Emma Townshend: 'Sometimes I'm green-eyed. But 'deceitful' and 'quietly criminal'? Well...'


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Last week we were on cheating; this week we're moving on to more serious offences. In this instance, theft. A little while ago I read The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes (the man who this department affectionately calls "Monsieur Jules", in ref to the big flouncy pink peony that shares his name). Anyway, Monsieur Jules alleges that gardening is, "frequently indulged in by the envious, the deceitful, the quietly criminal". Harsh. But should we gardeners accept it's true?

Let's take that list one at a time. I'm pretty happy to admit to the charge of "envious". My worst case of envy develops when I enter the gates of Great Dixter. Christopher Lloyd's Sussex home is for my money the best garden you can go and see in the world, and every visit reveals an astonishing new aspect. Fergus Garrett, who assisted Lloyd during his life, is now solely in charge. (So maybe it's not envy at this point, just a fantastical admiration for Garrett's continued creativity.)

Moving on: "deceitful" we don't really have to go into. See last week for details of my plan to fool the street into thinking I'd got my crocosmias to flower again via a quick trip to the local nursery.

But "quietly criminal"? OK, I may have been a bit light-fingered as an eight-year-old, coming home from National Trust houses with bits of fuchsia cutting in my pockets. Also, I did once manage to spirit away from one superstore three packets of seed that I'd forgotten were trapped between two large bags of shredded bark. But actual thieving?

I may not be a thief, but it turns out there's plenty of it about. The town of Freckleton in Lancashire, two-time North-West in Bloom winner, was recently the subject of mysterious night raids, during which essential plants were removed from a number of displays crucial to the town's bid to retain the Britain in Bloom title. Police were called in, the Blackpool Gazette reported. Skullduggery is suspected, and Parish Council chair St John Greenhough comments: "These plants have been deliberately kicked out and taken by someone who appears to know what they are doing."

I was pondering this heinous crime yesterday afternoon, when I went out to have a look at my own hotbed of cheatiness, the front garden, and realised that there was something odd going on. For a few weeks there have been three big penstemons across the front bed in three different rosy shades, cheering up the view. Sometimes they get a bit blown around, so I wasn't sure, but it suddenly struck me that now there were only two. On closer inspection, I realised that where "Pensham Amelia Jane" had been happily blooming the previous day, there was now a big hole.

My first thought was "fox", imagining Amelia Jane had just been moved a few feet. But she was nowhere to be seen. There was the dawning realisation that the "quietly criminal" had visited in the night.

I report this act of thievery to Bob, who happens to be walking by. "Perhaps it was just someone drunk?" he offers, and I say I'm crossing my fingers that it was. "But you've got me paranoid," he says. "I'm gonna be keeping an eye on my roses again." I go suddenly quiet.

On the roses, I'm keeping mute. I never told Bob that I did actually manage to identify the rose-stealing criminal of this spring's bumper crop. I spent weeks of standing in my garden waiting and watching… and saw nothing. But one day, coming back from the cornershop, I saw an Eastern European grandmother who lives nearby, walking her dog back down the street, slowly. She stopped in front of someone else's Hybrid Tea, reached out an arm to hold a flower and deeply inhaled. And there came floating upon the May air the distinctive sound of a "snap". As she passed, I saw behind her back a hidden posy of other people's roses. But I didn't tell on her. I couldn't. A grandmother! Who doesn't even speak English! So, come to think of it, that's perverting the course of justice.

"Quietly criminal?" Oh, Monsieur Jules, how right you are.