This year the Garden Museum ran the inaugural Mollie Salisbury Cup. This is a garden memoir-writing competition, named in honour of our late, lamented President. As befits a first year, our theme was ‘My First Garden’ and we were inundated with entries, receiving over 150 altogether. Sifting through them was no easy task, but luckily our judges managed it. They were Allan Jenkins, the author and editor of the Observer Food Monthly magazine; Tom Stuart-Smith, Garden Designer and Trustee of the Museum; and Lord Charles Gascoyne-Cecil, Lady Salisbury’s son.
The judges were given the entries anonymously, and judged them on the basis of the below criteria:
- There should be a distinctive voice, and the story should sound like a real, lived experience
- Adhering to theme. The theme was ‘my first garden’
- Literary quality. This includes spelling and grammar, the ability to conjure an atmosphere and readability
The winner and two runners-up were announced at the Garden Museum Literary Festival. Paula Noble won the first prize of £750, while Posy Gentles and Claire Guinness both received £250 for their entries.
We are delighted to publish their entries here.
My First Garden by Paula Noble
My first garden? When is a garden a first garden?
My earliest memory of myself as a being separate from all else but perfectly in place in a setting – is of a spirit child, alone, running I think, not from fear or from or to anything or anyone, but through a planted land of sunshine on grass with tiny flowers if one cared to look and water, maybe a brook that I cannot see but I know is there. This spirit child moves through the yellow landscape, content, never a need for anyone and time is both a moment and an eternity. Whenever I recall this garden dreamscape, a tune emerges somewhere in the distance. I can hear it tinkling through that running brook. The tune is Happy Journey, from a song that came out in 1962 when I was 4 years old. How or why it should have attached itself to my special place, I don’t know but the two arrived together. The words of the song, with the possible exception of the title, had no special significance for me then, nor do they now. It is not a song I like particularly, nor do I dislike it but it is locked to a memory of a time, forever associated with a kind of tinted happiness.
I know now that this memory has something to do with my unhappy parents who got married in 1956 and remained so until my mother’s death in 2016. It coincided with the first dawning of the realization that my world was not secure, that peace and contentment were not guaranteed, that I existed in a conflicted world where brooding resentment and simmering discontent were all too assured. I think even then I knew a sense of loss because I seem to remember a time before when we were all happy.
It was from this time, I believe, I began to inhabit my garden space where I could be alone and content. This space to which I escaped was entirely imaginary. I went there every time I was truly unhappy. In it I never did anything in particular. It was enough to be there, to move through the landscape, to feel the light on the grass, to see the dew drops, to hear the water and to know I was alone, in the distance only sky and horizon! This ambiguous Eden remains with me, still.
I was born and brought up in Guyana. I was the first child of seven. When present, I was always an unignorable child, outgoing, tomboyish – I climbed trees, got bruised, pushed go-carts on the street, ran wild with the two younger brothers coming immediately after me, each of us 1 year apart. Simultaneously though, I was also another child, a singularly solitary one with a second life of the imagination. How these two personae managed to co-exist is a puzzle even to me! But they did. They still do.
I was the only one of my parents’ children to read so avidly, one might say, from the time my eyes were open, and my mother encouraged this unstintingly. From earliest childhood I have always been able to absorb stories and even experiences as a confection of smells, shapes and colours. I remember still the sensation of meeting Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I knew this child. I knew her intimately. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know me. I was there peering as intently at the ‘tiny growing things’ in her secret garden; at the very same time, marveling at those sharp little pale green points sticking out of the black earth. I could see the colours exactly and, most of all, I could smell the garden. For a garden to be truly a garden for me it must possess this olfactory element.
I was not a gardener in Guyana, though I loved plants. For the house that I lived in on my own as a young adult, I had acquired and nurtured magnificent specimens of ferns, large leaved begonias, Philodendron, Dieffenbachia and such like. These were the necessary finishing touch to the décor, viewed in much the same way as I did the paintings on the walls. I cannot recall having any interest in gardening. In any event, I lived across the road from the sea which I could see as I lay in bed and that was enough.
