My understanding of borrowed scenery probably lacks the nuances of the original Japanese, but I think of it as a way in which landscape beyond the garden is brought into play within it, drawing the eye and giving context and structure. Living in a city I have little opportunity for this in its pure form, though I am lucky enough to live at the top of a hill. The view beyond the garden however is difficult to see from within it; trees, houses, walls and fences all give us the privacy we need, but obscure the green slopes of Boars Hill on the other side of Oxford. On a recent trip to the Lake District I saw and became envious of a garden that had amazing natural structures within it which would be wonderful to build a garden around – a sheer cliff of slate forming the back boundary, a beck rushing through and under the house, Windermere over the lane as a reflecting and focal point, plus of course the fells beyond.
But I’m not downcast, my garden is the perfect size for me at the moment. I barely manage to visit the greenhouse twice a week in winter and have realised that I need to scale back my ambitions until I have a job that takes less time and energy. In the meantime, I am borrowing scenery in a different way all the time. The great thing about cities is that everyone’s gardens are on display to some extent and so I get to enjoy plants that I can’t grow or don’t want to devote space to, and also the often fantastical juxtapositions that neighbours unwittingly create with their planting. Every day of this long, hot summer I coasted in neutral past a huge Ceanothus flowering two gardens above a mature Laburnum, also in flower, the better to enjoy the bright blue and yellow of Ikea writ in plant form. I’ve also got a neighbour who has enough garden to allow Kiftsgate to ramble wildly over the fence, which makes a beautiful canopy for the streetlight – less beautiful at night when it glows orange which gives a slightly sinister effect – the flowers don’t last long, but the show is gorgeous. Again I brake daily to ogle this spectacle.
I’ve borrowed some plant combinations too – I first saw Cerinthe grown with Escholzia in a front garden in Leicester where the front door was flaking, faded turquoise and the effect was stunning. At Rousham I’ve seen the gorgeous Rosa glauca grown with Aconitum, which makes the perfect inky foil for both the pink flowers and the scarlet hips. I’ve nicked both of these ideas for the non-gravel bit of my garden. Rather more shamefully I’ve also borrowed a plant, but only from the completely neglected garden of a student house, and only for a softwood cutting of a hardy fuchsia. Normally I’d ask the gardener of course, the problem was identifying who that might be in a mammoth house of overseas postgrads. The postscript to this is that the college who own the house came and ripped out all the plants this winter whilst I wasn’t looking, so the one cutting I took is all that remains of the plant, so perhaps I did a good thing not a bad thing.
Finally, I’ve also had a great time borrowing from skips. My shed is almost entirely built from reclaimed and recycled materials, old roofing slates have been useful in making border edges and the chair in my shed and the greenhouse were brought in from the street. I also brought home an unwanted leaf rake and edger from a skip outside a pub; it seems daft to me that anyone would throw these out when old garden tools seem to fetch a packet in chic garden shops (I imagine Petersham Nurseries is like this, though I’ve never been there so am probably maligning it unfairly). The next project will be to build a cold frame from unwanted narrow sash windows, also rescued from a skip, space is the limiting factor at the moment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly The Borrowers is one of my favourite books in children’s literature and it does appear to have been a strong influence on me, I hope Arrietty, Pod and Homily would approve.