My Hysteria grandiflora is coming along nicely
With the advent of warmer weather (in theory, if not today) comes the beginning of the main ‘events’ season here at Castle Beastie. Like many historic houses these days, the castle is partly open to the public. A place like this has to pay for itself somehow or other.
In our case, our main business as far as the house and garden is concerned is weddings. We have perhaps a dozen every year, most of them falling in the summer months. In addition, we run guided tours (to pre-booked, private groups) of the castle and grounds, and also occasional open days of one sort or another to raise money for charity. A couple of weeks ago, we hosted our first private tour of the season. It was a group of seventy: my husband and his uncle took the tours, while I spent most of the day, in between school runs, frantically buttering scones and washing up teacups in the background. It was a bit frenetic, but it is a very congenial business to work in: visitors tend to be interested, interesting, well-mannered and predisposed to enjoy themselves.
Much further outside my comfort zone, however, is the dreaded Garden Open Day. Which is less than a week away. Deep breaths. This is a completely public event, very different in scale from private tours. These open days are part of a nationwide scheme to open gardens of all sizes for charity. They are a worthwhile thing to do – this year we are raising money for Help for Heroes – and it is good for our talented and hard-working gardener to get some wider feedback and appreciation. A garden open day, however, gives me sleepless nights for two reasons.
Firstly, because of the amount of organisation required. I am not much good at being organised even at the best of times. Writing detailed lists of things that need doing, I can do very well; actually doing the things that need doing… Moreover, since mid-April, this failing has been compounded by the after-effects of my head injury. Sustained mental and physical effort is still difficult, and trying to absorb and act upon information often leaves me feeling baffled, panicky and close to tears. You may imagine, then, that all the planning, liaison, diplomacy, preparation and multi-tasking involved in organising the garden opening (complete with teas served by the good ladies of the local Scottish Women’s Rural Institute, and various stalls to run) seems absolutely monumental at the moment.
At times like this, I wish more than ever that I were the sort of person a house like this really needs: one of those brisk, competent, practical ladies who used to run the British Empire and who now run the rest of us. Every village in Britain has a woman like this. You’re standing behind her in a queue in the Post Office, say, and by the time you stumble back out into the street, you’ve been volunteered to bake two dozen cakes for the Brownies’ Fun Day, or open the flower show, or join a local committee, or some such. This type of woman scares me silly, frankly, but communities could not manage without them. I would draft one in to run my life Open Day, except that my husband won’t hear of it, for some reason.
The second reason that the Garden Opening is keeping me awake at night is that I’m not actually a gardener at all. When we lived in a basement flat in Edinburgh, in the early years of our marriage, I used to enjoy footering about in garden centres and planting pansies in pots in our weeny front yard. Despite the best efforts of my parents, however, I’ve never absorbed much in the way of proper plant lore or horticultural know-how. I did try to get involved in the garden when we first moved to the castle, but it rapidly became clear that the professional gardener here did not find my attempts very helpful. ‘I’ve cut back all the dead lavender stalks for you!’, I’d pant virtuously in the autumn. ‘Right, I was actually leaving them over the winter on purpose to protect the plants from the frost,’ she’d reply. Humph. ‘I pruned those awful suckers on the climbing rose by the summer house!’ I tried once. ‘Ah…’ she replied. ‘Those were the flowering shoots for next season.’ Eventually I gave up, and we are both much happier as a result. (Although, don’t tell her, but I plan to renew my campaign of guerrilla gardening once the children are both at school.) These days, I do the wafting around, directing operations as Chief Aesthetic Officer, while she does all the graft.
This arrangement suits us both very well, until we have an influx of people more knowledgeable than I am about gardens (meaning just about everybody). At first I can bluff with the best of them. I don’t know much, but I know what I like: fragrant Zephirine Drouhin roses, for example; nostalgic Hidcote lavender; blue Cranesbill geraniums and frothy Alchemilla mollis spilling over the paths.
These Latin names just trip off my tongue: I am getting complacent. Then someone blows my cover. ‘May I ask what you are using to treat that bishop’s weed?’ asked a nice lady the other day. Bishop’s what? Oh, those green leaves in the border. You mean they’re not meant to be there? They just look like more pretty greenery to me, but the visitors are eyeing the clump – and me in my ignorance – with horror. It’s more commonly known as ground elder, the ineradicable scourge of British gardens. So now I know. And on it goes: at every garden ‘do’, I discover more gaping holes in my knowledge, which clearly render me unfit to be the custodian of such a historic garden. ‘How old is your Pieris japonica?’ quizzes an elderly gentleman, fixing me with a beady eye. My wha…? Ooh, about as old as my Ignotia monumentalis, I’d say.
All in all, then, I am rather dreading the coming open day. But at least I can honestly say that my Amnesias have been doing splendidly this year.
See also: Closed Season in the Garden