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Nellie McClung: An ‘informal’ garden can still be an oasis of delight

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on July 17, 1937. A gloomy fire is burning in my heart this morning, a sullen fire that may never break into flame. It unsettles me.

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on July 17, 1937.

A gloomy fire is burning in my heart this morning, a sullen fire that may never break into flame. It unsettles me.

Yesterday, we had visitors from Edmonton — in Victoria for the first time — and eager to see all they could. To them a flower is a flower, whether it is growing in a straight line with its mates or not. They see just what I see when they look at a garden. They see beauty and growth and colour.

Naturally, they were thrilled with the delphiniums and roses and fragrant pinks, the new lawn, the bird baths and half-acre of asparagus. We think it is all very fine, too. When you make a garden yourself, plant seed and see it grow, bud and bloom, you are unconscious of its defects, as the fond mother forgets that her baby is bow-legged as she contemplates his lovely eyes and shining hair.

Even so!

We drove the friends back to town with their arms full of roses and peonies, fragrant and lovely, and afternoon and evening were full of gladness, lark-song and solid mental satisfaction.

But on the way home, we met two of our neighbours walking along Ferndale Road, where the broom, now out in all its golden profusion, was holding back the gloom of night. So we stopped to talk and they kindly asked us to come in to see their garden before the light had all gone.

Their garden is a picture of symmetry and discipline. A perfect lawn of thread-like grass which makes a pile like furniture plush; little cypress trees to break the straight edge of the lawn, unreal in their grace and precision; roses on standards, standing up as if wired; a rock garden with bands of colour, purple and pink and white, every last little plant in place and standing at attention.

Even the rows of potatoes, discreetly divided from the flowers by a white lattice, are in straight rows, coming into bloom all at once, no irregularity, no crowding, no speaking out of turn. Over the garden gate there is a honeysuckle falling in a perfect shower of blossoms, symmetrical as an umbrella, not a leaf or branch too many. Not a weed, not a ragged edge, not a false note!

How do they do it?

This morning, I went out, as usual, to do my bit of gardening before I settle down to the day’s work, and I see now that our method of gardening is all wrong — and yesterday, even yesterday, I though it was lovely. I even look at the woodpile with sudden distaste, and yesterday I was proud of its proportions and said it comforted me like having the taxes paid and a good line of credit at the store. There it is, in plain view, unashamed and uncensored. It should have a green lattice around it like our neighbour’s potato patch.

Beside it stand delphiniums, mixed with poppies. Pansies grow up through the boards of the walk; marigolds and bachelors’ buttons elbow their way into the regal lilies, and as I raked the scene with an eye grown critical, I saw a potato here and there buoyantly lusty, and the healthy face of an artichoke that has joined company, seeing one little open space.

No, it’s not a garden, I said sadly — it’s a litter, a medley, a turmoil, an anarchy, a turbulent derangement, a free-for-all.

And what can we do about it? I know what our neighbours would do!

I make one move anyway. I remove the potato and the artichoke. But there I stick. The bachelors’ buttons are blooming and full of buds. It seems too bad to take out a plant about to bloom, and there’s no prettier blue that these. With the white pinks and coral-bell they make a lovely bouquet in a wide bowl set on a low table.

And all these poppies — these crimson, glowing poppies, crinkled like tissue paper with their cross of black edged with white at their centre! I cannot touch them. The former owner of this place served as a chaplain in France during the war, and brought back the seeds of these — the real Flanders poppies, with their tragic significance.

He must have had joy in them to have preserved them all these years. No one can lay a profane hand on Col. Woods’s poppies, even if they are crowding upon the roses. We have planted them now on the lower border of the place, and today they are nodding to every passerby on Ferndale Road, a perfect blaze of crimson against the evergreens.

Well, there I go again! Completely lacking in backbone. I’ll never be a gardener and I may as well face it. I won’t try to justify myself. I know I am wrong. I know nature cannot be trusted. I know nature is the great anarchist, the great leveller, and if she had her way mountains would be levelled and all the rivers received into the sea.

Nature has her finer qualities of covering up her scars and hiding her deformities, but we must not let that mislead us.

After careful consideration, I have arrived at a conclusion. I cannot be tough with the flowers that come up here and there. I will have to let them come along. But all vegetables must go. That’s flat! Turnips, potatoes, artichokes, squashes, even onion.

I heard a radio speaker during Garden Week, who discussed the informal garden; he said it expresses the individuality of the gardener, and I am afraid he is right.

From where I sit now I see a bed of lavender just beginning to show the lovely colour, which attracts the bees. Through the filmy green of its swaying stems, pink poppies are blooming, and purple Canterbury bells. I should take them out, but I cannot destroy anything so beautiful. So I’ll leave them there and like them.

Farther over, I see the tamarisk beginning to turn pink at the ends of its branches; and I must not forget to record the planting of the little oak from Windsor Park. It has five leaves on it now and is well surrounded with stakes for safety. We planted it on Nancy’s birthday — May 29. Nancy is one of our neighbours. To her we have committed the safety of the little tree, for Nancy is only 10 years old, sturdy and lovely as a little tree herself, and she will, we hope, be here when we are all gone. Nancy will remember!

Its eyes are blue with delphiniums, its cheeks are red with roses and poppies, its hair shines with the glisten of laurel leaves, and is fragrant with peonies, pinks and stocks. Who would be mean enough to notice its bow-legs?