I travelled to England in 1984 for a 1 year study programme after which I returned to Guyana. During that time, however, I met the man who subsequently became my husband. We bought our first home in Sheffield in 1987, a flat designed out of the double mansard roofs of a building gloriously called Stumperlowe Mansions in Stumperlowe Lane on a high hill on the edge of the Peak District. This was a beautiful space and, without permission, but relying only on the tolerance of the downstairs neighbours, I astro turfed a good section of the outside bit of flat roof I had access to through the French door from our flat. The space I appropriated was T shaped between the boundary of our flat, a chimney stack and a large store room that once housed the water tanks serving the 35 flats below. There, I installed any number of containers of various sizes and shapes, small to large, including half barrels, which I filled with compost and set to planting with shrubs, perennials and annuals. Other features included a tall three-sided trellis structure that I built and in which I stuck an urn with climbers. Beyond this structure one could look straight past the edge of the roof, over the city; and (my husband liked to say) there was nothing as high to the east of us until you got to the Urals.
I became an obsessive and compulsive gardener and an avid reader of garden literature. I didn’t want just any plant, although I filled spaces with many of those. No, I had to have the ones that appealed to me specially and so began my journeying to garden nurseries up and down the country, once even getting my husband to drive me from Sheffield all the way to Essex and back in the one day to acquire a particular plant from a particular nursery, I forget which. I do remember though that this is where I came across for the first time, peeping out of the unweeded plant pots, the little purple leaved viola, Viola Labradorica Purpurea, and being instantly smitten. ‘What is this?’ I asked the nursery owner excitedly. She answered in a slightly bemused way, ‘a weed’. I didn’t mind that. I chose the plant I wanted to buy (the name of which I also cannot remember) with this viola keeping it company in its pot. That little viola springs up at me all over in my current garden. I edit it sometimes but I shall always have it. I remember being particularly proud of my roof garden when weeds began to grow in the astro turf. For some reason this seemed a triumph of authenticity.
When our son was born in 1996, I contemplated the unseen prospect of the Urals beyond the edge of the roof garden – there was no rail. We moved in 1997 to where we now are – a little rural village on the bank of the Trent, assigned to Nottinghamshire – a mistake made by whoever way back when drew up this county boundary, because everything about the landscape and environment that I live in resonates Lincolnshire, my favourite county in the whole of the UK.
Although the Sheffield period represented the beginning of my life as a gardener, for me my roof garden was an experiment on the way to having a garden. The very business of defining a garden, I find fraught with difficulty. I have a vague sense that I must be able to move through or within it; that as a collection of plants under my watch, it must have developed a personality, as well as a degree of autonomy.
And so, now we come to this my truly First Garden which satisfies all of these criteria. It is also First, in that here, as never before, is an evocation of all that I the gardener bring to it; and in every respect, in all its aspects, it most perfectly meets my idea of what a garden should be. It is an artistic, creative endeavour. It is where I think my best thoughts and where I allow myself thoughtfully to feel my deepest hurts. It is where I am ecstatically happy alone and where at times moved by an overwhelming gratitude. I marvel at the tiniest mark on a leaf, the stance of a flower not yet open. I like the way it smells in the rain, quite different from how it smells in sunshine. I am never frustrated by it in itself.
Whenever a plant disappoints me or is not quite willing to do as I would have it, I tell it – if you try a little, I too shall do the best I can for you but I won’t do so forever – I shall eventually run out of patience and forget all about you completely. I am more lenient with the rampant thugs, though they cause other precious things to expire. I have learnt that with such plants the best thing to do is to put another likely bully next to it. I sometimes have cause to regret having done so against all advice but I like lushness in my garden; I don’t do spaces in between plants and these plants perform admirably to my tastes.
