To celebrate my graduation in 2001, my mother gave me a rose. She chose the pink damask Omar Khayyám, grown from a graft planted on the grave of the Persian astronomer’s great translator Edward FitzGerald at Boulge in Suffolk in 1893. The rose at Boulge was, in its turn, grown at Kew from seeds collected from a plant on Khayyám’s own tomb at Nishapur by artist-illustrator William Simpson in 1884. These are the roses that preoccupy me, the roses with great stories. Who was Louise Odier to the famous Parisian rose breeder Jacques-Julien Margottin that he should name the camellia-like pink bourbon for her in 1851? Or who was Docteur Jamain that the sumptuous deep crimson shade-lover Souvenir du Docteur Jamain was named for him by François Lacharme in 1865? There’s the romance of exquisite promises in the names of roses, and in their renames and reinventions. In her 1990 work Rose, artist Sharon Kivland gilded the names of lost roses across a wall in a new office development constructed over the remains of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre. I think about that work, which I have never seen, as I draw up the list of (im)possible roses for Sunnyside, and I think about the spell I’m trying to cast. And then an unexpected Christmas gift of a bushel of bare-root roses from David Austin created a narrative all of its own. I’ve already decided to plant my favourite Reine des Violettes with a buddleja globosa and Lady of Shalott.
The garden shimmers with energy thanks to the February sun. A couple of times a decade we get a warm spell in February. I’m wary, as I know it’s often followed by hard frosts and hail and snow. I’ve let my slumbering dahlias drowse on, rather than trying to snatch a head-start. Fortunately, distraction has arrived in the shape of trees and seed packets. A late-night supermarket run resulted in me buying two fruit trees to add to the existing collection (and too much time cruising the internet for espaliered Doyenné du Comice pears). My impulse purchase of a Stella cherry and a Victoria plum for under a tenner will bring blossom to the borders, and fruit to the late summers. Could there be such a thing as too much blossom? Impossible.
The sweet-peas (lathyrus odoratus) I planted at the turn of the year have successfully germinated: White Flight, Almost Black and Wiltshire Ripple promise much for the summer ahead, when they will go into the Long Border on bamboo cane wigwams. It’s a slightly more restrained colour palette than that of my grandfather, who had a wall of pink and lilac beauties on the back of his house that clambered sturdily up to the first-floor bedroom windows to dispense their glorious aroma and disgorge their ‘battle-twig’ stowaways to the outraged screams of the grandchild (me). Whenever I smell sweet-peas, I’m taken straight back to summer holiday evenings spent winkling earwigs out from their temporary bed sheet shelters.
Last weekend, I tackled the most daunting job in the garden: I pruned the wisteria, with my heart in my mouth. I remain convinced that my Wisteria Black Dragon will resolutely refuse to bloom to pay me back in flower-drought for being remiss with pruning last summer. Next weekend will be First Seeds. I have red columbines from Mama’s garden, and red lupins from my sister-in-law; poppies from the garden of a dear friend; wildflower seeds gifted to me by a twitter-friend; two types of white cosmos, Love-In-A-Mist, apricot foxgloves and wallflowers, snapdragons the colour of appleblossom, verbena bonariensis, gaura, single-flower gypsophilia and the fascinating scabiosa stellata. I can hardly wait to get started, and the glasshouse is full of seed trays and seed compost ready for the big day.
I’ve been much occupied by garden fashions in the last six months. By garden fashions, I don’t mean the latest hydrangea but what to wear in the garden that will stand up to hard work, copious filth, nettles, thorns and the like. My habitual art-world black doesn’t make the grade. What is hardy, but also quick to discard when the temperature soars in the hot spots or the glasshouse? I’m often envious of Monty Don’s rather fabulous screen wardrobe, and any Gardener’s World viewing starts with a critical analysis of his current outfit. This is the moment for my confession: my garden-wear go-to is less fabulously Vita, less worn-in elegance than Monty, consisting of denim dungarees from a supermarket near you and my Pa’s old fleece. Questions could rightly be asked about my aesthetic choices. They have the added bonus of being earwig resistant, but perhaps I could take a lead from the tree peonies and inject a little glamour into my get-up as well as into my borders.
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.