‘Rewilding’ sounds so much better than merely ‘letting things go’
The sad rationing of my energies means the garden has been largely left to its own devices
‘Roseraie de l’ Hay solicits me with perfume’. Illustration: Michael Viney
The lollipop tree that young children draw is one that grows on roadsides, in parks and farmland – anywhere people walk tall or cattle browse in the shade. Left safe from chainsaws, trees grow branches within half a metre of the ground and these, lengthening and drooping earthwards, claim the tree’s space on the planet.
Some, indeed, are notoriously assertive, spreading a wide pool of darkness in which nothing else can grow, which is why the beech, long a settler in Ireland, is grudged any room by restorers of native woodland.
Our solitary but grand and beautiful beech, grown from a seedling, greets the rewilding of the acre with abandon, flinging its lower branches wide in a 12-metre dome. Caught up in their dense sweep of leaves are a couple of my dreams as a garden designer.
One came upon me in a tent on the Arctic tundra, where time can need passing in the circling summer sun. Those twin fuchsia hedges back on the acre, rearing up from the twigs that sheltered my first rows of beans – could they enclose a “secret garden”, maybe as in a Jean Cocteau film: tall, highly scented, old-fashioned shrub roses with posh French names . . . ?
For years, indeed, they bloomed in fragrant array: purple Cardinal de Richelieu, Blanc Double de Coubert, Boule de Neige, Mme Isaac Pereire and more. Then the hedges got beyond me, towering and closing in, and from somewhere climbed suckers of the white-scented clusters that now dominate the canopy. The beech shades one end of it and, with a few last sultry crimson blooms, Roseraie de l’ Hay solicits me with perfume at the other.
Quite the longest branch of beech, swooping low, spreads leaves the whole length of the pond. Already half subsumed in darkness, this hard-dug hollow, padded with sand beneath the polyurethane, seems to have sprung a leak anyway. Made foolishly “natural” with handfuls of water-plants scooped from a lake, it did have a glorious decade or two, home to whirligigs and diving beetles, full of frogs in February and occasional, viewable newts chasing tadpoles.
But stuff grows, in ponds as everywhere, and missing its annual and strenuous dredging, is laying down a fen, aided by the layer of leaves the beech sheds each autumn. Without clear water the frogs have gone, and the glowing pink candles of bogbean miss the sunlight to switch them on. A pond-side thicket of umbrella plant and a stately clump of royal fern have thus come to dignify a barely discernible bog hole.
In the early days, with half the acre still growing vegetables and enough potatoes for a year, a friend did ask: “What will happen to it all when you’re old?” Much of the answer has come from the trees, now amazingly tall and leafy and apparently content. Their copses and bramble-laced clearings can be safely left out of mind.
May the best plants win
A good friend and neighbour cuts hedges that block any view of the sea and mows an apron of grass just often enough to show that the house is still lived in. Otherwise, so it seemed to me, now sadly rationed in my own energies, may the best plants win.
This may catch the essential spirit of much new “rewilding”, but ignores the invasive ambitions of some garden cultivars when allowed a habitat that suits them. A cheap cranesbill geranium, planted early for “ground cover”, has spread far and wide, smothering choicer neighbours and rolling on in a flow of leafy lava. In July, for a few weeks, in flowering masses of pallid pink, it can just about be excused.
In a different class is lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis, developed from a wild herb once reputedly used in Ireland in the relief of “elf-shotten” cows. The garden plant, now in a froth of lacy, lime-green flowers, has lovely leaves, circular, fluted and felted, that hold on to raindrops like diamonds.
Thus, by glancing from the front door at morning, I can tell if there’s been rain in the night. But the plant has also seeded itself into the base of the gable wall, into every outdoor flower pot and fish box, every crack in the concrete path. It is the ultimate opportunist, however disarming in its charm.
And from somewhere, at some time, the acre gained a “garden escape” that has almost earned acceptance as an Irish wildflower. Tall dame’s violet, Hesperis matronalis, bears clusters of small round flowers in violet or white, with a sifting, clove-like scent. It, too, seeds prolifically, raising drifts of blossom just beyond the shade of trees.
I love its perfume, and so does the whirring hummingbird hawkmoth, which knows it from its native Spain. The flowers gave me my first encounter with the moth, so that any whiff of cloves can draw me hopefully closer.
Despite the advance from the hedges of nettles, brambles and bracken, there are times when “rewilding” can sound so much better than merely “letting things go”.