An Olympian Task



As my plane to New York taxied down the runway this morning, I received a message alerting me to a missed call from the builder. So much for pre-empting all the questions he might have, I thought. Judging by the frenzied messages that promptly followed from Him Indoors, there is something not quite right about the radiators I ordered, despite them being precisely the ones the builder instructed me to source. I am not remotely surprised, and for a fleeting moment I do not care: I am ‘out of office’, not quite foot-loose and fancy-free, but just for a few hours, at 35,000ft, I am very glad to be ‘out of the loop’.

As the building project crawls to a conclusion, the parallels between our trials and tribulations and what one hears about a nation’s preparations for the Olympic Games have become increasingly apparent. The project begins with great ideals – in our case a botanical library, soft light filtering in from every side of the house, an airy garden room for experimenting with tropical plants and enjoying gin and tonics – and ends wildly over budget and perilously close to disaster. No one has died, it’s true, but there have been occasions when I’d have gladly strangled someone. Yet, as with each and every Olympic Games, the work miraculous gets done, the show goes on and we’re all dazzled by the resulting spectacle.


For the next two weeks I will be out of the country on business. Last weekend, as well as pressure to have my house in order, there was a need to make sure the garden was ready for the cold snap. On Sunday I cleared away the spicily-scented stems of my dying hedychiums (a job I love), at the same time as pruning fuchsias and tibouchinas down to a manageable size and stashing anything vaguely tender in the greenhouse. Our cellars are now packed with dahlias, still in their black plastic pots, cheek by jowl with cautleyas, roscoeas and colocasias, none of which demand light during the winter months. Although I go through the same process every year, it’s strange to see the terrace looking so bare and empty. It reminds me of the importance of good structure and tidiness, to keep the garden looking attractive over winter.


Even though it’s late November I have thousands of bulbs left to plant. Most of the tulips will have to wait until I return in mid December, but the narcissi and fritillarias won’t hang on. Snug in their bags and boxes they are either producing roots or starting to shrivel. Starting in bright sunshine and ending in steady rain, I managed to plant up four large pots on Sunday; two crammed with as many Narcissus ‘Winter Waltz’ as I could fit in, and two larger ones layered with Fritillaria ‘William Rex’, Tulipa ‘Dom Pedro’ and Narcissus ‘Salome’. Despite keeping the narcissi cool and dry, several bulbs had withered into lifeless, papery parcels: a pity, but, as I have said before, it’s always better to plant the few that have hope rather than abandon them altogether.


Somehow in December, between writing cards, wrapping presents, making beds, cleaning, decorating and working, I must plant the remainder. It feels like a gargantuan task, but the thought of not seeing T. ‘Princesse Irene’, T. ‘Rococo’ and T. ‘Slawa’ in spring will spur me on like an Olympian going for gold. These flowers will be to our building project what fireworks are to the end of an Olympic opening ceremony – bright, colourful, exciting and a taste of great things to come.