I don't often write about flowers. In my 'Next-stop-Antarctic' climate here at the bottom of the South Island, I'm much too busy sowing get-me-through-next-winter basics – carrots and leeks and swedes – before the chilly spring and too-short summer whips away any chance of reasonable success. Or I'm forever covering gardens with layers of net to keep possums and rabbits and kereru at bay, or dashing outside to spread plastic sheeting over spinach before the next shower of December hail shreds it to pieces. Sometimes I feel as if I haven't one spare minute in the day to cast a sideways glance at my flowers – except in late spring. That's when, like it or not, they insist I pay them attention.
It's the evening light that does it, especially after a shower of rain. One minute I'll be doing something mind numbingly mundane – returning from the clothes line with a basket of washing on my hip, sweeping leaves from the path, or locking a chook into its house for the night, and suddenly, there they are: dozens of bright flowers suspended in space. It's as if they have no stems or leaves but are hovering there in the garden in the last of the light. Sometimes, they seem to glow: neon pink lilies, deep purple aquilegia, bright red geums and mad, tasselled heads of bergamot.
The light fades a little, and white flowers take centre stage – tall Shasta daisies and delphiniums, wisps of perennial cornflower, an early sweet pea – and I find myself back in the white garden I once visited at Sissinghurst. As darkness falls, the show is far from over for now, everything is scent: mock orange blossom carried on a warm current of air, michelia, Frangrantissimum, night scented stock cosseted in the glasshouse over the cold months and let loose at last for a brief affair with some night pollinator ...
A wave of guilt engulfs me. How I neglect these exquisite ornamentals and how, with nothing but a rushed weed mid-spring and a crazy autumn clean-up, they continue to flower so faithfully. But I do adore them and, in my own way, grabbing the occasional bunch to take inside, or brushing past them en route to pick beans or plant broccoli, I know I couldn't live without them.
In a rash moment a couple of weeks ago, I sowed three punnets of nasturtium seed. The plants are tall enough to plant out now, and I've made a the unusual decision to spend a whole day creating arches in the flower garden for them to grow over. I know I can't afford the time. There are potatoes to sow and the onions need thinning. But although vegetables fill the stomach, the soul also needs feeding.