To begin with a disappointment: we visited a garden in Wiltshire – Hele House in the Avon valley between Amesbury and Salisbury, a place I had ‘fond memories’ of, where the happy channels of the river flow through meadows planted with willow and cherry etc. and the modest architectural harmonies of the manor house in brick and mellow stone suggest a benevolent landed aristocracy. It was early May, well into spring, but in the gardens there was still so much bare earth. The plants were isolated, making weeding and hoeing a straight forward task, in the opposite of a community garden (see footnote) where greedy and competitive plants in a close knit tangle take up every inch they can and a large part of the gardeners’ skill, as they weed and thin out plants to regulate the struggle lies in the way they move through the beds without crushing and flattening the plants. You need to slide your foot underneath, for example, the spreading rosette of a geranium’s leaves; there your boot will make contact with the earth. And once you have found a position, do as much as you can by twisting your torso and stretching your arms, keeping your feet still. Never move your feet even an inch or two without carefully looking. Learn to squat, that way you do less damage than kneeling and you get down close to the soil for a clear view.
But there is a lushness of growth which stands up to abuse. I once saw several cows in Switzerland tread slowly through rich woodland undergrowth and in their wake it seemed that the plants simply rearranged themselves like water.
1By ‘community garden’ I mean here not a garden by and for local people, but a community of plants.
Where do you see bare earth, outside gardens? In ploughed fields of course, where everything makes way for the new crop. But in nature (we can come back to that tricky word) you only find it in the hottest and coldest and darkest places, or after violent disturbances: landslides, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, or in deserts.
As the deep snow lying in gulleys on the mountains slowly melts in spring and summer, it reveals dead looking, muddy turf, and as the first flowers shoot out, so quickly because both leaf and flower are stored within a bulb through the winter, they appear to be growing out of bare earth. They therefore get a head start on the more vigorous plants around them, and will already be dormant for the rest of the summer and the winter when the whole sward is thick and busy a few weeks later.
Crocus chrysanthus, Scilla bifolia and Erythronium dens-canis (dog’s tooth violet) on Falakro, at about 2000 metres, in north eastern Greece, at the end of May. Just a few days earlier this mountain slope would have still been snow covered. Sorry I can’t make this picture any bigger. Ah – this shows you more clearly….