Are you a garden person? You see I think there are different degrees of garden people. There are those who quite like walking around public parks and gardens and appreciate a barbecue or a glass of wine in a friend’s garden, but really couldn’t care less about having one themselves. Then there are those who make do with a balcony or a small patio area, or even just window boxes. There are those who are full-out, full-on gardeners, whose patches are little pieces of heaven right here on earth. They always seem to be beavering away on some project or other and are forever spouting the Latin names of the plants they are planning to create an herbaceous border with.
There are those whose garden more resembles a football pitch, with kids toys and swing sets dominating the space, and everything reduced to practical, low-maintenance functionality. Then there are those like me. We have a garden, albeit small, and we wouldn’t want to be without a garden, but we don’t really want to have to do much with it or expend too much time, money and energy, all of which we have in short supply. Also, we’re not really a hundred percent sure we know what we’re doing most of the time.
I didn’t have a garden until I moved into my current house in 1991. Before that I lived with my parents and of course, they had a garden, quite a large one. But it wasn’t mine, it was theirs, or rather it was my mother’s, so I had zero input into its design or style. It was just there. Something I played in as a kid and we had the occasional barbecue or party in. I moved away from home when I got married in 1988 into a tiny, two-bedroomed flat. It didn’t have a garden of course, although it did have a wooden balcony leading to the front door which I filled with troughs, pots, and hanging baskets of plants.
I have very fond memories of that little flat. It was the first space that was truly mine and I loved and cherished it. We used the balcony a lot, especially in summer, when we would open the front door wide and all the windows and let the summer air flood through. Like a lot of cheap, modern builds it wasn’t terribly well insulated or ventilated so a heatwave could be brutal. Having the shaded balcony was a godsend and we used to pile cushions out there and lay on them, gasping in the heat and gulping down ice cold drinks. The balcony was also great for parties, when our friends would pile out there and annoy the neighbours with drunken laughter and chatting – although if I remember rightly it was mostly young people who lived in the flats so they tended to be invited to the parties anyway.
Back then, several of my friends still smoked so were firmly sent outside to do so. The balcony had a wooden roof above it as it led to the stairs down to the carpark so even if it was raining or snowing, they had some shelter.
Then in 1991 I moved to a three-bedroom Edwardian house in the middle of town. I remember coming to view it and the estate agent, who was a good friend of mine, saying that there was a small enclosed garden at the back of the house. Duly we trooped through the house and out the back door to take a look. Walking down the return – the narrow path that runs down the side of the house to the garden at the back – we were met with an impenetrable jungle of foliage.
Clearly, the garden hadn’t been touched in years and the hollyhocks and roses were up over ten foot, towering above us like Triffids. The photos below show the garden looking left and right from the upstairs, back bedroom window – you can see the corner of the bathroom roof below!
It was ridiculously overgrown, with a tumbledown shed at the bottom full of rubbish and no less than three old metal dustbins littered about the small space. One of the bins was full of glass, unwashed milk bottles – that was a lovely discovery!
The only thing to be done was machete everything down to ground level and see what we had. Sadly, there wasn’t a lot that was worth salvaging. The only thing I still have from that original garden is a beautiful old peony bush that blooms for a few brief days of the year. Huge creamy white flowers with a splash of raspberry ripple, they smell divine and I can’t imagine how old this plant must be, at least fifty years old and still going strong.
I had so much to do within the actual house – including putting in a kitchen (there wasn’t one) and installing central heating (it only had open fires) – that I simply didn’t have the time or money to do much with the garden. My father and I cleared it and removed old stumps and plants that were so far gone there was nothing to be done but pull them out and start again.
The pictures below show Garden Mark I. Basic and functional, it had a lawn, a shed, new fencing, and a gate. It was an outdoor space and did for a few years while I focused all my efforts indoors. One rather disgusting thing happened though when I was clearing the garden and I still shudder just thinking about it, even though it was thirty years ago. Because it had been untouched for at least a decade, the garden was a paradise for snails. They were everywhere, millions of them, and I knew that they would munch their way through anything I tried to plant.
They had to be got rid of. So, I trotted to the nearest garden centre and explained my predicament to a very nice man there. He sold me some extra strength slug and snail pellets, told me to wear gloves when handling them, and make sure I kept my cat indoors until it next rained, as they were so strong it could make the cat sick if he licked them.
The instructions said sprinkle liberally all over the garden. I sprinkled liberally, very liberally. By the time I’d finished it looked like it had been snowing and I went to bed hopeful that my snail problem had been solved. When I got up next morning though, I was greeted with an horrific sight. What the man had failed to mention, and it didn’t say on the bottle, was that the snails would all come to the surface to die. It was like the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme out there. Bodies piled on bodies everywhere I looked.
