I Fell In Love With A Tree
Credit: Isabella Streffen

First thing every March morning, a little before six, my phone pings with the Sakura Forecast as the cherry tide creeps closer and closer to my daughter’s home in Japan. Any day now I’ll just get a photo of glorious pink blooms in Kenrokuen Gardens and, yes, I’ll be envious. We have two cherries in the garden: one sour, one sweet. I love them for their gaudy glamour as much as their delicious fruit, which we catch in brandy for our Christmas trifle. But they are a long way from flowering, and I still dream of a grande allée of blossom. I think we’ve established by now that my gardening ambitions are on the epic scale.

There’s a wonderful account of falling in love with a tree which I’m sure must be a cherry in Ali Smith’s The Whole Story and Other Stories: ‘I couldn’t not. It was in blossom.’ I definitely wasn’t thinking about this on a spring day in 2010 as I idled along a street on my way home from the studio. It was quite a busy street, with shops, and traffic, and trees and brilliant sunshine. I stopped under a cherry, distracted by sunlight through the branches. It’s an occupational hazard, I’m always stopping to look at light slanting through something. And in that moment, a swift wind flickered around the tree and it flounced all of its blossom at once onto my head. It was a pink whirlwind. It was a cherry blizzard. It was an impromptu wedding to a tree. It’s this ceremony that I have in mind when I plan for ridiculous amounts of future blossom. Next year, if I’m lucky, I’ll see Kenrokuen Gardens in its fancy spring outfit in person, though I’ve promised not to spend my whole visit standing under trees hoping for a repeat performance.

As I wait for my own blossom to begin, there’s been a rush of planting. As the days sidle past the equinox and towards British Summer Time, the extra light means I see the garden in daylight during the week. I have dug foxtail lilies into the new bed, and a pink tree peony, and pots of oriental lilies, and the dahlias are awake again (they live! we party!). I can see bluebell fronds starting to pucker up under the apple trees; the lilac in the lane is swelling with purple; there are fat buds on the wisteria (but if only I could remember whether their flower buds are long or fat). The clambering musk rose is racing through the greengage, primulas are lifting their graphic faces, grape hyacinths are poking through everywhere. The EU garden is proudly showing its colours (though I don’t know if it will last past April), and (drumroll) we are now on official Tulip Watch.

Baumgarten Eu 2 Enlarge
Gair Dunlop, Memento vitae for Lothar Baumgarten (2019), porcelain in my EU garden

Work continues on the hard landscaping, despite Doc’s fair-weather garden face. There’s a complicated decking arrangement in three main areas, which includes built-in wooden seats around the pond, and a simple bridge. There are two sweeping edges, which demand curved planks (for which he has constructed a wood steamer), an intricate in-setting of lights, and for the bridge, a metal under-structure (forgive my lack of vocabulary about this). What had been intended to be a narrow half-metre-wide bed of waftiness hugging the swoop of the deck has been expanded into something that I can’t quite imagine how to fill. We’ve thought for a long time about whether to deck and pave areas of the garden, as we all need to be aware of what is happening to our insect population and take action. We don’t employ any kind of pesticide, using the time-honoured traditional method of picking off snails, slugs (how I hate them) and aphids (shudder!). We’ve got plenty of actively neglected areas for insects to go about their business undisturbed by us. There are compost daleks, a bird-house, piles of stones and slates. Life seems in reasonable shape: the pond has resident newts, there are bats, colonies of woodlice (known for unfathomable childhood reasons as ‘wice’) and bees nesting in the roof of the pigeonnière.

I’m been asked a number of times over these last months for garden-related viewing/reading/listening/art works, so if you have any favourites, please get in touch and I’ll add them to my list. My current bedside reading is Dan Pearson’s Natural Selection, which I eke out from day-to-day, and to which I’m already plotting snowdrops as a response. Recent reads include Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden which fuels my ambitions, Jamaica Kincaid’s exceptional My Garden (Book), Roy Strong’s The Artist & The Garden and Martin Postle’s Art of the Garden as research, and of course, Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature which sits on my desk like a talisman against dark times. Perhaps an exhibition is brewing?

***

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.