Robert Guyton’s happy place.
When I walk down to my freshwater spring to watch the giant kōkopu swimming about, I pass by a small patch of garden that especially intrigues me.
Its area is similar to that of a picnic blanket and isn’t that very different from the rest of my forest garden, but I feel drawn to spend time enjoying the particular combination of plants that has evolved there, unplanned and in as random a fashion as the rest of my garden but somehow more attractive. It could be the quality of the light that falls on it – it faces north but the sunlight is dappled, passing through the canopy of dogwood and peach leaves overhead. Or perhaps it’s the backdrop of silver beech, lancewood and rimu, and the cooler atmosphere that the native trees engender that creates the intrigue I feel.
Whatever the reason, I’ve spent a fair bit of time, crouched in peaceful contemplation of the garden within a garden.
There’s a wilding plum here. It’s only as tall as a toddler yet, but looks to be a vigorous grower, so may need shifting to a more open site. But for the moment, it’s welcome, especially because of its very dark leaves, somewhat different from most of my other plum trees.
It stands beside a red angel’s trumpet ( Brugmansia sanguinea), a perennial that dies back to the ground each winter and comes away again in the spring, growing quickly and exotically, reminding me always of a dreamy Henri Rousseau painting, exotic and narcotic somehow.
Nearby, elecampane ( Inula helenium), its summer leaves large and handsome along with a tall flower-festooned stalk, hides its greatest asset beneath the ground: a fragrant root that cures coughs and catarrhs when vapourised in a pot on a stovetop. Beside that, a burdock ( Arctium lappa) – similarly proportioned, leaf-wise to the elecampane – dangles its burred seedheads, in hope of catching a gardener’s woollen jersey or socks. They’re a favourite of mine, burdock, but annoying.
Perched behind them is a shrub that produces lovely fruits that grandchildren yearn for all year, cranberries.
A stand of goldenrod ( Solidago sp.) brings fire to the arrangement when in full flower. It too disappears during the winter and pushes its way back into the crowd when the season turns to spring. It is tall, when mature, and brings a verticality to the arrangement.
Balm of Gilead ( Cedronella canariensis), with its pungent camphor-like aroma, splays its stems out like a green fan, a vegetative peacock’s tail that has to be docked regularly to keep it from sprawling everywhere. I like its palmate leaves which, to the untrained eye, look like cannabis and cause many a passing matron to catch her breath (I made the matron bit up – mature women know their plants better than to be fooled by a lookalike. It’s the young ones who cast the furtive glances.)
Only one specimen of Madeira giant black parsley ( Melanoselinum decipiens) can fit in the small space and then only if I don’t cut it out. It’s really too big for the space and will shade it too much, so may be a temporary resident.
Bear’s breeches ( Acanthus mollis) don’t demand much room and there’s one of those tucked in beside the big-butgetting-bigger parsley, along with several shiny-leaved angelica plants that I grew from seed I’d collected from alongside the estuary. Their glossy leaves add to the atmosphere of my special place, I’m sure.
There’s a clump of lemon balm too, not shiny but light in colour and therefore a charming foil for the dark-leaved angelica, the cranberry and the bear’s breeches.
Herb robert fills some of the spaces that exist between the various plants, assisted by a general sprinkling of speedwell and a little seasonal fumitory “smoke”.
Leaning into the cluster is a young native kotukutuku¯ ( Fuchsia excorticata) just starting out in life and bound to change the light levels as it gets older and bigger – but I’ll attend to that if and when I need to.
Of all the plants in my “special place”, the gooseberry – given to me by someone who fishes for trout in the Nokomai Valley in the South Island’s Lakes District – is the one I’d be most loath to lose. Heritage berries are hard to come by and much sought-after, and this one has the added appeal of having fruit that is sweet and red.
As it is, I don’t plan to lose any, such is the pleasure they give me and the ease with which they look after their own needs.
I don’t feed or water them and only occasionally interfere with their development by nipping off a branch that looks too dominant or pulling up an interloper that tries to join the company. It’s a delightful place to linger, that green space, and I plan to pay many a visit for the sake of pure enjoyment.
Robert’s wild garden within a garden.