Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 24, 2016

Daft over gardens

Art has been in England recently, visiting Jan, his friend of 33 years. His initial visit was prompted by a desire to see the birthplace of his great grandfather Thomas Vaughan. But in recent years, the trips have been more about enjoying friends and the differences between Britain and the United States.

In regard to the latter, Michael, one of Jan's friends, summed it up when he said, "The only difference between the Brits and the Americans is they speak a different language."

Some of these word differences are well known - our car trunk is the Brit's car boot; our French fries are their chips; potato chips they call crisps and so on. Art recently added a new one to those we were familiar with. Jan called a friend's place "homely." Art said that was a terrible thing to say. But after consulting the dictionary, he learned that for Brits, homely means the same as when we say homey - comfortable and comforting.

Other differences involve doing similar things, but in a different way. A Brit drives his car on the left side of the road, rather than on the right. His go-to snack is fish-and-chips smothered in malt vinegar whereas we lean toward a burger with fries.

But what is the deal with the British love of gardens? Jan's place is typical and we've enjoyed its beauty many times over the years. She has a nice snug home in an area outside of the village proper. Her garden is about 50 feet wide and 150 feet long. The center is all grass - cut to about a half inch as the frequent rains allow it to thrive at a length where it looks more like a carpet than vegetation. But from the fence that surrounds the lot inward about a yard is the domain of all manner of plants, most of which are flowering while others bear fruit.

And it isn't as if she just picked a bunch of plants and then sat back and enjoyed the results. No day goes by when she isn't watering, weeding and cleaning up dying blooms. Then she tends 40 or so new plants starting in various pots and other containers on her patio.

One might conclude she comes by this plant mania naturally as her father Derek was such a devotee of dahlias that the website dahliaworld.co.uk recognizes him as the developer of a new strain. But she is by no means unique. Her friend Ann has a very different garden as she lives in the village. With her lot being so much smaller, there is almost no lawn as that would limit her flowers, shrubs and other plantings.

Ann said that in the home where she lived before, her husband had put in three distinct gardens over the years. One was created shortly after they were married. He later went on to another type, complete with sand play pits when their children were youngsters. Then, with the children gone, he put in what they called a woodland garden with taller trees and bushes. When he asked if her hubby had been a gardener, Art learned he was a journalist for a large city newspaper!

When retired friend Gordon or former policeman Ewen come to visit Jan, a tour of her garden is mandatary, complete with a discussion of each plant. She constantly encourages them to take samples and they have provided some as well. During his recent visit, Ewen said he particularly liked her blue potato bush.

One Friday about mid-morning, Jan hosted a coffee at her home. Art said Jan and Ann talked about plants the way men in America might talk about a prior week's football game or a recent golf outing. There was no discussion of recipes or clothing, but gardening magazines came up. A friend had paid Jan's subscription to one particular gardening publication for eight years.

When noon arrived, they all went into town to visit the Catholic church. But none of them is Catholic! The purpose was to see how the church had been decorated with flowers.

Our friends Freda and Tom also had many flowering plants - daisies, red hot pokers, peonies, roses - in their tiny backyard space and along the front of their home near the border with Wales. Freda loved her garden, although she often lamented that the "cheeky little rabbits" tried to eat many of her plantings.

I confess much of this resonates with my farm upbringing. Art said no day was complete without several discussions of whether it would rain and if so, how much and when. When Jan and neighbor Pat stopped to chat over the fence between their properties, as often as not, the discussion was about the weather and their gardens. Pat went into the hospital for a knee replacement during Art's stay, but not before Pat reminded Jan that she was free to use the insecticide in Pat's garage during her recovery.

With folks so mad about plants, one might expect that a professional gardener's help would be reserved for the rich or those whose lives are too busy to tend a garden themselves. But both Pat and Jan, who are retired, have a gardener who comes at least once a week to do some of the things they would rather not do and to give them advice on where to plant a recent acquisition.

Late one evening, Jan asked Art if he would like to ride along as she needed to "pop down" to the local store and pick up some pellets to help address her garden slug problem. He figured she would head straight for the chemical aisle, but instead went directly to the seed packets area. Telling her she had quite enough already, he guided her away, only to find her heading for the potted flowers. In the end, he congratulated her on getting home without buying a single new plant.

The source for all this garden mania appears to be a bit of a mystery. Gordon suggested it was the result of World War II when everyone had vegetable gardens in an effort to compensate for the shortage of fresh produce and after the war, they just moved on to flowers. But Americans had Victory Gardens as well, yet when the war was over, most of us converted them to grass.

In the end, it's a mystery why the country that once ruled a quarter of the world is so daft over gardens, but those gardens are certainly a big part of the charm of Britain.

Left, Jan's garden on the left and neighbor Pat's garden to the right of the fence; right: Art and Jan in her garden in June of 2015.

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