On those days, in these latter years of my life, when the “unbearable lightness of being” makes my legs and arms feel too heavy to shift and I think, what’s to stop me lying here all day? I think, I know, I only have to make the relatively small effort to cross the distance, to enter that space and bit by bit, until there is no doubt, I find myself in the security, the wonder of what it offers and all becomes well with the rest of the world.
So this, my first garden, recaptures something of that spirit child, sometimes the vague murmuring memory of that song, but most of all, the knowing in a single moment that I do not want to be anywhere else in the world. But all this does not just happen like that. I force myself out to ‘make the tour’ and I follow the advice of Beverley Nichols:
‘There are certain very definite rules to be observed when you are Making The Tour. The chief rule is that you must never take anything out of its order…. You must not look at the bed ahead before you have finished with the bed immediately in front of you.’
This is indeed how you notice the hidden delights, the things that don’t shout but ever so quietly do their thing. And then with not much ado, no discernible shift, you become aware that, like this garden, you are alive and well. Then a glorious feeling happens for no particularly identifiable reason at all!
Now that I am in my 60th year and my life once again is changing in ways that I cannot predict, it is to this space that I still turn. And then, I hear Karel Čapek likening the garden in Spring to the most beautiful of symphonies, and reminding me that:
‘You must stand still; and then you will see open lips and furtive glances, tender fingers, and raised arms, the fragility of a baby, and the rebellious outburst of the will to live; and then you will hear the infinite march of buds faintly roaring.”
I do, I do, now, in this my first garden.
References (in the order in which they appear)
- Happy Journey. Recorded by Hank Locklin , 1962
- Hodgson Burnett, Frances. 1911. The Secret Garden
- Nichols, Beverley. 1932. Down the Garden Path
- Čapek, Karel. 1929. The Gardener’s Year
My First Garden by Claire Guinness
A sweeping drive approached the gleaming Georgian façade, a white slab of a building, sash windows, giant black door and that most frightening of trees a Monkey Puzzle spreading its spikey arms out wide to fold me in.
This place was other; a place of hahas and iron bedsteads; heavy shoes and creaking floors; back staircases; indoor shoes; twelve little girls in two straight lines, “in two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed”. But it wasn’t an old house in Paris, it was an old house in the English countryside, this strange Eng land , so far from home.
Home was a land of cool tiles and bare feet on bougainvillea soaked verandahs; of feathery ferns and flowers that bloom once a year by the light of the moon; of thick grass and broad leaves; screeching monkeys and screaming cicadas. A place where the borders of the garden were met by jungle; thick luscious green green jungle. Hornbills with glossy coal black feathers and golden beaks flew overhead, and the mist hung on the highlands in the haze of the early morning.
Home was so far from this gleaming Georgian house. This new land of quiet nights; thin grass; cold buildings and heavy shoes. My new home was a place of prep and dorms and matrons and chapel, what were these things? Where was the Adhan crying out from the mosque, the gentle ladies in their batik skirts, the thick grass and the wide leaves?
But then, I was given a piece of this strange land. A piece that I was told could be my own. It was 3 metres by 3 metres and I could do what I wanted with it. Here is your first garden, all yours, you can plant what you want, make it your own. So I had to connect with this land, this land of Tiggy Winkle and Little Grey Rabbit. This was my piece of it. With my heavy outdoor shoes on I paced my little square. While the farmers’ daughters spurned their gardens and played gymkhanas in their imaginary stables creating jumps and ménages, I set to on my square. I drew up a list of what I needed; starting with bougainvillea with the palest purple papery blossom, this would climb around the structure I would build at the edges. Inside the bougainvillea there would be hibiscus, masses of them, their glossy leaves bejeweled with the deepest red blossoms. In the centre I would have 5 banana trees, the monkeys would like that. They would drip with the bananas from home, small and sweet. Tucked beneath the trees I would plant a bush that flowers by the full moon just once a year, then I could show the farmers’ daughters the flowers, we could creep out at night and they would lead their imaginary ponies and tether them to the banana trees while we all gazed in wonder at this luminous lunar only flowering flower. There would be orchids and birds of paradise; it would be a paradise and when I made this garden the hornbills would come.
