While there was still some money in the garden budget, I
invested in six pleached limes. That’s invested, you understand, not splurged. Our house is made up of a series of different sized boxes (or pavilions, if you are an architect), and the garden needed a boxy counterpoint of its own to balance things out. The account of the delivery and planting of the limes this past May is for another post, as is the reconnection of the phone lines we dug through in the process; this post is about what I planted at their base, last week.
The trees, Tilia cordata or small-leaved limes*, are arranged in two rows of three in a rectangular shape, like the six on a domino, and my initial idea was to grow the crowns together and prune them with straight sides and top to resemble a shoebox on six stilts. This idea faltered as I started shaping the outlines in situ with bamboo canes, as it dawned on me that it would be impossible to prune the middle of the top of it – the lid of the shoebox – without annual scaffolding or a crane. Whatever shape they took had to be maintainable by one woman on a tripod ladder (another investment). So the current plan is to train the external sides into the shoebox shape but leave a hole in the middle, completely hidden from view unless you are standing right under it. Once a year I can emerge through the hole at the top of my ladder, to tame the flat expanse of leaves. Like Venus rising from the sea, except clad in overalls and wielding a petrol-driven hedge trimmer.
But what to plant beneath them? Since the purpose of the trees was to serve as a mass of green, suspended in space, this ruled out shrubs and anything tall enough to detract from that shape, or even to mask the uprights of their clean trunks (more on this repeated design feature in another post).
Ornamental grasses were and to a certain extent still are a possibility, but their May to November season of interest is too similar to that of the limes, although I grant that the trees will contribute sculptural winter presence through the structure of their bare stems. I love my adopted country and have lived here in Fife for longer than anywhere else in my life, but no one would deny that winters here can feel long, wet and bleak, especially having lived in Italy. Gardening in Scotland has taught me that one should plant for the winter, because the summer can look after itself (insofar as any keen gardener can bear to let it).
Under the limes, I decided, would be a changing swell of green ground cover, punctuated by successive waves of a single species at a time. The golden stamens and rich purple petals of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’ kick off the year in February, followed in March to April by a yet to be decided silver leaf lungwort (Pulmonaria angustifolia ‘Sissinghurst White’, probably) – and alas, since my supplier has sold out, also yet to be bought or planted. In May, as the first young leaves of the lime begin to unfurl, the flower spikes of snakeshead frillitary Fritillaria meleagris emerge tall above the foliage of the lungwort. There is then a hiatus over the summer as one’s attention is drawn elsewhere in the garden: the clean lines of the green shoebox serving as a calming foil to the adjacent horticultural excitement.
Coinciding with the leaves on the limes turning first yellow then burnt orange, September marks the appearance of the delicate little pink flowers of the hardy autumn flowering cyclamen Cyclamen hederfolium, which continues to throw up flowers throughout October. Unaccountably, colour combinations of pinks, oranges and yellows, even blues, that would give me pause at other times of year somehow please me immensely in the autumn (nerines, I’m looking at you**). From November to January the baton would be carried by the green foliage of the pulmonaria and the cyclamen, both marked and dappled with silver.
Crocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’; Pulmonaria angustifolia ‘Sissinghurst White’; Fritillaria meleagris; Cyclamen hederifolium. First three images from Peter Nyssen online catalogue – I will take my own photographs later this year.
My bulbs duly arrived from Mr Nyssen, the cyclamen tubers (subject of their own future post) dug up from my mother’s garden, and spurred by the memory of the tulip bulbs that lay mouldering reproachfully in their paper bags until January one year, I set to work
immed within the fortnight.
When planting large numbers of small bulbs in a defined and virgin area, you are just as well taking off a whole layer of soil and positioning the bulbs on the surface of the ground. Once you are satisfied with their arrangement – I favour the ‘random scatter with judicious tweaking’ method to get the artless drifts I desire – you poke them gently into place and backfill the soil. This is also an opportunity to ferret out and remove the roots of any perennial weeds, and then you have lovely friable soil into which to plant any small herbaceous plants: in my case, the cyclamens and the virtual pulmonarias.
Working off planks left over from building the deck allowed me to define the edges of the two beds beneath the rows of limes with a half-moon edger, and vitally, it kept me from compacting the squelchy soil. A high micro-water table runs across this part of the garden, and I really ought to have mixed in barrow loads of grit to improve the drainage, but I … didn’t. Until recently the area was a muddy field with no vegetation at all to hold it together and to moderate water flow, and it is my hope that the trees will dramatically improve the drainage, as will the rough grass I have sown. I recognise that this is lame. Still. The fritillaries and pulmonarias should love it, C. hederifolium is reputedly the toughest of the lot, and both the beds will be covered in a 5cm layer of fine bark mulch. I’m just glad I didn’t pay too much for the crocus.
In a year’s time I will post a photographic record of how well this all worked: man proposes; God (and weather) disposes. A further wave of snowdrops in January may yet be added, in part because I might find the wait for the crocus too trying, in part because I have crates and crates of them, dug up from my previous garden.
* I blush to write this, but there was a time when the only lime I knew was the citrus plant. Reading 19th C literature at Uni, I would be disconcerted – fleetingly – by references to grand houses reached by imposing avenues of stately limes, vaguely imagining gravel drives lined with rows of vast terracotta pots.