Photo, Andrew Lawson, The Art of Planting by Rosemary Verey – Mirabel Osler has used moisture-loving plants together with roses to create summer-long interest in her old Lower Brook House in Shropshire. The roses, ‘Tuscany Superb’ and climbing pink ‘Albertine’, mingle with Alchemilla Mollis, euphorbias, hellebores and sisyrinchium.

We featured an excerpt from Mirabel Osler’s book A Gentle Plea for Chaos some time ago and, having recently come across two other’s from her (In the Eye of the Garden and A Breath From Elsewhere: Musings on Gardens, and adding them to my collection, I think that it’s time for another.

It’s curious that Ms Osler was nearly sixty when she first began to garden yet went on to considerable fame as both a gardener and a writer on gardens from that delayed debut. In our excerpt, Chapter I from In the Eye of the Garden she illuminates her gardening beginnings as well as her garden-writing initiation.

Writing requires words, in procession, to invoke an image that can be embraced by the reader but it is the underlying insight of the writer that illuminates this image and elevates words to points of art that can linger in the mind as memories and lessons. This Mirabel is capable of and like most gifted writers seems to draw on it naturally and easily.

I suspect that it is a similar conjuring concerning her garden; she points out her lack of years of experience and distains “how-to” instructions while looking for something deeper in the garden. The art of garden design seems also to have grown in her in an equally natural fashion (as the photos accompanying our previous post on A Gentle Plea for Chaos illustrate). She is simply a woman who has mastered two arts.

Hopefully, when I get around to reading it, we can also include an excerpt from Breath From Elsewhere: Musings on Gardens but, for now, here is the first chapter from In the Eye of the Garden.

In the Eye of the Garden

Mirabel Osler (b 1925)

Chapter I

The Alchemy Of Gardens


There is an element of gardening which is never written about in spite of the hundreds of words on the subject that line the shelves of our bookshops. Perhaps this aspect is too insubstantial. Or subjective? Or threatening? And all some gardeners look for is hard advice: for Latin names, flowering months, photographs and vivid descriptions of flowers. Possibly, pursued by expediency and the need for instant effects, harassed by the pressure of living and an overkill of floral advice, gardeners shut out those other voices. For, after all, tunnel vision does keep the mind securely in focus. And for some, eradicating moss from a lawn can, I suppose, be an all-absorbing imperative.

I want to write about the dynamic which, unsuspectedly, I found lying on the other side of planting a tulip. A kind of undertow to gardening which cannot be ignored and which compels me to try to put down in words what has mystified me ever since I first picked up a spade: it’s the part of gardening which doesn’t show; like the statue in the rock waiting to be hewn by the carver, it lies there quiescent, a passive force which maybe remains undiscovered for years. But for those who are susceptible to this enigma it’s as inherent to a garden as a clump of pinks.

Disciplined meditation is the acknowledged route for discovering one’s true nature – should you want to.

Gardening does this for me willy-nilly. No sooner am out there, concerned with whatever trivial or charismatic effect I’m set on, than my mind becomes filled with thoughts that I was not seeking. When I’m on my knees grubbing at the root of things or when I’m digging holes in which to plant a shrub, unasked and from an unperceived direction inconsequential thoughts come into my head. I can be unravelling a clematis, spreading muck, or doing no matter what, when capricious ideas, irrelevant and provoking, drift into my mind in a way that never happens when I am travelling, swimming or ironing. What mysterious percipience lurks about gardens? Why am I ambushed by latent conjectures I never pursued? Submerged, these inklings lie layer upon layer, surfacing from some deep stillness to take me unaware. They rise of their own volition from an unwonted source whose root I have never sought. Why and from where these reflections come is not of my doing; they have nothing to do with me; I was not asking questions.

This is the omnipotence of gardening.

On the practical side it is maddening, especially in winter when my gloves are thick with mud, cold and stiff and impossible to remove. But inveigled, I need to write down these feral thoughts or else, by the time I am back in the house, like dreams they have vanished, leaving only a trace of an idea that provocatively stays out of reach. Now paper and pencil are in my pocket along with the rose ties and nails.

