Sarah Coles



                                                               The Seasons


Gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society * stay open throughout the year, but most gardens open to the public close from September to Easter.  We only see them in their party best.  Our own gardens are the only ones we regularly see in a state of continuous change, for worse and better.

In early November birch leaves still hang, like gold coins when the sun is low, and silvery when wet.   After a storm, twigs and short branches snap and litter the ground, the leaves come down and then, on a clear day, I look up and see curving branches like Jackson Pollacks scribbled across the sky.

After Christmas the sky becomes rolls of grubby cotton wool.  It’s cold.  It rains.  Lifeless stalks of lilies, alliums, crisscross what were flower beds.  Sodden leaves block gutters.  Storms whirl twigs into beds, paths and lawn.  The variegated dogwood, for months a pale focal altar at the end of the garden, is leafless, and gaps between its branches reveal angles of the housing estate below.  Larger leaves twitch and lurch and fall back across the yard, dark wet and sodden, like dying rats. Leaves lie on the grass, the patio, the steps and path, and huddle by the dustbins and the corners of the porch.  Crisp at first. then torn, dull, and slimy.  They lie disintegrated, sludgy. crumpled, holed, damp.  I am given a book Wabi-Sabi by Leonard Koren, about the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in all that is old, stained and disregarded, such as these trodden leaves, the old split fencing with its cracks, all imperfection.  I wonder, can beauty be everywhere?  Is ugliness an illusion?

Beyond our garden when the ruby sun is sinking the winter trees become deep red coral against the dark sky.  What is their real colour?  All we see is our own take on things. 

At a lecture by Roy Strong, he shocked us.  He said, ‘Flowers in a garden are a sign of failure.’  He then showed pictures of his rose garden with the blowsy blooms and gaudy colours of summer, followed by a photo of the flowers gone, and only the geometry of the surrounding topiary remaining.  His point was made.  Winter, particularly on a frosty day, reveals the beauty of structure in a garden.

In winter, we see through what seemed solid walls of trees.  From the train, we can see houses and gardens from the window.

The fine incandescence of frost becomes brighter and coarser as it wetly thaws.  The ground is still so hard it cannot be dug.

On wet days drops of water hang along a twig, each a reverse microcosm of the universe around it, with a vast white sky below and smaller dark trees above.

Winter sun is low, slanting in sideways.

Now, no matter the weather, is the time to observe birds, who come to the bird table, a tray hanging from a chain.  Some are newcomers like the collared dove, but the rest – a full flush of finches, jackdaws, robins, blackbirds, starlings, thrushes, even fieldfares, and of course the ever present wood pigeon, clumsy, fat and greedy, we have known before.  Winter is their time for dressing up, getting ready for the ball, the courting and mating.

Sometimes it snows.  It settles in cold beauty and the world pauses.

Trees and shrubs raise bare limbs, thousands of them, to the sky imploring sun.  I join them.

Via Negativa

John Taverner died; we felt depressed.  I love his music which comes from another plane.  On the radio they gave a recording where he spoke about the Via Negativa.   Suddenly I felt inspired.  The positive in the negative, in pain, loss, depression, the ills of aging, the winter of life, all that.  Everything we may impatiently reject or, dimly understand.  Theologically, the Via Negativa is finding God through denial: God is not this, is not that, until in the end God, the transcendental element of our lives, is nowhere and everywhere.

In the garden winter is our Via Negativa.   It’s silence after the noise.  The clarity when everything goes and only the persistent hum of the essential stays.  I can see nothing between the bare branches, just a dull whiteness.  After the heavy green screen of summer it’s empty, like a Jain depiction of God, where a sheet of brass is cut leaving at its centre the silhouette of a meditating Buddha; first you see the outline of the figure and then through it and beyond it to endless emptiness and, curiously, fulfilment.  It’s time to see beyond, spatially and temporally.


In late January the fat white and pink buds of the hellebores show like white and pink eggs nestling in fresh leaves.  The buds of the shrubby winter honeysuckle, Lonicera purpusii are opening.  Bluebells and daffodils pierce the soil with bright spears.

Snowdrops are the late winter wonder.  I have collected as many varieties as I can, and they multiply without coaxing.


Spring comes and goes, retreating before gathering strength to emerge dominant.  Shades of green intensify, particularly lime, becoming more saturated.  Why do so many artists hate green – Mondrian for example, and how often do you see green in a Turner?  François Boucher, 18th century painter of nudes, complained ‘Nature is too green and badly lit.’  Yet go to the mystic poet Thomas Traherne, ‘The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things’.

Some emerging leaves are striking, like the Golden Rain tree, Koelreuteria paniculta where they shoot out like fine pink ferns.  The agapanthus has survived, look its blades are coming out like mini Excaliburs, the wisteria’s buds are fattening and it may flower for the first time this year – unless spring retreats into winter and scores of hopeful plants are blasted.

Butterflies waver through the air, and first comes the yellow brimstone, must be the generic butterfly, the avatar of them all, our flying butter.  Tired peacocks and tortoiseshells, with frazzled wings who have overwintered in crevices make a brief appearance.  The orange tip, and the common blue like a wavering scrap of sky across the garden.

