Sunday, January 23, 2011

The ramblings of a romantic gardener

I’m not sure if I’m a romantic at heart, feeling nostalgic or just getting old, but I have found myself thinking back to my childhood a lot recently (which would suggest age is a major factor………). Specifically I realized that so many of my childhood memories are associated with plants and gardens and that those memories still have an influence on my life today.

Join me on a stroll through the Bluebell Woods of England
Photo credit; Jill Elliott (childhood friend and fellow bluebell lover!)

I guess gardening has always been a part of my life even on a subconscious level. My granddad lived next door and had a good sized piece of land which was almost entirely dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables for the family. Berries, orchard fruit, potatoes and beetroot were minutes from harvest to table and I must admit were taken for granted. Hopping over the garden fence to pick Bramley apples for a pie seemed far more natural to me than going to a store. Now with my own organic vegetable garden I find myself reminiscing about the days when I followed granddad around and gorged on warm, juicy raspberries (and also appreciating how much work vegetable gardening was)!

English primroses naturalize in semi-shady locations
There are certain flowers which I simply cannot imagine not including in my garden and upon reflection it is because they remind me of special places or people. The wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) grows in great abundance in the deciduous woodlands of England and its soft buttery yellow flowers are far more beautiful to me than the more brazen colors typically available. They are easy to grow from seed and look perfect in a shady spot where their foliage forms such large clumps that they are easily mistaken for Hostas.

Hosta 'Sagae" was a gift from a wonderful friend and is the
perfect companion for my English bluebells.
Another woodland favorite is the English bluebell (Scilla non-scripta syn. Hyacinthoides non-scripta). As a child I had the freedom to explore Leasowe Castle, a  local historical landmark dating back to the 1500s. Today it has been re-modeled as a hotel but in the 1970's was a retirement home for railwaymen. With a bookcase which revolved to reveal a mysterious hiding place and turrets from which to survey the coastline it’s strange that my favorite part of the castle was actually outside; the Bluebell Woods. That fragrant blue carpet seemed to go on forever and is a memory that I still hold dear to the point where I had some of these bulbs mailed to me from England 15 years ago! (This species was hard to find in the USA at the time). Clumps have moved with me from house to house ever since.

Who doesn’t love sweet peas? I’m not sure anymore at what age I first became intoxicated with their heady perfume but in every garden that I have had as an adult I have grown sweet peas, often the variety ‘Galaxy’ which seems to do especially well in the Pacific Northwest as they bloom earlier and for longer than the Spencer varieties. Burpee sells the seed in the USA but 'Galaxy' is more widely available in the UK.

One small vase of sweet peas will perfume an entire room
Then my memories turn to those which I have passed on to my children. (Well if I’m honest I would have to limit that to my daughter Katie, now 22. My son (18) can identify pansies and snapdragons but he would be the first to admit that beyond that he hasn’t a clue…). Katie fondly remembers picking posies of primroses and forget-me-nots from the garden for the breakfast table.
You're never too young; Katie was just 7 months when she
discovered English primroses.
Sorry about photo quality - a scanned image from
pre-digital days!

When Katie was just three an elderly neighbor divided a clump of her spring blooming bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) and shared them with us after seeing how fascinated Katie was with the tiny teardrop ready to  fall from the delicate pink heart. We moved to the USA five years later and as soon as Katie saw that plant at a nursery she insisted we bought one for our new home. Most children would ask for candy!

The wonderfully old fashioned bleeding heart
(Dicentra spectabilis)
I know there are more treasures in my garden but I won’t subject you to any more of my ramblings down memory lane. It does make me realize however that something as simple as a wildflower can hold a place in our heart and mind far longer than its fleeting bloom. Who would have known that gardening would become such a passion of mine and that I would own a garden design business later in life? Or that my daughter, recently qualified with her Masters degree in Architecture, is keen to expand her career beyond the realm of typical building practices where the design of structure and landscape are considered in isolation, to a more holistic, integrated and sustainable approach. 

What legacy of garden memories have you been given; and what will you give to others?


  1. Wonderful memories, Karen! You touched my heart! I remember my granny's tiger lilies growing under her dining room window. My granddad loved crepe myrtles. I still grow them in his honor. Memory gardens are so wonderful. As a gerontologist, I know the value of reminiscing - it feeds the soul. I still have my Granny Everett's bird bath. I share her love of gardens and wild birds. I shared gardening with my three children and now with my grandkids. You can see how I've inherited my love of gardening from my mother - The Homestead on shows my parents' place. Thank you for the wonderful story!

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only soft-hearted gardener :). You're so right - reminiscing does feed the soul. And it also reminds us to take time to share things with our own families and friends.
    My Mum finds it amusing that I have taken up gardening in such a bog way as she insists I hated it as a child. I suggested that was due to the weeding..! I just had to find my own way.


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