What other creative undertaking can produce such total submission as gardens do? They are both felicitous and predatory; they get you by the throat and do not let go. Surrender is total, so that in the end waiting eleven-and-a-half months for the annual flowering of a transitory rose becomes credible. Fugitive contentment may last only a few days, but while the papery frailty of a group of romneya fills a corner of the garden before a frost annihilates the flowers, there is nothing for it but to stand dumbfounded.

For many of us, scanning a catalogue and knowing little, names are often the first thing to catch the imagination, long before logic. Instinctively, when a rose called ‘Cuisse de Nymphe’ appears on an order form no one would seriously opt for a thing called ‘Peek-a-boo’. Or take ‘heartsease’; with a name like that the flower has a head start quite apart from whether you are after wild pansies or not.

Years ago I planted ‘loosestrife’ – just for its name – and have been distraught ever since. It’s greedy annexation of my pasque flowers, so exquisite and frail with their furry leaves, stems and drooping heads, are no match for the loosestrife’s tenacity of life. However often I dig up its irascible roots and transplant the piercing yellow flowers to wilder territory, I never stop reproaching my susceptibility to its persuasive name. So now I am more wary, though I may dither about whether to plant ‘rue’ in the garden with its dire sense of foreboding (in fact the metallic, finely etched foliage is a garden bonus); ‘heartsease’ does live up to its promise: its endearing disposition really does bring solace to the mood of any faltering gardener.

Gardening is unique in many ways. Not only for the personal aura which it manifests, but because it is an occupation to which there is no end. Gardeners are always on their way, but never arriving. Unlike the poet or the architect, we cannot walk away from our creations. What a writer writes remains on the page, the painter’s brushwork, the architect’s building, or the composer’s score, passes from one century to another. A garden is temporal.

Yet this is the magic of gardening; we become enthralled however unaware we are of what is stealthily happening while we are dividing irises. Gardening is unique, too, for giving us a second chance. That doesn’t often happen in life. You cannot have another go with a job you have bungled, with crucial advice you failed to take, or with high-rise flats you have built; or even with a child you despair of, a husband, or the bailiffs. But gardens, however disastrous, are beneficent. The return of the seasons allows us to try again. Again and again – there is no end.

What failed last summer can be attempted in the next. Even as the flower dies it is preparing for revival in spring. The continual cycle of decay and regeneration gives us forever the opportunity to broadcast fresh seeds, for there is one intrinsic truth: a garden never repeats itself. Never again can you have this year what you achieved in the last.

Gardens and writing about them are new to me. All my life I have written letters because I wanted to. Correspondence with friends has been a kind of self-indulgent form of expression which, during the years we lived in Thailand and Greece, provoked a particularly fruitful incentive to write letters which weren’t a chore but a private gratification.

Now that I am writing for publishers my life has become transformed. I have had to alter my stride so much that surprise is an understatement. It is one thing to write a letter to a person one knows, but to write for strangers seemed at first an alien occupation, leaving me adrift and somewhat unfocused. And however flexible publishers appear at the beginning, vowing to let me go my own way, they are always edging me to conformity, demanding little dollops of ‘how to’ about gardening; suggesting I give advice about siting, acidity or growth rates; nudging me into keeping my sights on climatic zones, on the American, the Australian and the Japanese market. But how can I? I’m not a garden expert in any sense of the meaning, only someone who blunders about in the shrubbery.

M. F. K. Fisher, an American writer, wrote prolifically and most vigorously about eating. Food, wine, kitchens, restaurants, markets, taste, herbs, aromatic spices and nuances of taste rolled through her prose – but Miss Fisher gave few recipies. That was not what one read her for: it was for her descriptions of everything to do with the delightful art of eating. If you wanted a recipe you usually looked elsewhere.

So it is with gardening: I cannot give recipes. Advice on propagation and pruning, nuggets of wisdom or know-how are not in this book, nor will you find sagacity or counsel scattered like slow-release pellets through these pages; I can only write cursorily about what has worked or failed for me in a really very limited experience of gardening. But what I do want to write about lies on the other side of expertise. It has to do with intimacy and atmosphere, with the garden’s seasonal fickleness and unsuspected magnetism that is slowly disclosed once you start gardening; qualities which provoke those who make them to speak of their gardens with ardent fervour or an almost sacrosanct devotion. As a gardener quietly remarked, without any rancour, as we walked through her garden in spring: ‘No one sees that there are extraordinary plants here. Only I know.’

