A few weeks back, I was invited to give a short reading of my favourite piece of nature writing at a concert, which was the culmination of the Shaking Bog Festival in the wonderful Glencree Valley in Co Wicklow. Choosing an appropriate piece was challenging. We are surrounded by nature, gardens and people who write and sing about them. I settled on a nature diary by Derek Jarman, which tells the story of the creation of a very personal coastal paradise in the uncompromising environs of a windswept bleak pebble beach at Dungeness in Kent (pictured right).
It’s a most inhospitable place for man or for nature and Jarman, an avant garde film-maker, chose it for his final years in the 1980s. As the winds howled and destroyed – against the backdrop of a nuclear power station – he came to terms with his mortality, having contracted HIV/AIDS at a time when it was a death sentence.
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But he discovered life in a most incredible way by returning to his first passion: gardening. How do you create a garden in these situations? The answer was: through using anything that would survive all that nature had to throw at it.
Jarman hated conventional gardening. He believed “if a garden isn’t shaggy, forget it”. He’d go to the garden centres or watch Gardeners’ World on a Friday evening and regard the perfect blossoms as overfed, overwatered spoiled brats. He didn’t like lawns much either.
To quote: “For the same trouble as mowing, you could have a year’s vegetables: runner beans, cauliflowers and cabbages, mixed with pinks and peonies, Shirley poppies and delphiniums; wouldn’t that beautify the land and save us from the garden terrorism that prevails?”
The lesson gardeners can all take away from his garden is that there is a plant for every site and situation. Species have learnt to evolve, and in coastal areas this will involve a number of tricks.
Plants with plump foliage such as succulents and hebes will store water during times of drought; others will appear to have a silvery or bluish hue created by the effect of hundreds and thousands of tiny hairs which reduce their water loss. Others still will creep along the ground appreciating the warming stones, sheltering from the sea gales, and some simply pop their heads up when the winds are gone.
My favourite plants from his garden are ones which may be suitable to your plot, whether or not you are by the coast:
Dog rose was the first thing he planted. Rosa canina is a lovely addition to any hedgerow, with its pretty pink flowers which are followed by orange and red hips – great for wildlife.
Helichrysum he describes as “the backbone of the garden”. This is the curry plant, familiar to us with its silvery threads and aromatic foliage when grabbed as a clump by the fist, topped with mustard-yellow flowers. A dream for any sunny place.
Crambe maritima or sea kale is a member of the cabbage family with glaucous leaves. Their flowers, as described by Jarman, “have a heavy, honey scent which blows across the Ness. The flowers then turn into seeds – which look like a thousand peas.”
Dianthus ‘Mrs Sinkins’ is a delightful white “garden pink” with a heady scent. Its shaggy flowers are a cottage garden classic.
Centranthus ruber or valerian has lush, succulent leaves on upright stems and bright ruby flowers, or sometimes pink and white flowers. We all know this flower because it grows everywhere, often uninvited on walls and buildings.
Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) is a great self-seeder which will scatter vibrant blue flowers around your plot.
Lavender – who doesn’t love lavender? Armed against nature’s hostilities with its silver foliage, its upright flower spikes brighten any location, coastal or inland.
Santolina has delicate grey/silver fern-like foliage. It’s a delight, but keep it compact with steady pruning. The real joy is crushing the foliage to release the delicious smell.
Cistus, the rock rose, is a Mediterranean plant with delicate flowers that last only a day and look like they have been constructed from paper tissues.
What else did he successfully grow in this hostile environment? Sage, artichoke, acanthus, sea pea, peony, marigold, iris, cornflower, wallflowers, rosemary, daylily, sedum, lovage, chicory, verbena, fennel, scabious, rue, origanum, teasel, lavatera, evening primrose, foxglove, anchusa, borage, sea campion, yucca and poppies of every description.
If you want to grow lavender (Lavandula) successfully, you need to make sure that you have excellent drainage and give the plant as much sun as possible.
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