The Garden Effect, by Elizabeth Kay

I love my garden, and I find gardening is a very good way of mulling over ideas whilst doing something worthwhile. There are so many parallels – weeding out irrelevant characters. Cutting plotlines. Pruning language. Planting the seed of an idea. I know my garden very well, but even so something unexpected can appear, presumably the result of a nut buried by a squirrel, or a seed stuck to the foot of a bird. But it’s when I visit other gardens that I really get the ideas. I’m lucky, in that I live close enough to the RHS gardens at Wisley to be able to visit them quite frequently. Last year they had exotic butterflies in the huge tropical glasshouse. Just before Christmas they had an event they called ‘Glow’,which consisted of enormous lighted sculptures of flowers. 

As these beautiful creations towered over you, you felt your sense of scale go haywire, and it was easy to imagine yourself as one of The Borrowers. This spring, they’ve had a Lego safari. I didn’t expect anything much, but I was pleasantly surprised, as I always seem to be at the things they choose to display. The sculptures of the different animals were really impressive, particularly set against the cacti in the hothouse. The larger the sculpture, the more effective it was. I started thinking about Lego animals coming to life once the gardens had shut for the night…

The gardens I have seen abroad have been inspirational in different ways. The orchid garden in Borneo was where I saw Nepenthes rajah, the biggest pitcher plant in the world and one capable of devouring rats. Plants that eat animals are a bit disturbing. I have a much smaller pitcher plant at home, which is currently flowering. And those flowers are extremely odd, too. This giant pitcher, which was so big it rested on the ground, was the image that gave me the idea for the malevolent jinx box, a shape-changing entity in Jinx on the Divide.

“Look at that pitcher, over there,” said Betony. “It’s absolutely enormous.”
Felix looked. It was so huge it had to rest on the ground. “What do you think it eats?” he asked.
Betony looked shocked. “Eats? What do you mean?”
“Pitcher plants are carnivorous. At least, they are in my world. Ours are much smaller than these; they catch flies, which drown and then get digested.”
Betony made a face, which quickly turned into an expression of horror as the implications hit home. “What do you think these ones eat, then?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Felix. “Some pitcher plants have been known to eat frogs. Perhaps this one’s big enough to tackle small birds?”
“And not necessarily that small,” said Betony, backing away. “I think you’re right about Rhino not being here. Let’s go.”
But Felix was overcome with curiosity. Although physics and chemistry were his favourite subjects at school, biology came a very close third. Insectivorous plants fascinated him, they were just so weird. Despite the lid of the pitcher plant being firmly shut, he couldn’t resist going over to peek inside.
“I wouldn’t,” said Betony, but it was too late.
As Felix lifted the oval green lid a voice said, “Well hello.” It was so sudden and so unexpected that he nearly jumped out of his skin.
“It’s not a pitcher plant at all,” said Betony. “Look, it’s not attached to anything. It’s the jinx box – and you’ve gone and opened it.”
Some countries have really bizarre plants, such the frailejón, or Monk’s habit, which grows in the Andes in Venezuela. This could easily have been the inspiration for a triffid. Madagascar not only has a unique fauna – lemurs and chameleons predominate, but there’s also the carnivorous fossa, which, despite being the size of an ocelot, is pretty scary. Madagascar’s Spiny Forest, with its baobab trees, is also decidedly weird. 

And then there’s China.
Their gardens incorporate rocks as part of the overall design, and the whole concept is rather impressive. Their bonsai trees make you feel like a giant – scale seems to be a popular consideration in gardens abroad. And in Sri Lanka, the trees in their communal gardens can be completely covered with fruit bats...

I’ll end with The Chelsea Flower Show, which I attended in 2018. The sheer range of plants, and their perfection, is quite mind-boggling. But in the end, which gardens provide the greatest inspiration? The manicured lawns, trim shrubberies and giant oaks of stately homes, or the wilderness of the national parks like the one in Madagascar?




Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for showing through your gardens of imagination, knowledge and of rich soil - so aptly as spring arrives - a fine time to linger and smell the roses. Best of luck with your plants and books!
Bill Kirton said…
Reading this was quite close to actually going out into my own patch and willing everything to hurry up. Thank you, Elizabeth.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Elizabeth - what a lovely post!

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