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How does your Easter garden grow?

28 March 2013

Many church Easter gardens are looking tired and dated, argues the Church Times gardening columnist, Jamie Cable. He offers suggestions for a fresh approach


Floral tribute: Jamie Cable's Easter Garden design  - the tomb

Floral tribute: Jamie Cable's Easter Garden design  - the tomb

YOU could say that Easter began in a garden. Since the Middle Ages, and possibly earlier, European churches have created a temporary garden, often on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday morning, lasting until the end of Easter Week and beyond.

In certain mainland European traditions, the garden remains until Pentecost, and some old churches even have Easter sepulchres built into the sanctuary, to the north of the altar. These would be dressed with plant material and garments, adding a visual dimension to the Easter liturgy.

In 1955, Constance Spry designed an Easter garden for St Paul's Cathedral. Based around the font in the west transept, and incorporating the larger-than-life statuary, it was a necessarily grand affair. Moist peat, hemmed in with silver-birch logs, made flowerbeds, alongside areas of turf surrounded by a cypress "hedge", all laid over a waterproof membrane.

A colleague of Spry's, Sheila Macqueen, recalled the feature in her book Flower Decoration in Churches: "Against the background of tall cupressus, silver birch, and also rhododendron, forsythia, and other flowering shrubs, daffodils, hyacinths and polyanthuses were planted. . . The area around [the font] was transformed into a little formal garden divided into sections, each one surrounded by a box hedge. . . The beds were planted with the little flowers which children like, such as daisies, forget-me-nots, and primroses." You get the picture.

Hundreds of visitors witnessed this ambitious project during the two weeks after Easter, and it is my theory that the doyenne of flower-arranging thus influenced decades of Anglican Easter gardens. Osmosis via Oasis, if you like.

ONLY a hardened soul could not respond to the joy and glory of flowers in church after Lent, and the emptiness of Holy Saturday. Nevertheless, I suggest that the best place for the Easter garden is outdoors. This makes it a true "garden", and a public witness. It can rightly become the focal point for the Paschal vigil, and, on a practical level, it can house a spot for the Easter fire.

As a gardener, I have always struggled with seeing grass become etiolated, and primroses decline, in the gloom of a church, all destined for a compost heap at best. Better to dedicate a patch in the church grounds as the Easter garden, and watch the plant-life return and proliferate year on year.

Many of our spring garden-flowers originate in the Mediterranean basin. If a sunny spot can be found, then these should thrive, bringing a piece of the Holy Land to us. As a proviso, I ought to add that many churchyards are ecologically important. Therefore, a previously gardened area is probably more suitable than the wilder parts.

Spring blooms are important providers of nectar and pollen for early pollinators, although daffodils tend to be avoided by bees. Instead, use other bulbs: scillas, crocuses, anemones, fritillaria persica, grape hyacinths, and stars of Bethlehem.

That favourite rockery plant Aubrieta is usually a carpet of colour at Easter time. The timing of Easter can, of course, vary by five weeks, and the preceding weather has an effect on what flowers are in season. Consequently, it is as well to have a range of spring flowers in your Easter garden, and aim to add a few new specimens bought at their peak each year.

NATIVE British plants make sense, too. Blackthorn, or sloe, is an excellent early source of food for bees, and can recall Christ's Passion. Pussy Willow, Salix caprea, has a long association with mourning. Pasque Flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, is one of our most beautiful native wildflowers and, now scarce, a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. It takes a while to get established, and resents disturbance; so find it a sunny spot in light soil, and leave it alone. In time, it colonises an area via seed.

When arranging the plants, it may help to remember that Mediterranean gardens are all about contrast - hard surfaces, with soft foliage, and blooms, vertical accents, and spikes with rounded mounds.

The addition of props is a matter of taste, and may bring issues of vandalism. Some "hooks" for the mind can help people to engage in prayer and reflection; so these could be temporary additions, or just sturdy and simple.

This valuable tradition is part of our heritage, and deserves to evolve further.

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