By Charleston’s Gardener, Harry Hoblyn
The first weeks of June have finally brought us some rain; the sky undulating between an ominous spectral grey, and that bright-eyed, azure clarity so generous throughout the previous months. All this time I have been gardening in privileged, paradisiacal isolation, left for the most part to my own devices, nurturing a sanctuary that has seen few visitors.
The window blinds of the overlooking farmhouse have remained drawn with steadfast uncertainty. Doors grumble shut. Sensational scents of honeysuckle, irises, roses and pinks have not been sanctioned to drift indoors, through corridors, to nurture the stroke of a paintbrush and the patter of creation.
Time has shifted by in vagrant rhythms. Buoyant tulips bloomed amidst exuberant wallflowers, surpassed the depths of Winter, and soon succumbed to dry, interminable scorching. Lively colours fade at the drop of a petal.
“It has been such extraordinary weather. I hope you have had some of it. Only the garden is getting dried up. But the irises have rushed out and the tulips and wall flowers are ablaze.”
(Vanessa Bell to Angelica Garnett, May 1940)
On Friday afternoons in April and May, I did my best to harvest what I could of the tulips. Bunches of ‘White Triumphator’, ‘Queen of Night’, and ‘Bleu Amaible’ were strung together, doused in water, and left in a bucket outside Emmett & White in Alfriston for socially-distanced sales over the weekend. I spent my days sieving out weeds from flowerbeds, pricking out nascent seedlings from gravel paths, potting up Zinnia(s) , Dahlia(s) and everlasting flowers (Helichrysum bracteatum), maintaining lawns, and endeavouring to alleviate drought with regular watering.
For a brief period, pheasants colonised the garden, gesticulating on the garden wall, ambivalent to my arrival each morning. An uncomfortable experience with a hen nesting in the vegetable patch, set me on my heels, hurrying out through the lower garden gate. Sparrows endure, unceasing in their residential enjoyment of house’s rose and clematis clad facade. The climbing Fuchsia magellanica flowers unabated and continues to astound me. Swallows have been drifting furtively through my line of sight, fleeting and transportive. There are two braces of ducks on the pond this year. I am attempting to befriend a hen nesting under Rosa ‘Ballerina’, in the shadow of the studio door, through which visitors would usually enter the garden after a tour of the house.
Whilst many have been confined indoors, I have found myself in a position where I am able to continue doing what I enjoy most. Charleston has seemed more remote with the lessening of traffic (a bugbear of Vanessa Bell’s), and I often think of Charleston’s past inhabitants, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who often sought refuge in the walled garden. Here they would gain inspiration from colour and form, pick bunches of flowers for still life paintings, and depict the garden on canvass. Our turbulent times have reminded me of Vanessa Bell’s own experiences as the world around her sunk into confusion during the interwar period. The loss first of her friend, lover, and mentor, Roger Fry, soon followed by her beloved son, Julian Bell, and her sister, Virginia Woolf. I have begun to feel more clearly how the garden can become such a consoling remedy for our sorrows.
“It’s a hot summer evening, I have pulled up the wallflowers regretfully and now the pinks are making the whole place smell.” (Vanessa Bell to Jane Bussy, June 1940)
I, too, have pulled up the wallflowers, whilst irises, forget-me-nots, and foxgloves are now behind us. In their place will flourish Dahlias and old fashioned annuals, such as Sweet Sultans, Zinnias, Helichrysums, Night-Scented Stocks, and annual Asters. Heritage pinks (Dianthus allwoodii ‘Alice’, Dianthus ‘Mrs.Sinkins’) are flowering prolifically and their clove-like scent is mingling congenially with that of the roses, now at their apex. The first royal lily, Lilium regale, has just come into bloom.
“At last I actually have a rose garden – enough roses to pick a bowl full and leave plenty on the trees” (Vanessa Bell to Julian Bell, June 1936).
Recent downpours encouraged me to do the same, and I often look up to the wide attic windows, indicating Vanessa Bell’s studio, where I imagine her enjoying her rose garden and gaining inspiration, even on the dreariest of days. It won’t be too long, I hope, before staff and visitors are able to do the same, but for now, at least, I sense that some normality is returning to the garden. Over the last couple of weeks, I have enjoyed the company afforded by the help of garden volunteers, whilst familiar faces have begun to look in at the garden gate. I hope that wherever you are reading this from, you too, are returning to some semblance of normality in your daily lives, and are enjoying the splendours of nature in all their abundance.