My first home was in Chatham, Kent, on a steep chalk hill with views to the historic dockyard and the downs that follow the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury where the famous Thomas Becket was martyred during the rein of Henry II.
I loved my little home and after moving in with my long term bachelor first husband, found our overgrown garden was double it’s apparent size. The renovation was a huge undertaking given no alleyway. Everything was hauled over the roof! Lawn turf, soil, bricks. We collected all the flint we found when levelling the main rear part of the garden and built a shady area beneath the mature fir trees there. The rest was terraced with shrubs and bulbs. Chalky soil is very unforgiving and very little grew but it was still charming.
But what we really disliked were our neighbours. Being on a hill the rear wall was the bottom of their garden. Every New Year poor dead Christmas trees would be unceremoniously thrown into our garden. We complained. They blamed the kids, the dog, the wind. Unfortunately Chatham is also home of some very mealy mouthed people of little respect.
Many years later and now remarried, Tony and I rented a flat very near my little Chatham home. A stones throw away it was good to see the current owners looking after the gardens and paintwork. The firs had been cut though and it seemed a sad indicement of people’s obsession with being too lazy to maintain them. My other neighbour had sycamores and never picked up the helicopter seeds with any immeadiacy. The consequence was billions of hopeful seedlings strewn in swathes across our lawn. But the trees were magnificent. They too had been cut down.
This Christmas our tree came in earth. Intentional. We wanted to plant it. A little tradition was set to plant every year and hopefully in ten years or so have a tiny plantation at the end of our field. Our first found it’s place in the front garden to rest near the fully grown pine that was a deciding factor in buying this farmhouse.
My husband comes from Transylvania and was a regular mountain walker with his father. The local hikes on Carpathian routes of Buila, Cheia, and New Years up in Valeanuin to imerse in the deep snows, were an escape from communist restrictions in the 70’s and a chance to grab international news on the illegal radio. The little wooden hut and the days track up through the pines printed an indelible memory in my husband’s brain. He wanted a house with pines, trees and hills. As we drew up outside the farmhouse and the agent, Bridgette, excitedly explained about rooms and garages, we had already said yes many times. The huge pine said it all.
So this week I rebuilt the front bed, yanking up yards of plastic that had failed to block out weeds. The stones had fallen and the poor roses were leggy with the odd sad little bud. A month ago I pruned them hard. Yesterday they were a foot high and full of fresh growth and potential flower heads.
Under the pine the earth is acidic, great for hydrangeas, my favorite shrubs with their huge pink and blue flower heads. All the cones are good for keeping weeds away but also the grass was covered and full of bare patches. Raked up and used to cover planters and some for the fire in winter as they smell lovely, the cones came in handy. The patches were reseeded and the abandoned and decomposed compost heap in the corner cleared. It turned out to have a rich layer of rotted pine needles and leaves and I used this to suppress the grass round the little Christmas Tree and later extend the beds around it.
This coming Christmas I will decorate the little tree outside with lights, woven ornaments and sacking bows. Inside, our tree will be decorated in French olde style with pine cones, ribbons, candied apples, fruit biscuits and nuts. New Year will see this planted and I will make a wish that everyone replants their Christmas trees or at very least uses them for compost.
The Christmas tree was apparently introduced to France by the Princess Helene de Mecklembourg in 1837 at the time of her Marriage to the Duc De Orleans, heir to the throne. The popularity of the tree then grew from the charitable donations to impoverished emigrants arriving from Alsace and Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian wars. Alsace had started the tradition of having a tree decorated within their homes from around 1521. The German defeat of France caused tree to become a symbolic reminder of peace and charity. For us the Christmas Tree is the mountains and the quiet and stillness of winter. A reminder of nature and another wonderful year end leading to another.