I took my list at the designated hour to the lady who did not wear batik, and handed it solemnly to her. But ‘Miss Clavell turned on the light and Miss Clavell said something is not right”. I could not have these plants; I could not have orchids or banana trees, or bougainvillea or bird of paradise or the strange sounding plant that bloomed by the light of the moon. These plants would not live here, it is too cold, the grass is too thin, the air is too dry, the air is too cold; the plants would die. I explained that the Hornbills needed these plants so that they could come, ‘but Hornbills are not migratory’. But neither am I, I am not migratory and I have come here to this land of cold heavy shoes. ‘You are migratory and you will adapt’.
That night I held my list in my tiny hand. I lay on the white cold pillow in the white cold house, and looked out of the dark window. Two large black eyes looked back at me. My own eyes widened. The two black eyes in a white white face, a heart shaped face, a white body, angel like, stared back. Tell me what to do Wise Owl, how do I grow a garden in this cold land?
A new list had to be drawn. That is what Wise Owl said. A new list. A list that would survive here. A list of sweet smelling roses, roses that smell as sweet by any other name. Lavenders with gentle foliage, soft and scented. Woodland primroses pale and kindly. This new list grew and grew, it wasn’t trailing jasmine and bougainvillea, it wasn’t glossy leaved hibiscus with blazing blooms; but it was different plants, smaller softer, quieter plants that sat in this new gentle land. As I dug I connected to this land of hedgerows and hawthorns, my outdoor shoes became less heavy. The new plants liked my square and I liked them. The girls brought their imaginary ponies and tethered them to the rose bush, and told me the names of the small birds that lived here. And wise owl flew over head. he soared like an angel and tilting his head he looked down at my first garden.
This is a true story, including the bit about the barn owl who sat on the window sill outside of my bedroom. When I think back now to my first garden, I am reminded of the gardeners mantra “right plant right place”. And I think, how does that work for people? How do we know when we are in the right place? I watch Monty Don carrying his banana plants lovingly in and out of his greenhouse each year, and I am reminded of the small girl who longed to grow banana trees, but who learnt to love to grow roses. What solace gardens bring.
My First Garden by Posy Gentles
My grandmother allotted me a small piece of her garden at a safe distance from the menacing milky sap of the Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, near the Judas Tree. Here she allowed the use of the common rather than Latin name as she thrilled to the story that Judas had hanged himself from this tree. The magenta flowers that bloomed from the trunk were the drops of his blood and its crooked growth, his shame.
I was five when I moved to my grandmother’s but I had known my father’s garden before. He had grassed over its island rose beds, and mowed it rarely. It was wild and I was alone. I lay with my nose close to the grass. I saw what Dürer saw when he painted his ‘Great Piece of Turf’ in 1503. I stroked the soft ferniness of yarrow, and the long smooth ribbed leaves of Plantago lanceolata, its slender tottering stems and the sleek dark heads that emerged from their coronet of anthers. I bit at the sweet new blades of grass and, beneath the thatch of old dried white grass, breathed in the deep involved smell of the earth that went on and on below me – my small skinny child’s body a tiny scrap clinging to the surface of its immensity. Leaping up, startled by my insignificance, I picked dandelion heads, heedless then of later shaming taunts that only bedwetters touched dandelions, and pulled apart the pink fluffy flowers of Spiraea douglasii that affronted me with their dampness.
I had been alone and unconcerned wandering in the long grass of that garden. In my grandmother’s small garden, I found danger. If you moved too fast, without care, the shining blood-red thorns of Rosa sericea pteracantha tore at your flesh. Aconites would poison you if you brushed against them lured by their inky beauty – so toxic they could slay a wolf. A foxglove promised delirium and death to the five-year-old entranced by a bee that languidly buzzed around its column of flowers and choosing one, crawled in and was abruptly silenced. I held my breath terrified, sure it was dying in voiceless agony, until it slid out buzzing again and nonchalant.
