My grandmother allotted me a small piece of her garden at a safe distance from the menacing milky sap of the Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, near the Judas Tree. Here she allowed the use of the common rather than Latin name as she thrilled to the story that Judas had hanged himself from this tree. The magenta flowers that bloomed from the trunk were the drops of his blood and its crooked growth, his shame.
I was five when I moved to my grandmother’s but I had known my father’s garden before. He had grassed over its island rose beds, and mowed it rarely. It was wild and I was alone. I lay with my nose close to the grass. I saw what Dürer saw when he painted his ‘Great Piece of Turf’ in 1503. I stroked the soft ferniness of yarrow, and the long smooth ribbed leaves of Plantago lanceolata, its slender tottering stems and the sleek dark heads that emerged from their coronet of anthers. I bit at the sweet new blades of grass and, beneath the thatch of old dried white grass, breathed in the deep involved smell of the earth that went on and on below me – my small skinny child’s body a tiny scrap clinging to the surface of its immensity. Leaping up, startled by my insignificance, I picked dandelion heads, heedless then of later shaming taunts that only bedwetters touched dandelions, and pulled apart the pink fluffy flowers of Spiraea douglasii that affronted me with their dampness.
I had been alone and unconcerned wandering in the long grass of that garden. In my grandmother’s small garden, I found danger. If you moved too fast, without care, the shining blood-red thorns of Rosa sericea pteracantha tore at your flesh. Aconites would poison you if you brushed against them lured by their inky beauty – so toxic they could slay a wolf. A foxglove promised delirium and death to the five-year-old entranced by a bee that languidly buzzed around its column of flowers and choosing one, crawled in and was abruptly silenced. I held my breath terrified, sure it was dying in voiceless agony, until it slid out buzzing again and nonchalant.
There was danger in her garden but there was worse without. The laburnum tree across the road enticed the innocent with its splashy yellow rain of flowers and its offer of a semblance of small peas in a pod. To eat them, warned my grandmother, would make you sicker than you had ever been, and then draw you into a terrible sleep from which you might never awake.
My grandmother lived in a flint cottage in Thanet, and a derelict coal merchants loomed blackly across the end of the garden. A sycamore tree which had surged to twenty feet before anyone had considered whether they wanted it there, grew against it. One day, I climbed up and peered through the jagged broken glass of a window rimed with coal dust, to the choking blackness within. Overcome with horror, I scrambled down too fast, scraping my legs, tearing my skirt.
To survive, I watched my grandmother closely and learned. I learnt that she wielded an arcane power over the garden. She planted densely. She visited other gardens and secretly sliced off cuttings with her sharp fingernails, stuffing them into her old ladies’ raincoat pocket. They grew for her. She didn’t need sealable polythene bags and a clean blade. The Latin names of the plants were the incantations that made them grow. She preferred plants that were close to the species, retaining more of their elemental power than the cheerful pink dahlias and jaunty yellow daffodils that our neighbour grew. She gardened in her usual clothes, her blue raincoat, brown stockings and slip-on shoes. Once a month, she went to the hairdressers for a set which made her hair look like a brain worn on the outside of her head. She thought you had to do this for appearances because really she was planting mandrakes, waiting for the scream. She didn’t wear gardening gloves and her hands wore a tracery of dirt. She worked in the garden apparently casually, moving plants, snipping and dividing, between doing other more mundane tasks. She wrote in notebooks with marbled endpapers and fraying spines in a small clear hand – lists of plant names, the incantations.
One day, recklessly suicidal, my brother daringly touched lightly, fleetingly, the glaucous leaf of the crouching, billowing sinister euphorbia, its flowers not even flowers but bracts and the colour of bitter bile. He crowed: ‘I am the Poisonous Man!’. We ran, shrieking with ecstatic terror at our new-found power through the narrow paths, through the turrets and spires, the thorns and the poisons. My agonised grandmother implored us using necromancy: ‘Oh darling, mind my Paeonia mlokosewitschi. Oh, the poor Gillenia trifoliata,’ as our heedless feet thundered past the trembling fragile heads.
The plants started to seduce me. I was drugged by the opulent scent of the Daphne cneorum but it made my skin itch. I felt safer with the pretty pink cistus with its open countenance, the buddleia gently attended by Red Admirals, which hid the compost heap and smelt of honey. I liked the small things you could lie close to – the violets and the Mind-your-own-business and London Pride, whose names amused me. It was blissful to stroke the silvery velvet of Stachys lanata (as we knew it then). I liked the frank camaraderie of daisies and primroses.
I wanted to make a garden, to learn my grandmother’s arts and be God.
She wrenched a piece of the garden from her and gave it to me. I learnt to condemn weeds and then learnt the beneficent power of making a weed not a weed. If the celestial blue germander speedwell pleased me then it should live in my garden. I turned the earth over with a spoon and smelt its worminess. I learnt that I could take a piece of plant from another part of the garden and make a new plant in mine. I planted heartsease and it crept across my garden so prettily. I went to the shop and found round-faced orange marigolds. I investigated the layers and folds of their tangerine flowers, breathed in their rankness, and planted them in a row. The dahlia-growing neighbour gave me night-scented stock she had grown from seed and I swooned at the deliciousness of the scent. I wanted a tree and broke a small branch off an apple tree and stuck it in the earth of my garden. It looked like a tree but soon the leaves lost their lustre and curled up. I threw it away and grew in power and knowledge.
It will not come as a surprise that Posy is now a garden designer. www.posygentles.co.uk