As we hurtle towards Christmas (or Saturnalia, or whichever of the winter festivals you choose to celebrate), I find myself thinking—during my long commute—about decorations, and what could be foraged from the garden to make the house seem festive. I don’t actually see the garden in daylight for weeks on end. It’s dark when I leave before 7am, and dark when I return well after 7pm and the weekends are full of new drafts of a manuscript with a New Year deadline.
I want to bring the garden into the house for the celebrations. I was too late to force Paperwhites or other heady-scented jonquils, and I missed my local farm-shop selling their hop-vines, but I remembered to re-plant last winter’s white hyacinths. I decided to make a wreath, not something I’ve done before, and in it would be the Christmas plants: holly, ivy, hellebore, pine. So much symbolism in four short words.
One of the most difficult decisions we’ve faced so far at Sunnyside, was whether or not to remove the established holly tree. It surprised me in the autumn of 2016 by producing glorious white flowers: a bit of detective work revealed a white rose twined up the trunk, with a handful of perfect blooms peeping out from the deep green. We have several fruit trees in the garden, a huge laburnum and a rather magnificent spruce in the allotment. A closed Victorian factory lies to the rear of the house, and the large buddleias, silver birches, hornbeams and limes that have occupied its grounds make a useful boundary. It wasn’t the only tree. After a long think (though perhaps two years is not really long in gardening terms) we decided the holly had to go. So it did. Hidden beneath, we found a white peony that swiftly matured, giving us the first autumn peonies we have ever seen. But it did mean that there was no holly for the wreath, or for swags, or garlands.
I didn’t use ivy either, preferring to keep it draping the walls. The hellebores I planted in pots at the front door, stopping their delicate heads from dangling in the dirt. I used pine, both in the wreath and in pine syrup for an essence-of-Christmas cocktail (be very sure that you know exactly which plant you are using if you try this, but a pine Old Fashioned is my recommendation for when you are sure). Mostly, I used odds and silvery ends, willow, laurel, Old Man’s Beard and some dried hydrangeas, and pampas grass for my greenish Christmas Catherine Wheel.
Three months after Hellmouth Gate, the biggest news from Sunnyside is that we have built a bed. We have something—at long last—that will need to be planted before spring.
You would be forgiven for imagining that this has resulted in a library of seed and plant catalogues coming my way, to be pored over with a dreamy face and a grumbling bank account. I’d love to be able to share news of orders and anticipation with you but the Birth of the Bed coincided with the busiest time of my working year, and the least amount of available daylight.
The Back Border as I’ve taken to calling it, is fifteen metres long and about two and a half metres wide. If you’ve seen the Garden Plan (in #2: The Firework Border), it starts off as the lavender border before morphing into the shady border. It stretches from a spirea that tickles the edge of the house to terminate in front of the Proper Shed with its heavy ivy fringe. It prompts in me delusions of grandeur, ambitions towards the traditional country house herbaceous border, a burning desire for, perhaps, a moat.
The soil in this part of the garden has never seemed very hospitable. Everything planted promptly died or withered reproachfully. I tested the soil, measured the rainfall. We pulled back the gorse that nods over the wall from the overgrowth behind. Mulched, fed, pampered. Recognising that we need some height at that point in the design, we removed the tiny lilac, the hydrangea (£1 from a supermarket in 2016), the sedum, the ceanothus and built up the bed with topsoil from the old raspberry patch.
It will take years to establish and refine, but my immediate job is to make a decision about what kind of bed it will be. Is it to be that aristocratic border? Or will I focus on structure and shrubs: hydrangeas and roses, viburnums and witch-hazel?
The re-planted sedum sits proud, for now, the brightest thing in the garden until the Solstice bonfire, when the year swings on its hinge. It keeps my spirits up as I wait for the skies to lighten, and the days to lengthen and unleaden. Christmas is coming, and after that, the Spring.
Next time: The Persephone Complex …
Isabella Streffen is an artist. She has illuminated Hadrian’s Wall from end to end, flown prototype drones inside the Library of Congress, camouflaged tourists in Monet’s garden, performed in cabaret en unicorne and gifted golden fairy-tale fruit to the deserving. She lectures in Fine Art at the University of Lincoln. She is a keen gardener with an obsession for dahlias.