Notes from a London Garden in November
By Laetitia Maklouf
(specially commissioned by Miranda Mills for Seasons of Story)
When you capitulate to the natural ebb and flow of seasonal energy, and in particular when you have spent a few years gardening, then you come to know how very wrong it is to view January as the start of pretty much anything except our modern calendar.
The last thing I want to do is go all woo on you, but if you’re even moderately aware of the seasons in a cyclical sense, then you cannot fail to see that Autumn is actually a far superior ‘beginning’ than January will ever be…and by Autumn I don’t mean September (although if you have school age children then that can, indeed be a rather refreshing month), no…I’m really talking about mid-October-into-November: these are the weeks, when the floof of late summer splendour is finally on its last legs, when the seedheads are everywhere, and the spring-sown flowers have all but disappeared, and when I’m frankly bored of picking cosmos and dahlias, that my senses are aware that for all the ‘death’ up top, the activity underground is strong and solid.
Nutrients pulled in from the sun are being deployed underground and canned ‘in the cellar’ so-to-speak of each perennial for its winter beneath. These are the weeks when I wake up, alive to the possibility of new beginnings, and it is in these weeks that my activities in the garden ramp up, sometimes to fever pitch.
This year is rather different from the usual. My rotter of a husband has decided to replace my dear little garden shed with something he, and older children can use to hang out in. I had agreed to this proposition readily, excited by the idea of people having ‘the space to be themselves’ (and watch bad telly) into the early hours, not understanding fully that my entire garden would become a building site for months on end. Sigh. But there is beauty in the chaos, as it means that I can concentrate on what will always be my first love; container gardening.
I have several large pots on our terrace, and the very first thing that happens is the renewal of their compost. I don’t replace it entirely with new though; after removing the cosmos, dahlias, argeranthemum or whatever else, I mulch the flower beds with half of the compost and then I empty the other half into a large pile on the paving and add several bags of new compost which I will then mix in with a spade. It’s one of the most satisfying tasks of the year to replace this beefed-up compost and sweep the terrace, ready for bulb-planting.
I used to spend hours planting bulbs in flower beds between existing plants, but in the last few years I have confined all my bulbs to these containers on my terrace because, well, I don’t want to miss them, even for a second, and I love being able to move the pots around and even bring them indoors in chilly early spring.
Tulips are of course a must. I like to skip the option paralysis and buy a ‘mix’ that someone else has agonised over. This year I have gone for a mix of ‘double’ tulips – more cabbagey than the prim and elegant singles - in a kaleidoscopic array of colours including (gasp) yellow! I have learned over the years to stop being such a colour snob and go for abundance and joy rather than anything too tastefully restrained. I have also learned that I need roughly double the number of tulips I think is necessary, so I added a bag of one of my favourite varieties called ‘Pretty Princess’ to my shopping basket without even flinching.
Then there are the snakes-head fritillaries, which will go in a wide shallow bowl on a table, together with my absolute favourite azure blue scillas, and several small pots of delicate perfection in the form of iris reticulata, which will join them on said table. Oh, and then there are the daffodils – always pheasant-eye – which I plant in my front garden bed beneath a crab apple tree. I adore pheasant-eye daffs not just for that gorgeous pinky-orange centre, but also for their scent (and that goes for the iris too, and crocuses, which can be planted in bowls, or simply picked, and brought indoors where they will open in the warmth and pump out delicious sugary fragrance.
But back to the tulips which I cram into the largest pots I have, almost touching one another and cover with a sprinkling of compost and then a thick layer of gravel to prevent pesky squirrels digging up my precious bulbs over the winter. I use large bamboo cloches also, rammed tightly over the top of these pots for the same reason. I water once and then pretty much leave everything alone over the winter, taking care to resume watering after the last of the frost, and as the tulips emerge.
And then there are the sweet peas, which are always worth sowing oneself in the autumn, for stronger, beefier plants that start flowering earlier. Again, I’m not given to restraint when it comes to sowing; you may not use all of the plants that result, but your friends and neighbours will delight when you give the extra away. I don’t have a favourite sweet pea,(although why anyone would choose to sow an unscented once is beyond me) – they are all beautiful and joyful and life-enhancing – all things we so badly need to splash about in these uncertain and troubling times.
I turned 50 in the middle of October, (another reason that Autumn is my real January) and although I still feel like I’m fourteen it would be silly not to take stock at the occasion – it is a half century after all! I’m not a person who denies having regrets - I actually have quite a few - but what I have come to realise is that embarrassment, sadness, grief and all the rest are very much the cost of entry when it comes to reaching a place of relative peace. This knowledge is very cheering, as I have a teenage daughter whose categorical focus on not listening to her mother’s advice would be admirable if she applied it to absolutely any other goal, and it’s here that I understand my ‘regret’ at not being a younger mother is unfounded, as I would not have gathered the wisdom to smile and go outside to plant some more bulbs. We can only do what we can do, and as my own mother keeps telling me, I can only be ‘good enough’.
It’s something of a strange twist then, to realise that in the face of all the conflict in the world, the hard earned wisdom that has mercifully yanked my eyeballs away from my own navel and outward in search of how I can serve others, is softly telling me that our ancient human brains were never meant to know every sadness, to see every devastating loss, to absorb everyone’s deeply held opinions on every current thing. It is too much and no good will come of it. So I choose to reduce that sphere of chaos, not by burying my head in the sand, but by loving my family and friends hard, doing my best to assist those around me, and yes, by planting a ridiculous abundance of bulbs.
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
Laetitia Maklouf is a mother and writer who has been nutty about gardening since she planted some seeds by accident in her twenties. She lives in London with her husband and three children. Her latest book The Five Minute Garden is available now.
Photographs © Laetitia Maklouf
Artwork: Autumn Leaves by Sarah Jane Prentiss; Fritillaria by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Look out for more reflections and tips from Laetitia upcoming in Seasons of Story, as she'll continue to write about her life in the garden throughout the months ahead.