Feeling guilty about being the cause of such genocide, I got a metal bucket and a shovel and set about trying to clear them up. I had almost filled the bucket with snail bodies when I suddenly realised to my horror that some of them weren’t yet dead! They were writhing and moving around and crawling up the sides of the bucket towards me. I panicked. I put the hose in the bucket and filled it to the top. But of course, snails are aquatic and can swim, and that’s what they did. Now seriously freaked out by this tide of snails crawling over their dead comrades and emerging from the water to seek their revenge, I panicked some more.
Now, I am not proud of what I did next and have no defence except I was freaking out about these creatures that just wouldn’t die! I grabbed a bottle of strong bleach and poured it into the bucket. They exploded into balls of green frothy scum which floated on the top of the water and smelled like nothing I’d ever smelled before! The snails were now all dead, but I had a bucket full of slimy green bodies to dispose of. Just the thought of it still makes me feel sick and is the reason why I won’t ever try snails in a restaurant.
Gradually, over the years, I softened the outlines of the garden. I dug some side beds and planted lots of plants. I bought pots and ornaments and the garden matured and developed nicely.
Then my husband and I decided the garden wasn’t trendy enough for us, it didn’t have a wow factor. So, we both took a week off work and slaved non-stop to create something a little more exciting. The lawn went, to be replaced with pink gravel. The boring patio slabs were dug up. All the fences, the gate and the shed were painted blue.
We painted our table and chair set blue and relocated it further down the garden. We bought a garden fire and introduced different heights into the garden with plant obelisks and wooden shelving for my husband’s collection of bonsai trees. We built raised beds with blue painted wooden edging and painted the back wall of the house cream. We installed a mill stone water feature to get the sound of running water in the garden and bought a ton of new plants.
It looked great. Everyone went wow. But it was the most impractical garden ever! Walking on gravel is not great at the best of times, and I’d been in the habit of wandering out into the garden barefoot. Not any more I didn’t. Those stones could really bruise. They also made the wearing of heels impossible, and many a female friend saw her brand-new heeled shoes ruined. Trying to sit in the chairs was also problematic as the legs would simply sink down into the gravel, and the chair would then become impossible to move. But it looked pretty.
We still had a bit of a snail problem, and as my husband was really keen to grow hostas – which snails love – it meant a permanent war was being waged between him and the slimy terrorists, with the snails usually winning. I remember one day he went out there at dawn with a bucket and a torch. It had just been raining all night, so the snails were out in force, and he was determined to gather up as many as he could.
An hour later he triumphantly showed me a bucket full of snails. I asked him what he intended to do with them all, and before I could stop him, he had tossed the entire lot over the flint wall at the bottom of the garden. Now, there used to be a bank there and our garden backed onto their carpark. Luckily, that hour in the morning, I knew no bank employees would be parked there. But, at that time I was working for an accountant based at the bottom of our road who used to park his car early in the morning in – yep, you’ve guessed it – the bank’s carpark.
I went to work to find my boss waiting for me. We were paying a visit to one of the pubs we used to do the books for, as their records were all on their computer system and it was easier to do the monthly wages there. We walked around the corner into the carpark and there was his car. Parked exactly opposite where our house would be on the other side of the wall, completely covered with smashed snails and birds having a fabulous breakfast.
Oh no! My boss exclaimed. Look at that! Look at all those snails those birds have dropped all over my car. I kept my mouth firmly shut but told my husband that evening he would have to find some other way to dispose of the victims of the snail war!
Then I had a baby, and suddenly the mildly inconvenient garden became hugely unsuitable. It wasn’t too bad while Miss F was a baby and the only time she really went out into the garden was to nap in her pram, but as she grew older and began crawling and walking, it became obvious that the gravel would have to go.
By this point I was divorced and no longer had to take my husband’s wishes into consideration when planning my garden. So, once again my father came to help, and together we made the garden a more suitable place for a young child to play in. He built me a restraining wall to protect my plants, provide extra seating, and the restraining wall could be used as a play surface for toy cars and animals. Some of the gravel was used to create a pathway down to the new, high, sturdy, and lockable gate to keep little people contained. A lawn was put back in to provide a soft play area, and for her second birthday we all chipped in and bought Miss F a cute little wooden playhouse.
And it was fine. While Miss F was growing up and using the garden as much as she was, it was fine. A little boring, not really what I wanted, but when you’re a parent it isn’t always about what you want, rather it’s what your child needs. The lawn was always scattered with toys and dolls, plastic animals lurked in the undergrowth and in the summer months a small, pink, paddling pool was a permanent fixture turning the grass underneath yellow and giving the cats a handy giant water bowl.
