No man is a garden

'Open Garden' day in rural England reveals the treasures of the gardener's art -- and the essential spirit of appreciation and cooperation at its heart.

Published September 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The other day a handwritten note was left in my mailbox. "You have a splendiferous garden. Thank you!" it said. It was unsigned but brightly punctuated with the kind of ebullient stick-figure flower a happy adult or a child will draw for you if you are lucky.

I did indeed feel lucky, and also rewarded for a winter of double-digging, composting and mulching, not to mention succeeding months of planting, watering and worrying. I live in the Bay Area of California -- somewhere that's not been held hostage to the great American Cult of the Lawn to quite the same degree as the rest of the nation and where there are many fine gardens to inspire a would-be Californian Capability Brown. It was nice to think my garden might begin to compare with some of my neighbors'.

But I also knew that however splendiferous it might be in local terms, my garden was nothing compared to those to be found at their most dense, florid, brazen best in an English village in July. I knew this, or rather the truth of it had been reconfirmed to me, because this last July I visited my parents' house in the southern English county of Hampshire. I was there for the weekend and we were running through the (rather brief) list of events cultural and agricultural that were on offer to us when we came across the clear weekend winner -- "In aid of East Meon charities," it said, "Gardens Open."

There is nothing more interesting to your average middle-aged, middle-class English couple (and their expat son) than the chance to peek through the gates, behind the hedges and beyond the tall stone and brick walls of their neighbors' homes.

In this case we were hopping a couple of villages along the lee of the chalk hills the locals confusingly call "The Downs" to East Meon, an ancient settlement that has managed to avoid the self-pastiche that's befallen many English villages that are similarly well-situated and full of fine old homes. And we (or rather my folks) even knew many of the gardeners who'd be opening up their gardens to all and sundry in the name of charity. Some of them, indeed, were people with whom my gardener father traded cuttings and seeds. The frisson of horticultural nosiness was infectious. What treasures, we were wondering, might these gardeners have been hiding from us behind their garden walls? Now we were going to find out.

I have fond memories of East Meon. I received my secondary education in a nearby market town courtesy of a school founded 300 years previously to train navigators for merchant sailing ships bound for the nation's colonies. In the late 1970s it still excelled best at directing the bright sons of local yeoman farmers, bank managers and sales representatives into the remnants of empire -- recruits of the ever-shrinking British Armed Forces. It was a school that rewarded and most admired prowess on the playing field and success in the school's own military cadre -- its Combined Cadet Force, an institution where, itching in cast-off World War II uniforms, I first learned how to shoot a gun and to understand how easily absolute authority can corrupt those in whom it is invested.

But at age 16 my school life became much more tolerable when I discovered I could escape, at least on the afternoons the school devoted to worship at the altars of (depending on the season) rugby, hockey or cricket, by claiming an overwhelming interest in the solitary sport of cycling.

This interest, or scam, I shared with a boy called Julian but known to all as "Dinz." With furtive glee we'd exit the school gates and cycle energetically straight to Dinz's house -- in nearby East Meon. There we'd make tea, eat crumpets, play music and otherwise fail to be energetic before we'd cycle back to school, at last racing manfully so that we arrived apparently exhausted.

Now, for the first time in many years, I was back in the village. Dinz and his family have long since departed, but the town, I was to realize, was still a place of refuge for men whose idea of manhood was very different from the swaggering, aggressive posturing that so many "good" English boys' schools still try to reproduce in their pupils. These men were the village's gardeners.

Arriving in East Meon we found the place plastered in signs to the 20
or so gardens deemed worthy of our interest. The streets were already
jumping with nosy neighbors. Clouds scudded above the throng, threatening
showers but failing to intimidate the curious. At each garden gate stood a
nervous owner -- a smart retired executive, a real estate agent or a
farmer's hand in shirt-sleeves: a cross-section of modern village life
united in anxious pride.

To be deemed worthy of our attention, each garden had already survived a
merciless cut on the part of the day's organizers. Every chosen rose was
thus properly bursting with flowers and aphid-free. All the anointed
hollyhocks were tall, the clematis lush, each lawn was immaculate and
rolled and every vegetable garden was a model of order and plenitude. The
overwhelming style was, not surprisingly, that of the English cottage
garden, but there were rebel gardens, too, that specialized in exotics like
fuchsias or vast collections of varieties of a single plant.

If it takes vanity to open one's garden to viewing by strangers, it also
takes courage. Apart from a family of Swedes, representative of the
increasing numbers of Europeans that the Channel Tunnel has brought into
this part of the country, most of the day's tourists were relative locals
with firm ideas about what constitutes a true cottage garden.

Allowing them to pass beyond one's garden gate also involves a certain
amount of risk. Even England's most idyllic villages are not untouched by
crime, either from within or from the inhabitants of the conurbations that
are never far away on this small island. Many of the pricier homes had all
their curtains closed -- so criminals masquerading as garden-lovers while
actually casing the joint for antiques couldn't see what treasures the
owners had, explained my mother. My father added that people he knew had
had statuary stolen after events like these. But as yet, in East Meon, the
ultimate sacrilege -- the theft of plants -- was apparently mercifully rare.

The rewards for the noncriminal visitor, though, were rich enough. These
were small Edens that we were being invited to see. We get the word
"paradise" from the ancient Iranian word for a walled garden. To be
allowed into these beautiful private enclaves by normally very private
people was to witness as near perfect a realization as you're likely to
find while alive of what the English fully expect Paradise itself to be.

