The Yes Woman: How does your garden grow? Preferably a bit wild

Our garden was my mother’s hobby. These days, like my mother, it feels a little smaller

L’Occitane Garden, designed by James Basson, at the Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

L’Occitane Garden, designed by James Basson, at the Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

 

My mother told me that when she arrived in urban Limerick from London as a girl in the 1970s, she was bereft. She missed many things about home, she said, but above all things, she missed gardens. The English have always had a great tradition of keeping suburban gardens. We Irish have taken a while to catch up.

In early 1970s Limerick, at least, there were apparently scrubby patches of grass as dreary preambles to the average semi-detached house, but there wasn’t a flower to be seen. I suppose nobody had time for the frivolity of climbing roses and tufts of pansies.

Our garden was my mother’s hobby when I was a child. It transformed with the seasons, and I was fascinated by its many lives. In spring, you could almost hear it creak with burgeoning life; it smelled of snapped twigs and warm, damp soil. If you watched every day, you would see summer unfold, and before you could fully comprehend how, it would rupture into a mania of shape and colour. I would sit in it as a child, fat red nasturtiums tickling my chin, and feel overwhelmed by my senses. In the winter, it was a bald skeleton that dripped with quiet menace, and every year I marvelled at the change, sure it would never come back to life again. But it always did.

 

Colossal verve

These days, my mother’s garden has lost the sense of colossal verve that always both frightened me and drew me to it. These days, like my mother, it feels a little smaller. The garden’s struggle to express its vigour is more apparent. The nasturtiums don’t spring forth reliably in July any more. When they do, they are more watercolour than oil painting, and it is like seeing a diluted version of a memory. Sometimes, they are strangled by mint, or other crueller plants, and you don’t see them at all.

Recently, I had the chance to go to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Such was the effect of my mother’s garden on me as a child that I would watch it with her on the BBC. The exoticism of the plants was astounding, and every year my mother would declare winsomely that she wished she were there. When it was over, she would have a renewed desire to plunge her hands into the soil of her own little garden, and create something.

Although there were several beautiful gardens at Chelsea, I was there to see one gold medal-winning garden: the L’Occitane Garden, designed by James Basson. All of the other gardens, although lovely, were formal. They felt designed, as though they had been recently put there (which obviously they had) and then preened to a perfection that might be described as stuffy. The L’Occitane garden was designed as an homage to a traditional French perfumer’s garden, and even as we approached, I could tell that it was different from the others.

 

Weak flame

Chelsea is strange. It is a series of cordoned-off gardens that you view from the outside, and that sense of connection with nature and intimacy isn’t there to the same extent. It licks at you like a weak flame, but you can’t directly feel it. Since I was there on a press trip, I was allowed into the L’Occitane garden. The cordon was lifted, and I stepped down into the floral equivalent of a rambled conversation with someone you feel you’ve always known.

Despite the crowds gathered at the cordon looking in, I was alone suddenly. Among the fig and olive trees, the poppies and the jasmine, I felt peaceful. The garden looked as though the flower show had been built around it, as though it had happened naturally, and had always been there. The scent of orange blossom, vanilla, peony and jasmine was transporting, and all of a sudden I was seven again, sitting cross-legged in my mother’s equally accidental-looking garden reading a book.

The tranquillity was blissful. Despite the massive crowds, bees were bumbling into flowers as usual. “What are you looking at?” they seemed to say, consumed by the same sense of gentle familiarity that I was. I thought about my mother’s garden at home in Limerick, winding down and closing in on itself while this garden screamed with life.

  • The Yes Woman says yes to . . . floral informality and No to . . . strangled stuffiness
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