One drawback to the garden was how hot it got in summer. My garden faces East to West, with the sun rising on my bedroom windows at the front of the house, travelling down the fence all day and setting over the flint wall at the bottom of the garden in the evening. From midday onwards when the sun pulled itself over the top of the house, that garden cooked! I mean, seriously cooked.
I remember having friends and family around and us all trying to squeeze under the table parasol to get out of the intense sun. The metal table and chairs would merrily heat up to several thousand degrees and would then inflict third degree burns on any bare flesh that was foolish enough to touch them. Some lovely summer days I didn’t dare let Miss F play out there as it was far too hot for a little person, and I was afraid she’d get heatstroke or serious sunburn.
I needed shade of some kind. So, I bought a tree. Well, I bought two trees to be precise. A small Morello cherry tree to go in the side raised bed, and a Himalayan dwarf silver birch to be planted next to Miss F’s playhouse in the hope it would provide some much-needed shade to it. (See the photo above) The temperature inside her house reached scary levels and again there were many days when she simply couldn’t go into it.
People said at the time – and still say it now – that I was mad to even consider planting one tree in such a small garden, let alone two. I always replied that even in the smallest garden there is no limit on up. So long as you buy a slow growing, dwarf variety, and crop it vigorously every winter, there is no reason why every garden can’t have at least one tree.
Over the years, both trees have thrived. The cherry tree provides over 50lbs of fruit each year, but we do have to give it a brutal haircut each year to prevent it taking over the garden. The tiny silver birch has also grown quite considerably and is now a beautiful young tree providing dappled shade and movement in the garden on even the hottest days.
The garden served a purpose during the years Miss F needed it to be a safe, practical place for her to play, but it was never my dream garden. That, I had to wait for. Next week, I will take you on a tour of what my garden looks like now, and talk you through all the changes that have occurred to make it the pretty little haven it is now.
Take care everyone, wherever you are and whatever stage of isolation or emergence you are at, stay safe and stay well. Below is a poem from my book Eclairs for Tea and other stories (available from Amazon) which was written during the period of child-friendly garden, when plants were left to grow, and grass was rarely cut.
~ This is Heaven ~
Where the birds sing and the bees hum,
And the afternoon sun catches and stays
Baking paths and metal chairs
Until they bite at unwary flesh.
Where I learn how to breathe again.
Where she creates a fantasy land,
A world peopled with little folk.
Where flowers nod and blossom drifts
From an over-fertile cherry tree,
Thick with promise of dark, sweet fruits to come,
The delights of jam, pies, and cherry brandy.
Here, now, this is heaven.
A red tin watering can inexpertly plied
As she waters with careless abandon
Plants, lawn, paths, and feet all thoroughly soaked.
A slumbering cat, bonelessly sprawled in a plant pot,
Flecks of sun-hardened soil sprinkling its soft belly.
An indignant, shocked protest
As it too is watered in hopes it may grow.
An Englishman’s home may be his castle,
But for this Englishwoman it is her garden.
This tiny, non-descript plot of land
Bound on all sides by house and fence,
Yet, look up, look up,
Above is ten thousand acres of sky.
A bowlful of water for the making of mud pies,
Long grass for a jungle, home to so many animals,
That on the rare occasions I mow
A thorough search must be mounted
To ensure no loss of plastic life.
I am reliably informed fairies inhabit our garden.
Drawn by its disordered unruliness and wild abandon.
And sometimes, eyes half-closed against the sun,
Senses tuned into the busy thrum of nature,
I fancy I see them, quick and jewel like,
Darting and weaving,
Their wings incandescent blurs of movement.
She makes a snail farm.
Suppressing shudders, I watch as she searches
Dark secret places for livestock,
Confidently plucking each up by its shell
Displaying green frilly underskirt.
Delighting when one ventures probing horns
From its tawny home.
She finds a green beetle, carapace hexagonal.
Watching for what seems hours
Its patient scrambling over the obstacle course
She has built for its amusement,
And I sympathise with its frustration,
Its forever climbing of twigs and leaves.
Antennae vibrating in questioning bafflement
It scurries in endless circles,
Before she finally grows bored and sets it free.
I’m given cups of delicious mud tea,
My plate piled high with gourmet delights
Such as twig soup and dandelion cake,
Which I eat with appreciative relish
Until she is satisfied, and I can return with relief
To my glass of Chardonnay.
Droplets of cold condense on my palm,
The shock of icy tartness on my tongue.
I tip my head back, eyes shut,
Feel the caress of sun warm on my face.
Where time stands still
And an afternoon lasts forever,
Where a child can imagine; and an adult forget.
Where secrets are whispered; and promises made.
Here, now, this is heaven.