Following the footsteps of Monet and Monty

It’s time for tree planting, picture-painting, and the annual garden bird survey

Sometimes I find it in books, sometimes in the garden; always, I find it by chance.

Monet, painter, was a gardener too. He rented a country farmhouse, with a walled vegetable garden. He espaliered apple trees to make pretty fences. He filled it with flowers, and painted them: Peony, Poppy, Iris, Lily, Rose. He thought about the light, and put blue and violet flowers in shade.

“All my money goes into my garden,” he, apparently, said. And, “I am in raptures”.

I have no iconic bridge, to drape in mauve and white wisteria, but I have a house. Wisteria rambles up it.

Monty Don took two acres, two decades, and many thousands of words: he scaffolded a bare field into outdoor rooms, with towering hornbeam hedges, pleached limes, and box-edged gardens. He grows food with a muscular verve. He harvests sweet basil, pumpkins, and tomatoes in a wheelbarrow.

Jane Grigson praises heirloom fruit: Cox and Russet apples, the Moorpark apricot, a peach-apricot she calls ‘alberge’, the black mulberry.

So, my garden has a little pedigree. All of these things it shares, more or less, right down to the black mulberry, and the seduction of ‘Tydeman’s Late Orange’: “apples with a red blush tending to russet … The flesh is creamy yellow, firm and juicy with an aromatic Cox flavour.

I have been here four years, and the planting should be finished, in my urban forest. But I am digging up and shifting things, sacrificing others. I am newly obsessed with shelter. I made a path. There was a path, once, but everything was wrong about it. This one is an epiphany.

I don’t know what I will do, some future winter, when there is no more room to plant trees.

So I turn again to Monty, who lives in Herefordshire, and joins me, in January, shifting things. “God!” he agonises. “I have wasted so much time moving plants from A to B in this garden. But you have to gnaw away at it until it is right.” He writes, too, of pruning and compost and mulch — a fellow traveller in my quest for pea straw, seaweed, autumn leaf mould, and pine needles for the paths.

Monty gets up to take a leak, and looks at his garden in the moonlight. He takes many photos of tree skeletons and bony hedges, sleeping under a blanket of frost. He walks it twice daily, and nightly, and knows its geography as intimately as, I guess, his wife’s.

He gives voice and shape to a secular kind of faith: of knowing that ‘it’ will happen, but not when. “This business of making places obsesses me … Then one day, quite by surprise, it is there.” Yes. The same surety of finding, some way down the garden path, as it were, that all these ideas I have had have been good ideas, pre-loved by genius.

And when the sun rises late and paints the world apricot, when the garden is hoary with frost, it’s time for the annual garden bird survey.

A cacophony of sparrows decorates tree branches, like feathery catkins. They pinch the chooky food, conduct their domestic squabbles loudly and in public, and come spring, every little boy among them will be trying to root any little girl he finds with her bottom exposed. Common birds.

But I miss the plague of greenfinches, that rivalled the sparrows, then disappeared.

Waxeyes are boozing on the bletted crabapples; I am glad now I did not pick them. A fantail, the same fantail, chuckles and chatters all day. He likes this garden very much; he does not want to share it. Others are seen off the premises with virtuoso combat flying, and all the right sound effects.

Last week I wandered on to some wild land on the edge of town. The moon was a shred of tissue; the frost was coming down. I stood in a grove of tree lucerne, and felt I was being watched — and I was, by tens, maybe hundreds, of kereru, shimmering green and white. The sole occupants of trees were dignified; others, doubled up, jostled and flapped.

I came back later, with my trowel, and transplanted half a dozen saplings. These are woody weeds, but I poked them into odd corners and prayed to recreate, in my own garden, some other winter, when I cannot plant trees, even a scrap of that magic.