‘It is not so easy to write these notes amidst the anguish and anxiety of Europe,’ wrote Vita Sackville-West in her Country Notes of 1939. Here at the dog-end of the dog-days eighty years later, I’m finding it’s not so easy to write about the garden when I’m distracted by the parliamentary chaos of the Johnson Coup. I can’t seem to turn my mind to slug eradication, or gloating about my magical deck lights and my Limelight hydrangea while various presidents decide if they can ignore their giant egos long enough to stop the Amazon burning.
It’s hard to write about the small beauties, the #tinyjoys* when everyone is squeezed and harried and on the verge. And yet, it’s precisely the reason we must keep on. It’s why author Alyssa Harad spends every Sunday afternoon sharing flowers from all over the world as the Flower Report anchor, and why Vita kept on writing and planting despite the turn to war and the horrors of rampaging fascism. ‘My only excuse’, she wrote ‘can be that the determination to preserve such beauty as remains to us is also a form of courage.’
I certainly wouldn’t claim that building a garden is courageous, but it’s certainly a political act, and one of hope. And even though it seems there will never be the money to pour the concrete paths, the deck at least is completely finished, and one corner of the garden at least is billowing and flourishing full of bees, butterflies and bats.
Unfortunately, it’s also full of slugs. I’ve never known a sluggier garden, it’s as though the whole plot is stretched over the Slug Portal. As an organic gardener, I don’t use chemical pest control, so no slug pellets or sprays, and although I’ve used copper tape to protect particularly succulent hostas in the past, this year I never quite got on top of the Slug War. Despite looking kindly on all sorts of animals and insects I’ve never been able to tolerate slugs, they reduce me to a shrieking mess and the thought of touching one makes me want to flee screaming. We also have a substantial colony of snails, but I don’t feel murderous towards snails as I do towards their more slithery cousins.
My Snail Management Technique is to collect them in a bag inside a bucket, drive them six miles away to the nearest town, and release them onto a grassy verge. I’d read about an experiment that showed they had a developed homing instinct, although this is apparently limited to twenty metres or so, rather than the three miles that I had misremembered. It seems it’s probably safe to let them go much closer to home, and it’s a much greener alternative.
Slugs though. Gentle-hearted Doc has long-since banned my use of the method my (more callous) forbears taught me of sprinkling them with salt. So now I go on a nightly hunt armed with nothing more than a trowel and an appetite for wanging those slimy molluscs as far as I can into the abandoned old factory site that borders the garden. Despite my labours, there’s a never-ending stream of them—they’ve chomped hard on the young lupins and a couple of dahlias have been reduced to stumps. In more generous moments I remember that they eat up decomposing vegetation and are great food for the birds. But then I remember their 27,000 teeth and my murderous resolutions spring fresh.
Dahlias are at their peak as we slip towards autumn. I was given a lovely gift of three chocolate-scented dahlias last year, two of which survived the winter to grow into unexpectedly enormous plants, one is as tall as my magnolia stellate—dark crimson heads are now poking up where once were white papery stars. We’ve had little pompoms and flirty-headed goddesses like Penhill Watermelon and Café au Lait, with dozens of heads the size of dinner-plates.
Our abundance of cherry blossom turned into the most incredible cherry harvest. I picked half and left half on the tree to feed the other garden visitors. I now have ten pounds of cherries luxuriating in brandy in the larder, some of which will brighten my porridge on winter weekends and some of which will find their way into Christmas boxes. We won’t be short of cherry brandy any time soon.
I can’t help feeling there’s a much stronger elegiac note to the columns of mid-2019, than there were when I started a year ago. My next column will be the last, as written things have their season just the same as grown things. I hope this will shed fruitful seeds.
*(do follow this hashtag on twitter, it’s a gentle reminder of good things on hard days)
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.