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I don’t wear tulle in my garden

“Even in the grimmest winter days a garden can give an appearance of discipline, and a certain amount of life and color, no matter how wild the winds nor dark the skies. But this garden was like a rubbish heap.”

— Beverley Nichols, “Down the Garden Path,” 1932

Such was the inauspicious introduction to English writer Beverley Nichols’ gardening life, and his newly acquired cottage in the village of Glatton in Cambridgeshire. Nichols had first visited the place many years before, and his memories of a delightful weekend spent in the garden prompted him to purchase the property sight unseen after he learned the previous owner had died.

Unfortunately, the garden had not fared well over the years. The gardener-caretaker who had been hired to tidy up before Nichols arrived preferred to sleep late. Nichols wrote that he had previously imagined “the servant problem” was invented by women, “But no woman on Earth could have coped with the inefficiency, the laziness and the malice of Arthur.”

It wasn’t long before Arthur was sacked, and Nichols set out to recreate the garden of his memories. It became somewhat of an obsession, and Nichols eventually chronicled his experiences in a trilogy of amusing, fictionalized accounts. (Arthur may not have been a real person at all, but a symbol of Nichols’ need to take ownership of the garden and start fresh.)

Writing half a century before Mirabel Osler penned her reflections of creating a garden at her home in Shropshire (about 140 miles northwest from Cambridgeshire), Nichols took a different approach to gardening. Whereas Osler made a “gentle plea” for a bit of chaos in the garden, Nichols seems to have been determined to create order. He wrote, “We had to burn, and destroy and ravage before we could really create.”

Whereas Osler’s first gardening project was to plant trees that would take decades to mature, Nichols decided his first planting experiment would be mushroom spawn of a kind that was optimistically labeled as “Amateur’s Mushrooms.” Alas, not one mushroom emerged, although his neighbor’s fields turned white with mushrooms that sprang up on their own “and stared at me with mocking faces.”

Nichols blamed his fungi failure on catalogs with their colorful pictures and cheerful instructions. He would eagerly order packets of seeds, expecting he could achieve the same bountiful results in his “few yards of newly conquered clay” as those depicted in some duke’s garden in England’s southernmost regions.

Nichols learned what I and many other gardeners have eventually realized — there is unparalleled joy, and increased chance of success, when we plant seeds that are locally grown, even as local as our own garden. What better way to reward those flowers that have worked efficaciously to beautify our garden, and those plants that have produced tasty vegetables for our table, than to assist them in their singular life pursuit of perpetuating their species?

The first experience Nichols had with saving seeds and replanting them was with a blue lupin that flowered soon after his arrival in Cambridgeshire. Once the flowers were spent, the pods split open, revealing small, black seeds. Nichols recalled, “In a mad moment I decided to plant these seeds,” not really believing they would come up any better than the mushrooms had. But they did, and the lupins eventually self-seeded and grew into a whole border of flowers.

I recall my own initiation into saving seeds (one remembers these things like the day you give birth). I grew a blackberry lily (Iris domestica) from seed, which produced pretty, orange, freckle-faced flowers that were a joy to watch unfold from buds that looked like little corkscrews at the top of the plant’s stem.

After the flowers died back, plump green pods were left that eventually opened to reveal clusters of shiny black seeds; they truly did look like scrumptious, ripe blackberries. The plant was growing in a pot, so I collected the seeds, planted them in another pot (1/4-inch deep in well-composted potting soil), and they flowered the following summer.

Now I have several charming blackberry lilies on my patio and, like Nichols with his lupins, I feel a tingle of self-satisfaction whenever they bloom, although, of course, the plants really do all the hard work.

I agree with Nichols when he said that seeds, plucked straight from a healthy plant in our garden, have a better chance of success than any grown far away and “bought at a shop, even at Woolworth’s.”

At this point, I have to admit that although I’m enjoying reading “Down the Garden Path,” I rather resent Nichols’ description of women gardeners. My first indication that Nichols might not have appreciated women much is his statement in the foreword, “A garden is the only mistress who never fades, who never fails.”

I rolled my eyes at that one. Later, the author describes women gardeners as those who “like to wander through rows of hollyhocks swathed in tulle … and drink lemonade under a tree with a nice young man who will shortly pick you a large bunch of roses,” preferably after removing the thorns and picking off the earwigs.

Indeed. I have never wandered through my hollyhocks in tulle, and I am more than happy to squish earwigs between my fingers all by myself, thanks the same.

I could have excused Nichols for his old-fashioned remarks because, after all, he wrote the book in 1932. Yet, in 1983, almost 50 years after the book was published, Nichols wrote shortly before he died that the only blunder he regretted in writing it was an endorsement of the invasive winter heliotrope.

I wish he could have known Mirabel Osler, who in 1983 was busy planting trees and roses, and maybe even some hollyhocks, not so far away from his garden. I bet Osler never wore tulle in her garden, either.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.