There was danger in her garden but there was worse without. The laburnum tree across the road enticed the innocent with its splashy yellow rain of flowers and its offer of a semblance of small peas in a pod. To eat them, warned my grandmother, would make you sicker than you had ever been, and then draw you into a terrible sleep from which you might never awake.
My grandmother lived in a flint cottage in Thanet, and a derelict coal merchants loomed blackly across the end of the garden. A sycamore tree which had surged to twenty feet before anyone had considered whether they wanted it there, grew against it. One day, I climbed up and peered through the jagged broken glass of a window rimed with coal dust, to the choking blackness within. Overcome with horror, I scrambled down too fast, scraping my legs, tearing my skirt.
To survive, I watched my grandmother closely and learned. I learnt that she wielded an arcane power over the garden. She planted densely. She visited other gardens and secretly sliced off cuttings with her sharp fingernails, stuffing them into her old ladies’ raincoat pocket. They grew for her. She didn’t need sealable polythene bags and a clean blade. The Latin names of the plants were the incantations that made them grow. She preferred plants that were close to the species, retaining more of their elemental power than the cheerful pink dahlias and jaunty yellow daffodils that our neighbour grew. She gardened in her usual clothes, her blue raincoat, brown stockings and slip-on shoes. Once a month, she went to the hairdressers for a set which made her hair look like a brain worn on the outside of her head. She thought you had to do this for appearances because really she was planting mandrakes, waiting for the scream. She didn’t wear gardening gloves and her hands wore a tracery of dirt. She worked in the garden apparently casually, moving plants, snipping and dividing, between doing other more mundane tasks. She wrote in notebooks with marbled endpapers and fraying spines in a small clear hand – lists of plant names, the incantations.
One day, recklessly suicidal, my brother daringly touched lightly, fleetingly, the glaucous leaf of the crouching, billowing sinister euphorbia, its flowers not even flowers but bracts and the colour of bitter bile. He crowed: ‘I am the Poisonous Man!’. We ran, shrieking with ecstatic terror at our new-found power through the narrow paths, through the turrets and spires, the thorns and the poisons. My agonised grandmother implored us using necromancy: ‘Oh darling, mind my Paeonia mlokosewitschi. Oh, the poor Gillenia trifoliata,’ as our heedless feet thundered past the trembling fragile heads.
The plants started to seduce me. I was drugged by the opulent scent of the Daphne cneorum but it made my skin itch. I felt safer with the pretty pink cistus with its open countenance, the buddleia gently attended by Red Admirals, which hid the compost heap and smelt of honey. I liked the small things you could lie close to – the violets and the Mind-your-own-business and London Pride, whose names amused me. It was blissful to stroke the silvery velvet of Stachys lanata (as we knew it then). I liked the frank camaraderie of daisies and primroses.
I wanted to make a garden, to learn my grandmother’s arts and be God.
She wrenched a piece of the garden from her and gave it to me. I learnt to condemn weeds and then learnt the beneficent power of making a weed not a weed. If the celestial blue germander speedwell pleased me then it should live in my garden. I turned the earth over with a spoon and smelt its worminess. I learnt that I could take a piece of plant from another part of the garden and make a new plant in mine. I planted heartsease and it crept across my garden so prettily. I went to the shop and found round-faced orange marigolds. I investigated the layers and folds of their tangerine flowers, breathed in their rankness, and planted them in a row. The dahlia-growing neighbour gave me night-scented stock she had grown from seed and I swooned at the deliciousness of the scent. I wanted a tree and broke a small branch off an apple tree and stuck it in the earth of my garden. It looked like a tree but soon the leaves lost their lustre and curled up. I threw it away and grew in power and knowledge.
l-r: Claire Guinness, Lord Charles Gascoyne-Cecil, Paula Noble and Posy Gentles