I once had a neighbour who had the perfect house for such a garden. It was a large, converted, turn-of-the-century cricket pavilion, with white barge boards, and a hipped shingle roof which swept down low over a deep veranda, supported on white posts. The wooden balustrade that ran right round the house paused in the centre, where two steps led up to glazed double doors. I was - and still am - green as my imagined garden with envy. It was a touch of New England I could not resist.
My garden there would be level as a cricket pitch. After a small apron of lawn measuring the width of the house, broad, close-mown grass paths would radiate outwards at 45-degree intervals, with one in the centre leading out from the steps. This would end in an iron fence, with a simple gate leading to fields and distant hills. If I were really lucky there would be a snow-capped mountain, too.
Between the radiating paths, in longer grass, would be trees. To the far left and right would be a cedar of Lebanon, not vast and ancient, but something about 100 years old - confident rather than serene. There would be no blue cedars here, for the aim would be simplicity, and blue trees are window dressing.
I should have specimen silver hollies, too; tall, elegant domes of glittering green. For, despite the amount of white and silver on the leaf of such clones as 'Silver Queen' and 'Argentea Marginata', they still give much more of an impression of green than the golden variegated varieties. The Victorians loved to stand them alone on lawns, shaped to perfection, and the cleanliness of line which they so admired is what I should like to borrow here.
My wedges of rough grass, radiating between the paths, would be mown regularly to two inches, giving me a Japanese rising sun in turf. The effect would be just as pronounced under a morning glaze of frost as it would be in August moonlight, or in the low afternoon sun of November. This technique of mowing, using slightly contrasting lengths of grass, is being pioneered in Scotland by landscape designer Graeme Moore, and one of his grass parterres can be seen at Castlebank Park, in Lanark.
My longer grass, however, would have to remain unmown for the early part of the year, as I should want to fill it with snowdrops and crocuses. I could stick to white crocuses, I suppose, but February is no time to be coy. To begin the season I would use pale mauve Crocus tommasinianus, because it naturalises so well in grass, especially under trees. Then I would follow with ordinary, big Dutch crocus, yellow as sunshine and planted by the thousand. Simultaneously, or close on their heels, would come the little wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, and then 'Jenny', a slightly larger ivory white, with swept-back petals. Then no more. Lots of two kinds only would be feast enough. Unless I just squeezed in a few clumps of the very late 'pheasant- eye' narcissi for their perfume. But once the spring began to warm up, I should want the garden to be irrepressibly emerald.
Open the front door mid-morning in June, and things would have changed. The longer grass would be ready for cutting after the bulbs. Growing in it would be groups of white rugosa roses, both the single and the double 'Blanche Double de Coubert'. There would be philadelphus to thicken the air with perfume, the bushy, small-flowered kinds such as x lemoinei 'Erectus', and the rather more gangly, large-flowered 'Belle Etoile' which follows. Further from the house I would also use those shrubs that bear large crops of summer flowers, such as Holodiscus and Sorbaria. I love to see them in the steaming mist that follows a summer rainstorm, each white plume sodden as a loofah and dragging the branches earthwards.
As all my trees would be youthful, I would not envisage roses climbing into old apple trees. I would not be after that kind of soft English romanticism. This would be a cleaner and simpler garden; a fresh start.
Similarly, I see no borders of annuals under my veranda, but grass right up to the building. Perhaps a pair of lemons in brown- and-yellow Chinese jars, standing not at the top of the steps like security guards, or like parents waiting up for a teenage daughter, but down at grass level. And I might permit myself a honeysuckle and a jasmine to twine into the balustrade at either end of the veranda. For it would be warm enough to eat outside every night in summer, and there must be perfume, and later, somewhere to sit alone and smoke a good cigar.
Autumn afternoons would bring me pale colours from the deciduous trees. (The reds and oranges can light my distant hills.) I should have Acer saccharinum, the silver maple, which turns to lemon and silver-grey. And birches. I would have Betula lenta, the cherry birch, and Betula alleghaniensis, the yellow birch. Both are Americans, and both are much stiffer than our native silver birch. Their autumn colour is brief, but it is the richest, gentlest of golds. I would have an angelic tree, Aralia elata, whose 3ft pinnate leaves turn bronze and yellow and then drop to bits, joint by joint, upon the tree, until only the thick, spiny stem is left. This is decadence as it ought to be.
After that, it would be dark nights again, with time spent by the fireside or lighted desk. But having made safe the fire for the night and turned out the lights, I should love to be able to part a curtain and see, on the last night of the year, a garden of clean, gun-metal silhouettes, the hollies and the cedars; beyond, a wishful horse silently grazing, and above it all a great moon shining down.
Anna Pavord is on holidayReuse content