Victoria Summerley: Colour prejudice in the English garden

Share
Related Topics

As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him. Today, you could substitute the word "garden" for "mouth" and the aphorism would still hold true.

It is a peculiarly English trait, too. Geographical and climatic differences mean that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are more or less immune to this sort of idiocy. There's no point turning your nose up at heather or conifers if that's all that will grow in your mountainous or moorland backyard.

In England, however, gardens are supposed to look a certain way, and contain certain things. They are supposed to have roses, lavender, clematis and lavender – lots of flowers and lots of things that smell nice. So far, so good. But then a combination of snobbery and taste fascism starts to creep in. Hedges should be of yew, or box, not Leylandii (too common) or privet (too suburban). Somewhere there should be a lawn, and perhaps a pond, but definitely not a water feature, unless it is a tasteful Cretan pot, gently brimming over.

Spitting frogs or naked girls are a little, shall we say, manneken pis, but the use of old lavatory bowls or bathroom basins is perfectly all right - if done with irony. You can get away with nearly anything if you do it with irony, apart from wrought irony, which should be exactly that, not cast aluminium. Trees should be native, preferably, and conifers are frowned upon (too 1970s), especially dwarf conifers (too naff). There are exceptions, of course, but you have to know what they are. Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), for example, is a perfectly acceptable conifer as long as you have a large croquet lawn and a table laid for afternoon tea beneath it.

Summer bedding – petunias, geraniums (especially scented geraniums) and so on – is all right in containers (no white plastic urns, please), but massed busy lizzies in the flower beds is definitely beyond the pale, especially if it is a mixed selection in a riot of salmon, magenta and scarlet edged with a border of blue and white lobelia. (Too public park.)

Colour prejudice, indeed, is the biggest problem faced by those trying to flout the English garden regulations. Flowers are supposed to be pink, blue or white (or tasteful variations thereof, such as mauve or lilac), and leaves are most definitely green, never variegated. Foliage in brilliant orange, red and yellow is frowned upon, except in autumn when the metamorphosis of summer verdure to brazen fall boscage is too shortlived to offend the taste police.

No one ever wrote down these rules, but they are there, as firmly rooted as an English oak, along with all the other arcane subtleties that mark out our class distinctions.

If, like me, you have a garden filled with sub-tropical specimens with foliage and flowers in suitably torrid hues, people look at you very oddly indeed. You have to compartmentalise it for them; put it into a category. "It's a climate-change garden," you tell them, or "an exotic garden". Then they will visibly relax. But you know that inside they're still slightly troubled by the big red banana leaves and the bright yellow bamboo stems, and are hankering for the old English pink, white and blue.

The trouble with the pastel posse is that they spend this time of the year moaning that their garden has "gone over" and that it's so difficult to find flowers for a late summer display.

I'm always amused by this. My garden is full of flowers that bloom in August: cannas (orange and yellow, with variegated leaves), crocosmia (red, yellow and orange), begonias, fuchsias, osteospermum, heucheras (coloured foliage) and nasturtiums (red and orange). Some are even scented, such as the lilies, nicotiana and trachelospermum (star jasmine). I know, though, that if anyone asks me what I would recommend for late-summer colour, any suggestions along these lines will be declined with a politely wrinkled nose or hint of curled lip.

What the hell. At least the last thing anyone would do in a garden like mine is to lie back and think of England.

The would-be woodpecker

Talking of bright colours, I was looking out at the garden the other day when I saw a flash of red swoop across the lawn. Intrigued, I crept closer and saw a black and white bird with a bright scarlet head sidle up the trunk of the pine tree where I hang my bird feeders and launch itself at the suet balls. A woodpecker!

But which woodpecker? I ran to the computer and consulted the RSPB site. There are three woodpeckers found in the UK, the great spotted, the green and the lesser spotted.

The great and lesser are quite similar except that the lesser spotted is smaller and has a distinctive red head. Not only that, but while the great spotted is reasonably common, the lesser spotted is on the red list, i.e. globally threatened. Was this a lesser spotted?

The only way to make sure was to get a photograph. I didn't hold out much hope, but the woodpecker seemed to have made a beeline – or perhaps that should be a woodpeckerline – for the fat-ball feeder, so it had obviously dined there before. Sure enough, about a couple of hours later, there it was again on the trunk of the pine. This time I got a picture – and this time I could clearly see that it was a great spotted, with the distinctive white vertical bar, like an upraised finger, on its shoulder. Apparently, the juveniles have red heads and this is what had misled me. Never mind. It's confirmation that feeding the birds all year round really does work in terms of attracting different species. And it's a thrill to see a woodpecker of whatever variety in the garden.

Victoria Summerley's garden is open for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday 29 August

v.summerley@independent.co.uk; www.victoriasbackyard.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor