology as a guide to understanding how best to make a space feel both involving and satisfying. Firstly, comes the acknowledgement that the eye brain axis likes to make sense of things. Although those ‘ink blot’ or Rorschach tests have now been somewhat discredited, they were created on the principle that, presented with a field of ignorance, people will always try to pick out a pattern. This supposedly follows from the fact that we evolved looking from treetops through leaves at fragments of predators and needed to rapidly identify the whole. So, to prevent visitors from straining anxiously to identify sabre-

toothed tigers in the flower beds, it is suggested that one should introduce some level of readable pattern. Repetition and rhythm of plants in a border is recommended. Alternatively, a few box balls or some coherently shaped small shrub like Choisya x dewittiana ‘White Dazzler’ functioning as repeated regular shapes amongst the more wayward can provide a kind of framework. Monet contained, as it were.

     And yet, in the wake of the rising trend for rewilding, such ideas are being displaced by the urge to have not just naturalistic planting ‘grounded’ by the repetition of the visually stolid but 100% natural, grow where you will, totally unchoreographed ‘wild plants’. A lot of which were once known as weeds. As it pertains to the purely herbaceous, this can look rather a jumble in a restricted space, but on a large enough scale nature can, and does, evolve patterns. Plants seed and spread around themselves so that big drifts of a species can emerge. This natural fact cued the development of ‘prairie planting’, an idea credited to the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, which involves swathes of grasses and perennials. In the interests of low maintenance and the overall aesthetic, the choice of plants used in prairie planting is carefully considered and those favoured tend to be well-shaped, later bloomers and tidy ‘diers’ with good form and worthwhile seedheads. They are frequently of North American and continental European origin and the later blooming (which ensures a long but tidy build up for the gardener)accords with the more extended and more severe winters of their native lands. Our native British flora, by contrast, is possibly more effective as a spring/early summer phenomenon.

      Prairie planting per se did not answer our particular requirements and partialities but it is interesting to observe that even in a lawn, daisies, clover, speedwell, self heal etc appear in little drifts or patches. We have these, but we don’t do ‘no mow May’ in order to specifically accommodate them. There’s a handy field, I keep pointing out, but they don’t listen because they don’t like it out there. It’s harder to compete and, sometimes, cars park on them. Yes, I agree, it’s difficult for little people and very rude of the cars. Not that inhabiting the lawn is without its challenges. Indeed, I have to salute their determination to withstand the onslaught of repeated footfall and Batman Teddy on his robotic lawn mower.

      Nevertheless, the only plants we actively remove from the lawn are ragwort, (which is often called a notifiable plant but actually isn’t in UK law, though it can be a serious problem for horses) and dandelions which have too efficient a dispersal mechanism. If you are a bee that specifically likes dandelions, please note that you too should be out in the field. But I must warn you that, according to some specialists, dandelions are rather short of the best amino acids for a creature such as yourself.

       We have a few deliberately introduced wildings in the garden - campions(Silene dioica) and also ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) but pink campion is particularly prone to becoming excessively thrilled with itself and can soon become, well, excessive. More incidentally, a patch of pentaglottis is being generously overlooked in the driveway woodland area, cymbalaria, tiny but busy, is allowed in the walls of the potager and Iris foetidissima seems to flourish conveniently in places that are quite inhospitable. It provides a strong evergreen vertical and, whilst the flowers are unremarkable, the seedheads are a spectacular orangey red. I’ll also overlook hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) and positively welcome Helleborus foetidus. So wildlings are welcome if we can each accommodate the other’s requirements - or if there is frank refusal to be eradicated as in the case of wild garlic or ransoms, arums and celandines which are simply minimised. But, in terms of the garden, this is not a rewilding project per se. There is pollen and nectar available in non-native garden plants such as the long flowering nepetas, Salvia Caradonna, Erysimum Bowles Mauve etc. Overall however, the total number of wildlings that we have between the garden and the field is too long to list.