Many of the builders of these terrestrial paradises were, interestingly,
ex-sailors. East Meon is not so far from the dockyards at Portsmouth where
my school's first graduates joined their first ships bound for the East
Indies and where the royal navy still maintains much of its fleet. Like
much of the area, the village is a favorite retirement spot for captains of
what they still like to refer to as the Senior Service. Seeing these
former embodiments of absolute authority nervously welcome us into their
gardens, I had the sense that in retirement, adrift from the ships upon
which they were the only law, these men's gardens were their conduits back
into the real, uncertain world the rest of us share. Plants cannot be
ordered to grow nor threatened if they don't. And in swapping commands for
compliments, salvos for salvias, these men were not diminished but
humanized. The unspoken sentiment among the visitors that day seemed to be
that while military service was valuable -- essential even -- to society, it
was not man's natural state; that this finally attained gardening life was
what all that playing around in boats was for and that these men were
acknowledging this in their newfound dedication to impressing us with their
horticultural flair.

Perhaps the finest garden, though -- and the best bit of snooping -- was to
be found at the village's most important house, a small but unusually
intact medieval hall built by the Bishop of Winchester in the 13th century
and now owned by a London barrister and his wife. Their garden is a team
effort. She is the plantswoman and he the topiarist -- annually clipping
hundreds of yards of the yew hedges between which we were being allowed
this once to stray.

It was the most popular spot on the tour -- everyone wanted to see what was
behind the hall's high stone walls. What had been hidden from us were
beautiful terraces, an ancient wood-frame barn, a reflecting pool
surrounded by moss and lichen-strewn stone and countless finely planted
herbaceous borders. My parents muttered approvingly of how the house's
current guardians were taking a proper squirearchial interest in village
life. The correct quid pro quo of having the nicest house in town is that
you share it with everyone once in a while.

But if that garden was exquisite and, as the French say, juste, it also
contained no real horticultural treasures. It had thousands of plants but
no real rarities to get a seasoned garden maven like my father really
excited. That event had to wait for the last garden we visited.

This garden was the most controversial of those on display. Set at the
rear of a tumbledown thatched cottage next to the pub on the village's
main street, it was owned by the nearest East Meon has to a gardening
celebrity. This lady is an herbalist and writer on herbal medicine. And in
the eyes of the locals that makes her less famous than infamous.

Her garden is not just for viewing and contemplating God's work as
manifested in manicured nature, it is also a working herb garden. It is a
modern cousin of the medieval "physic" gardens that supplied the drugs to
treat that age's sick. This makes her garden not just commercial (or
"trade" as my grandmother would call it) but also suspiciously New Age-y.
Of course that's because it's also very Old Age-y -- probably the only garden
in the area that its original owners would recognize. But no matter. As
much as the aroma of lavender and thyme, comfrey, yarrow and mint, an air
of suspicion, coupled with genuine interest and admiration, was filling her
garden this day.

A couple of hundred years ago a woman like this would have had to have been
careful not to be branded a witch. And with her apparently filed teeth and
clear lack of care for pearls or tweed, I got the sense that similar
feelings lingered about her in the village now. But then again, she was a
gardener. Her garden did look, and smell, lovely, and it also possessed
something that was able to soon dispel, almost magically, any lingering
suspicions other visiting gardeners might have about her: Her garden was
packed with -- holy of holies -- rare plants.

In my father's case it was a scarce Plymouth Strawberry that got him
interested and racking his brain for what he could offer her as a swap.
In the end it turned out he had a Creeping Double Buttercup that she did
not and so a deal was done. My father's own glorious garden -- the product
of a man who showed his sons what he thought of "manly" pursuits when he
banned the playing of rugby, hockey and cricket from the lawn to protect
the bordering daffodils and croci -- would now be possessed of one more
horticultural jewel.

Many of the gardens we saw that day were the work of women, but as many
were the creations of men. Many were the combined efforts of both.
Gardening is an equal opportunity vocation. Yes, it can be physically
exhausting, but the important stuff can be done by a man or woman of
80. No male gardener ever gains respect for his feats of digging
alone. Earth moving and tree pruning can be contracted out. What counts
are the plants -- which you choose, where you put them.

Viewing these various paradises was a pleasure that managed to satisfy
both the higher aesthetic and baser voyeuristic impulses in all of their
visitors. But to this visitor from so far away, it was also a reminder of what
growing up among gardening and gardeners had taught me, and an explanation
of what I'd perhaps been looking for in my weekly cycle rides to East Meon
many years before.

I was reminded that, as the village's ex-warriors have learned, there are
great achievements a man can make without trouncing others, physically or
psychologically. Men, as well as women, can create fragile worlds that
both inspire awe and bring peace. To build a green walled paradise is
to juggle with the laws of nature and conjure out of the display a piece of
delightful, restful but ever-changing architecture. It is hard on the
back and heart. What you produce is ethereal, it dies back in winter and
can be lost with a storm, a drought or a diminishment of interest. But
while it exists, while it is at its most florid, brazen, splendiferous best
like it is in an English cottage garden in July, a garden is a glorious
thing for a man to have wrought. And he does it best through nurture,
through cooperation and hand in hand with women.

By Simon Firth

Simon Firth is a writer who lives in the San Francisco area.

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