As long ago as I can remember, the tennis court in front of my childhood home had been turned into a chicken run – scratched up, pitted, dusty, and tufty. I was born during World War II, so I never saw tennis played on it – such frippery belonged to prewar elegance. The game I loved, instead, was helping to collect the eggs – cozy-warm under the down of raucous hens indignant at the invasion of their private nesting boxes.
I think it must also have been the war that persuaded my dad to turn the ground behind our house into a practical garden. I have no idea what it had been like before, but afterward there were currant bushes, raspberry canes, and, I assume, potatoes and lots of other vegetables, as well as gooseberry bushes (eating ripe, dark-red, hairy gooseberries, honey sweet, was to be a childhood delight).
Nearby were long glasshouses and close to the steps up to our back door, a large black shed that was always referred to as "the incubator house," in memory of a chicken-hatching venture once attempted in it.
Once the war was over, this back garden – about two acres – didn't return to its past. Instead it became a commercial concern. Flowers – dahlias, chrysanthemums, and sweet peas – were grown in rows to supply the florist trade. To my eyes, these serried ranks – every color of the rainbow except blue – were glorious.
They must have formed my first appreciation of color. If "the child is father to the man," then this man's paternal child swam visually in an ordered ocean of color well before he learned to swim in water. And all that color was directly associated with flowers.
I suspect that my father chose these sorts of flowers because of his affection for them quite as much as for their saleability.
Some of the dahlias were much larger than I was. It was these giants that wowed me most – great floppy white blooms like absurd wedding hats, raggy confections of clear yellow, maroon extravagancies, and piebald efforts of mixed purple and white splotches.
These floriferous monsters gave me a special sense of pride. I thought my father was very clever to grow them.
Impressive as these flowers for market were, something appeared one day in a small forgotten corner of neglected earth that was much more astonishing.
I say it "appeared" because I have no recollection at all of it until one day when my mother took me to see it.
She must have spent weeks preparing it and waiting for it to grow, so how I had no idea it was there remains a mystery. I played outside a great deal, so why didn't I stumble on it? I feel sure I hadn't yet gone away to boarding school or she might have sprung it on me when I came home for the holidays. And anyway this surprise – a gift, really – was for a small preschool boy encountering the world's wonders for the very first time.
Small children know nothing about "taste." They perceive without prejudice, pretence, or selectivity. I had never seen in one small place before such a massed, overwhelming concentration of flower-swamped plants. My mother had sown and grown every child-pleasing flower she could muster – nasturtiums, Virginia stocks, zinnias, asters, and bright blue lobelia.
Most of them had that particular brilliance, that sizzling brightness of sheer color that I now associate with annuals. Such single-season plants often seem to compensate for their brevity by an extra intensity of hue.
I do not think there was any attempt at a color scheme or composition, or even calculated spacing between one plant and the next. Mass effect was the aim. Lemon yellow vied with maroon, cream rubbed shoulders with pink, blue with red, and orange marigolds competed with dark purple pansies.
What could possibly have been a better introduction to the jubilation of gardening? The forms, foliage, and habits of a whole range of plants invaded my imagination for the first time.
And, as a bonus, my mother introduced me to plant names, and the fascinating world where botanical Latin meets common English took root.
I still prefer the hand-me-down familiar names, accurate or not – such pet names as "love-in-a-mist," "love-lies-bleeding," "forget-me-not," "canary creeper," and "burning bush." They all instantly summon the image of particular plants.
I must have been eagerly responsive to my mother's enthusiastic knowledge of these things since I have never forgotten them.
And where friendly names didn't exist, I collected Latin ones that did. It was almost as if I was born knowing ageratum and alyssum, anemone, campanula, and – a special favorite – schizanthus. Now I know this is popularly called "butterfly flower" or "poor man's orchid." Whatever its name, its superabundant flowering filled me with open-eyed wonder as a child.