The way I was taken over was entirely arbitrary. In 1980 my husband Michael and I started to make our first garden out of one-and-a-half acres of rough undulating land with a stream flowing through a pastoral landscape. Later, from exchanging letters with a friend, a writer who gardens in Pennsylvania and who lives and works in New York, I was led into writing articles, reviewing books and finally to writing my own about the making of our country garden; in my late fifties, due entirely to the thrust and encouragement of this American friend and through no incentive of my own, I found I’d meandered into a world I had never thought of entering.

Being receptive to whatever gets at you even when you are looking the other way (more often when you are looking the other way), is imperative. Mentally my bag is packed – it has been for years. It lies under my bed in case I hear a footfall, see a shadow fall across the threshold, or reach towards an outstretched hand and a beckoning finger.

So often it is not when you are on the alert, pushing at boundaries, chasing opportunities and anxiously flailing for responses, but when you are unaware or enclosed that the best happens. Lying fallow, or preoccupied with minutiae – no matter which – if a window opens and the prospect pleases, float through it; that window may never open again. And it has nothing to do with age. There are people who are ossified by their mid thirties and others, in their seventies, who still respond to the song of the Lorelei.

Gardening has turned my world upside down. From being a skimmer of gardens, a person who repudiated horticultural demands – damped down for years by animals first and then by children – I found myself thrust involuntarily into the clutch of cultivation. And remaining receptive can apply no more obviously than in this terrain, for to garden you have to keep an open mind.

Most things are never meant, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a garden. Mental atrophy cannot set in, nor can complacency or self-congratulation, for just when you think everything is shipshape and you are in control, a spontaneous seeding of columbines confounds you with the aerial performance of their blue and lemony petals in flight. Or, quite by chance, self-seeded oriental poppies aggressively stride through a bed of mauve and pink flowers, inadvertently saving the underpowered pastels from being commonplace – the dramatic scarlet changing the mood into one of celebration. And drama in gardens, of one sort or another, is taken for granted. Tragedies happen. Honey fungus and moles. Or gales which fell seventy-year-old trees. Such tragedies test you relentlessly. And sometimes, just when you feel ‘that’s it’, this time I cannot produce enough sanguine detachment to get over this latest blow, your garden smiles benignly and shows how the loss of trees spreads it to the horizons.

The spirituality of gardens has spanned the world. In time and in geography. The mystical quality that a garden throws off is as powerful as the scent of flowers. And evident in every continent. Our responses to the many forces of a garden are as varied and personal as the plants which grow in them. What sings for one person, falls on deaf ears to another. What gives one of us gooseflesh may pass unobserved by the next. Some are transfixed by the austere minimalism of oriental gardens with their unity and feeling of ‘oneness’; in contemplating rocks and raked sand or a pavilion and bamboos reflected in a pool, the visitor may find idyllic harmony from introspection and a sense of tranquillity. Others may find unanimity in the geometric water channels of Mughal gardens where formal enclosures, made generations ago, still give a sense of serenity among a landscape of barren rock. The poise of a bough, the shadow of leaves, the dimpling of water can be the apotheosis of these gardens.

Elsewhere in the world the black shade of cypress, the silver of olives, the patina of statues, and a sweet sense of decay, may quicken the heartbeat of others; or responses may quiver to the colonial grandeur of Southern gardens in the United States, to evergreen magnolias and the flush of azaleas. And for a few, the very paucity of flowers among blocks of solid topiary or the melancholic neutrality of winter is when a garden is at its most resonant.

If it is true that gardeners dig no deeper for hidden meaning in their gardens than the need to prepare the ground for a plant, it may be that they do not want to look deeper. The sensuality of a garden is enough. Why ask for more? I do not. Yet, without my consent, the reverse happens. The garden turns on me. Somewhere, invisibly and very powerfully, I am being got at by something very pushy. Whether it is a metaphysical force or merely dotty aberration, I know that when I walk into my garden and start working, I am drawn across an invisible threshold I never knew existed until I began to grovel.