       The rewilding movement is actually a worldwide initiative and, as such, is a highly complex business involving big organisations. It now encapsulates a range of themes, including the relationships between humans and nature, deep ecology, ecotourism, and bushcraft. On the purely domestic front here in UK, it has given rise to some occasionally terse discussions about what, exactly, constitutes a garden. But it does appear that, through some relatively recent leap in consciousness, people no longer panic about the possibility of lurking sabre-toothed tigers and are now prepared for a more carefree approach if it comes with the assurance that, countrywide, plants will be pollinated and native wildlings preserved for both food source and egg laying. In a truly wild ‘garden’, I would guess that the main focusing feature for a visitor becomes a ‘spot the species’ process.

        All of this, however, can only apply to those who are familiar with both the principle and the purpose. If visitors/viewers are of many and varied dispositions, any creation has to contend with the vagaries of culture. And culture involves a level of childhood conditioning which means that we have certain unconscious biases and partialities that we can never quite escape. This is why the artist Jeff Koontz insisted that the art is never in the object, it is always in the observer.

      Consequently, getting a wide range of people to appreciate the same aesthetic is far from foolproof. And the situation is compounded by the hazard of expertise. The natural tendency of the archetypal expert is to rarify to the point of leaving the more unsophisticated short of a toehold. (If you’ve ever scrabbled at the cliff face of uptempo bebop jazz or Schoenberg you’ll know what I mean). To appreciate the offering, one has to be able, and even predisposed, to ‘read’ the scene.

       Over thirty years ago, I took my mother to an open garden in London. It was an inventive symphony of green. I was stunned by both the structure and the way the plants had been used. I was also surrounded by old people whispering, ‘Where’s the flowers?’ in disappointed tones. This expedition was followed by an encounter with a garden that was a few years ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of naturalism and rewilding. Culturally infused with mining village allotments and gardens filled with giant veg alongside regimental cutting beds of gladioli, chrysanths and dahlias, Mother was disgusted. A weedy free-for-all was not a garden, it was a wasteland. And she’d seen enough weed-stuffed wastelands in the penumbra of pitheaps. And what’s more, they were free!

      So there’s culture and there’s conditioning and then there’s what I, unbacked by science, call folk memory. And folk memory begets archetype. The bluebell wood and the English meadow are archetypes that are barely in existence in some locations but somehow, apparently, we have an inbuilt response to them. And this is where designer Tom Stuart Smith vaunted the idea of the ‘super stimulus’ or the cuckoo’s egg. The cuckoo’s egg and ensuing enormous chick impress the poor hedge sparrow by looking so much bigger and better than the ones the sparrow has produced for itself, and resonating strongly enough to claim attention. So, if we want a longer season of interest and a little more impact whilst still tapping into the overall resonance of the archetypal scene, we can select plants that are similar in character to the native/basic models but greater in effect. We can have a cuckoo’s egg of a woodland or meadow.

    Cenolophium denudata or baltic parsley would be a more effective cow parsley and, for a similar effect but taller, we happen to find the native Valerian officinalis very useful on a dry bank (though it is supposed to prefer it damper). Lamium orvala is a sophisticated substitute for the dead nettle and verbascums - either the native Verbascum thapsus or similar will evoke docks in a meadow area (plus providing food for the caterpillars of the mullein moth) and one could have bluebells beneath eg Cornus kousa varieties instead of hazel.

      However, as discussed, the gardening zeitgeist changes, and now some people might prefer to stick with the native hazel and underplant with wildflowers. In the same way, when one’s boundary abuts a field or a common, one might go for mixed native hedgerow plants as opposed to a line of crossbred North American conifers marching across the countryside. And here I have to confess to the shameful, if expedient, use of just such a line of the much maligned but rapidly growing ×Cupressocyparis leylandii (actually bred, albeit accidentally, in Wales!) to block out the motorway view from the house. I salve my conscience with the fact that the Original Sin of building the M5 right across beautiful water meadows belongs to the transport system and I’m sure the people tearing up and down the M5 don’t have time to be deeply disturbed by my anomalous planting.

