Common Ground – March 2023

Tossing his mane of snows in wildest eddies and tangles, Lion-like March cometh in, hoarse, with tempestuous breath

William Dean Howells

The tops of the first bulbs of the year, species crocus and Iris reticulata, were just visible on Valentine’s Day. The bed beside the warm west side of the house was bare and I could even see grass. February 14 is the earliest I have ever seen bulbs come up. Last year it was around St Patrick’s Day when the first bulbs appeared. Of course winter came back and covered the bed and bulbs with snow. No matter. For me the first crack has appeared in the solid wall of winter.

The toughness of the little spring bulbs never ceases to amaze me. They tolerate a lot of freezing and thawing throughout the spring and still manage to produce beautiful and delicate blooms. Somehow the bees know when the first crocuses will open and they’re right there to celebrate spring.

Christmas cactus for some reason doesn’t bloom until February and March in this house. It has never bloomed at Christmas. Its bright pink flowers are a cheerful prelude to spring. As are the purple blooms of the trailing rosemary which has been blooming for most of the winter. And the little echeveria succulent that was a cash register impulse buy a few years ago has doubled in size. It has buds that will be bright red flowers by the time it’s warm enough to go out on the porch for the summer. The hummingbirds love it so I don’t regret giving in to that particular impulse.

The gardening library was subjected to a bit of pruning during the winter months. Or should I say de-accessioning as the galleries say? I realized that I had too many coffee table books with endless pictures of formal gardens in France. I can’t imagine wanting to look at these again. They have historical interest but not to me at this point in my gardening career.

I ended up rereading a lot of Anne Scott-James so I guess that means I’m keeping her books around. She wrote a lot about the history of English cottage gardens and her books are inspirational as well as being practical and useful. She divides gardeners into picture gardeners and plantsmen. Heaven help you in my family of botanists if you were one of the former. We were all expected to know what the plant was called as well as being able to grow it successfully.

I also ended up rereading an old book about old London gardens, Old London Gardens by Gladys Taylor. This one I will keep since it gives a long and detailed history of Chelsea Physic Garden. When I was young and probably foolish I worked there as a volunteer guide. The garden was founded by the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries during the reign of Charles the Second. When I worked there, it was only open for very few hours a week and was what is known as a hidden gem. Only people who were serious about plants ever went there. I am told that now it has a tea shop and has been quite spiffed up. I have no idea if that’s a good thing or not.

In 1732 cotton seeds from Chelsea Physic Garden were sent to the new colony named after George the Second. We know what happened after that. And it was there that I met the only botanical celebrity I have ever met. David Bellamy was a very nice man who insisted on having his picture taken with the volunteers. He didn’t seem that interested in the Queen Mother who was the official patron of the garden. The Queen Mother visited several times the summer I was there. In person she looked like a vision of white fluffiness. Each time before her visit a team of about ten police officers with sniffer dogs would go over every inch of the garden. I had forgotten about all of that before I opened the book.

Fear not that I have totally given in to the decluttering people who say that you’re only supposed to have twenty three books. Or some other arbitrary number. I forget the number. Maybe it was twenty eight. Never mind. I still have lots of books.

Speaking of the decluttering people, I have to confess to a certain amount of schadenfreude when I heard that the ridiculous Marie Kondo now has children and a messy house. Really Marie it looks good on you for trying to embarrass people who don’t share your minimalist aesthetic.

Finally, thanks to everyone who wrote to me about knowing Timmy the church cat when he lived in Millbrook. A few people just wanted to tell me about cats they had known and I enjoyed those stories. I’m heartened to know that more people told me cat stories than excoriated me in the past for liking wind chimes. It restores some of my faith in human nature.

I still have the wind chimes and they will be going back outside shortly as a yet another sign of spring. But don’t worry misanthropic townies. You won’t be able to hear them.

by Jill Williams

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