Cleo Mussi: Visual artist… and outside gardener
PUBLISHED: 11:39 03 October 2016
Cotswold mosaic artist Cleo Mussi recalls just how far her own garden in Stroud has come in 20 years, and relishes her role as 'Patron of the Walled Garden' at the town's Museum in the Park
The back garden in Stroud was the perfect toboggan run 20 years ago. Apart from a handful of established apple trees and a laburnum with the girth of an elephant’s leg (The Humming Tree), it was a blank canvas. Over the years a garden has evolved with the changing needs of a family, a slow cook with very little funds… this has not been a fast, instant garden, nor is it a show garden.
Hours have been spent in the pouring rain planting box cuttings and beech and lime saplings to create different spaces. We found gold in the form of York paving which I manhandled alone, rocking to and fro into position as my dad had taught me. We found buried treasure in the form of a stash of walking stick and umbrella handles made from, of all things, milk protein formed into an early plastic (these, by coincidence, can also be seen in the local museum). Children hand-crafted mud pies, made bonfires and brewed lethal herbal concoctions for us to taste. As artists we built studios, mattocking out tons of soil and clay which was redistributed to form terraces. We manoeuvred and marshalled railway sleepers into position – just two of us, and I really don’t know how we did that.
The finishing touch was a small greenhouse, a gift from my mother who had given me the garden bug as a child.
I had my own small patch as a child and gathered euphorbia milk and strawberries for my dolls but at an early age; I knew what was what. Rue can cause blisters and monkshood was deadly and that Darwin ruled OK. Plants were to be respected but want to be taken advantage of for self-preservation; hence delicious fruits entice us to propagate. Plants were gleaned at every opportunity, divided for free, seeds pilfered, cuttings taken and lovely meals made from produce either grown or from scrumping.
Over the past 45 years I have been a gardener, but one born in the briar patch. Do I know the names of plants? Not really, but I know roughly what they do and when, and of their habits in our climate and habitats, and sometimes it’s just ‘let’s try and see what works visually’. I love the colloquial names: ‘Bunny Up The Wall’ (ivy-leaved toad flax), ‘Bomb Weed’ (rose bay willow herb), ‘Jack Jump About’ (ground elder) ‘Kiss Me Over The Garden Gate’ (pansy) ‘Summer Farewell’ (ragwort) and all the Devils… claws, blanket, tongue, fingers, etc. The language from the people that worked the land and often describing the plants and ‘weeds’ that were the endearments or loathings in their working days; knowledge passed down by example and word of mouth.
As ‘Patron of the Walled Garden’, I am rather pleased with my new title. I have been asked to create a planting scheme on a shoe-string budget for this special space. Essentially, the back garden, it is open at The Museum in The Park in Stroud. It was untouched for over 50 years and it has now been given a new life as a place for education, contemplation and creativity for the community. Since 2008 numerous volunteers have contributed time and knowledge to this space, starting with secret artist donations to raise funds and teams of people excavating and clearing, sifting, weeding planting and now watering. The hard landscaping and education space was commissioned and now it’s time to put the icing on the cake.
So, with a few hundred pounds we have purchased a handful of plants and the rest, as with my own garden, are gleaned and propagated, split and gifted to create a new garden in about 14 sections.
The garden is about a third of an acre and is managed by teams of volunteers. Starting from scratch enables us to make bold decisions; not to use blanket herbicides, our weeds are ‘hand picked’. We have introduced English bluebells under the mixed hedges and a wild seed mix in the newly planted orchard rather than lawn grass. The beds are divided into sections and aptly named ‘Bobbly Border’, ‘Bonkers Border’, ‘The Hot Bed’ and the ‘Red Hot Bed’, ‘The Purple Complimentary’ and more gentle ‘White Border’ and ‘Fernery’. It’s a very hot space, being a walled garden with very little shade, so this has been exciting and challenging and it will also be interesting to see what survives through the winter; so the garden will evolve. This is our first season and the garden has established incredibly well and we aim to open to the public on October 8 and 9 for The Big Draw art weekend.
My back garden and the museum’s back garden are living, changing spaces. Both gardens and all back gardens are full of memories – plants from grandmothers, mothers, fathers and friends, from holidays and excursions. They’re memories of playing and working and, with this new garden, a place to learn and share.
The Museum in the Park is free to enter, and you can find it at Stratford Park, Stroud, GL5 4AF. Tel: 01453 763394