       But I wouldn’t use such planting in the rest of the field. In choosing boundary or hedgerow plants, feeling the need to comply with the complexion of the local countryside and its wildlife gives us a sense of ‘rightness’ which chimes rather nicely with Hildegarde’s idea of responding to, and co-creating with, the macrocosm. Like bluebell woods and meadows, hedgerows are a bucolic archetype of English arcadia.

        Indeed, gardeners and garden designers the world over look continually to nature for inspiration - prairie planting as mentioned, dry riverbed planting, maquis planting, meadow planting, woodland edge planting - all the while aiming to evoke the resonance and ambience of a chosen bit of the natural world at the same time as amplifying it, gardening it. Turning it, as best we can, into our personally designed cuckoo’s egg.

       We have a couple of areas that I would broadly designate as woodland edge type planting. Some plants are potent signallers of certain habitats/aesthetics. Foxgloves, for example, signal woodland edge like lavender signals Mediterranean.

         We grow many foxgloves each year, sowing June time, potting on and then planting out in late autumn or early spring. We’ve experimented with growing various species: D. lutea, D ferruginea, D. grandiflora and its cross with D. purpurea, D. x mertonensis ‘Summer King’ etc. etc. We’ve also bought in those hybrids which are supposed to flower for much longer eg the ‘Illumination’ series which have, I believe, infusions of a perennial foxglove native to the Canary Islands, Isoplexis canariensis. Attractive as the idea of a longer flowering foxglove is, we haven’t had much success with them.

    We’ve also dallied with the dalmation series and so on, but we frequently return to Digitalis purpurea var gloxinioides 'The Shirley’ for what is essentially a strong growing version of the native basic model in a pleasant blend of subtle colours. To my shame, we are still planting them out - my fault for not being organised with some of the border rejigs, but they’ll still do the job for us come late May or early June.

      Foxgloves find a special place in most people’s hearts which is really appropriate because they give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease and included in ‘heart tonics’ since Celtic and Roman times. I imagine that Hildegarde was fully aware of this. I thought of her as I belatedly allotted a home to the last ones to go in.

     Foxgloves are, of course, a native species and, due to childhood wanderings that now, apparently, would be too dangerous for unsupervised children to undertake, I also carry the imprint of bluebells growing amongst wood melick (grass) and cuckoo flowers/lady’s smock, Cardamine pratensis, virtually covering a boggy local field. Spanish bluebells erupted unbidden the moment we cleared the driveway woodland area as did snowdrops but the English bluebell is slow to bulk up for us. The cardamine came easily from bought seed but declined to persist in our field. I had no better success with the melick in the woodland. But, as ever, I have plans and I’m not done with them yet …

       In the meantime, however, the focus has to be on the here and now. For various reasons, May is our main opening time so April is planting out time for all those hardy annuals that we sowed last autumn and brought on in cold polytunnels. We have just put in a lot of seed grown Echium russicums (red vipers bugloss) in the hope that they won’t be as attractive to conspiratorial, ‘I’ll-find a-way-in’ rabbits as the aquilegias that used to be a permanent feature. The russicums are small at the moment - which is my fault for aligning their sowing with that of the autumn sown annuals when they are technically a short lived perennial and should have been sown earlier. They are, however, an attractive plant with a convenient flowering time so we’ll sow more, (imminently!)incase the others don’t persist.

      There are still a few containers to plant up, dead snowdrop foliage to remove together with other bits of ‘housework’ and then, more or less on time, the flurry of final preparation will come to an end. We’ll be as ready as we can manage for the sixteenth exhibition and for that, and for all the sculptors and visitors who have been and continue to come, we are extremely grateful.

    So as April stands on Bredon Hill with his staff of green, I look forward to the full flourishing of the coming season. Making this garden and holding the exhibition has erased all regret for the loss of our previous life plans. This has been, and continues to be, an incomparable experience - a mixture of accepting what cannot be and enjoying what can, of acknowledging failure and trying for better, of working with nature and working around it, of being in the moment and planning ahead, of holding the vision and accepting the toil. And if that hasn’t fulfilled some of Hildegarde von Bingen’s hopes for the ‘greening of our souls’, I don’t know what will.


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