The dazzle of spring bulbs, daffodils, tulips, and chionodoxa like a blue river along the path.  Wisteria dangling lavender chandeliers.  The scent.  A paper published in Nature Microbiology says the scent of spring is geosmin, ‘designed to attract primitive insect-like creatures so they can spread bacteria’.  Never has scientific research seemed more irrelevant.

Some plants are irretrievably lost, never marking it through winter.  Other treasures  thought lost are found emerging, like late guests at a party.

Sowing seeds is the pleasure of delayed gratification.  All will be fulfilled, we hope, at flowering or harvest.


Chelsea Flower Show!  Yes, I go, and sometimes I swoon.  But these impossibly perfect show gardens are only here for a week and unlike our own companions all year, they only have to look perfect for my brief visit.  It’s the same with gardens open to the public for a season, usually summer, and one garden owner confessed to me her relief when they shut shop and let the garden do its own thing – like a woman finally taking off a corset.

The light of the sun comes as an act of grace.  Flower petals are every colour of the rainbow, translucent like stained glass with the dawn or evening sun behind.    Leaves become myriad tones of green, brown, purple, or red.

To see a plumbago, blue among leaves against a wall, is like looking through leaves at the sky.    Reflected light on shining ivy – that could have been a white sky beyond.

Late summer.  It was mid September, and a warm day, and our evening visitors drink in hand insisted let’s see the garden, although under the shrubs and trees, there was barely a flower.  Perennials were over, or tired.   Leaves were coarse or floppy.  The golden leaved elder had turned green.  Birds were silent, invisible.  But there under the shrubs was a mass of little Cyclamen hederifolium, carpets of them, white and pink and deep rose.  I was reprieved.

Sometimes when I am weeding, crouched close to the earth, I look up and find myself watched by a newly arrived flower.   It might be a single rose, and it is as if my awareness is connected to that of the flower.  It looks beautiful, and we are at one.  I realise, just as we enjoy flowers, they enjoy our appreciation.

From a train, passing a station unused for year, its platform looked green with a mass of wild flowers – weeds – sprouting from cracks, and it was glorious to think of nature’s perennial optimism, never giving up after years of being stifled in concrete – to think that if we suddenly disappeared, our cities would in due course be green, buzzing with insects, ruins are reactivated by plants.

Summer is time for entering the garden after dark, for dancing naked under trees.


Fruit – no wonder Eve was entranced by the apples in her garden, with a bloom and taste above any travelled variety.  Now they are ready.  Some figs are now soft and can be cut opened to reveal their red and coral flower gardens .   Others stay small, hard and green, never ripening.   Golden quinces, which make a deep rose jelly.  Scarlet berries and haws on the cotoneasters and hawthorn, orange flagons on a wild rose which has sprung from the rootstock of some long vanished fancy rose.

Then, ten days of fiery glory, at the local arboretum or, in its small way, my garden.  I was going to fell the little Japanese maple because it grew slowly and awkwardly, but suddenly it was blood red and begged me not to, so I refrained.  Walking through a grove of beech is like wandering through an amber hall.  The birches glow under a ransom of gold coins.

My garden spider, Araneus diadematus, is patterned with a filigree cross.  A line holding her web is iridescent in the autumn’s early morning, a rope to heaven.  She weaves her web across the greenhouse door which I inadvertently tear on entering.  In October she constructs her cocoon of eggs, and lingers for a few weeks, a shrunken remnant of her former glory, dying before they hatch.  The tiny money spider, of which there are species by the thousand, weaves her web in another corner of the greenhouse.  Her pale body is a swollen sac, and to catch her in my hair will bring me a fortune.  The sinister black spider, Tegenaria sacra, crawls up the kitchen plug hole, yet does not seem to mind when I remove him.  All is packed with life, so little of which, despite my efforts, I can name or know.

Grass is covered by trembling veils of spider webs.

A few nerine lilies linger in the sunnier part of the garden.  Bright pink nerines seem hardier than the whites, able to withstand the earliest frosts.

Trees finally shed their finery to battle the elements, to bypass the blows of winter winds.  They let leaves go – they have become a burden, heavy and no longer giving sustenance.  In tropical countries, in reverse, trees often loose their leaves in the driest season to preserve moisture.

Leaves of the catalpa and the fig expire instantly, curling up in the overnight shock of frost.  In wind they scuttle like rats over the lawn.

Then comes raking leaves from the lawn.  I do a sackful a day.  Some are pulled by earthworms back into the soil.  On flower beds many slowly decompose.  If I had space I’d compost them, but I leave it for the council’s cart recycling green waste, and purchase it back in bags of council compost.   Raking, I feel the lawn enjoying my scratching, like a cat when rubbed on the head.

Now is the time for planting spring flowering bulbs as well as trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.  Planting now means they have time to settle roots down, readying themselves for leaf burst in spring.  Gardening is about hope, the sure knowledge on dullest day of future joys.


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