WEEDS, WORMS AND WINDFALLS
Journey of a Novice Gardener
‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England….’ William Shakespeare Richard II Act II Sc. 1
Most journals begin in January but this is not so much a journal as a journey and it began one silent grey Friday afternoon in November. If I had missed the three o’clock bus it would never have begun at all. A neighbour caught the same bus which was extraordinary as she hardly ever travels by public transport but her car had an oil leak. It turned out to be a coincidence which would change my life.
A large neglected plot, which had originally belonged to my house, was about to be bought by a man who had been buying up similar land around the area and using it as rubbish dumps for old cars, iron bedsteads, garden seats and lavatories which he then recycled.
Just before I bought my house the owner had taken it out of the title hoping to make a bit extra on the side. It had lingered ignored and overgrown for years. Every now and then someone made him an offer but he always refused hoping all the time for that little bit extra. It was about a minute’s walk away along a narrow footpath. From time to time I would go and gaze at it and wonder whether I should reclaim it. It definitely needed major TLC but it felt a bit daunting. It was more than 100 feet long and 40 feet wide and just a mass of brambles.
But it didn’t deserve to be a dumping ground. There were badgers and squirrels and owls and all kinds of birds who had made it their home and I knew it needed rescuing. So that evening, without letting on that I had inside information about the proposed purchase, I sent an email to the owner saying that I had changed my mind and wanted to buy it back and restore it to where it belonged.There was no reply. I waited up until midnight but not a word by the time I dragged myself to bed.I kept waking up during the night cursing my stupidity at not having clinched a deal with him long ago. I had hesitated and it seemed I had lost.The next morning there was a message. Too late. The contract had been drawn up and was signed two days ago. I was devastated which only proved how much I had wanted it. Saturday was a miserable day.But I had a strange niggling sense that just maybe all was not quite as it seemed.That evening I sent him another email asking if he could find out for sure. I needed to be certain that it had definitely gone. Again there was no answer and I had another restless night.
I could see the tops of the trees from my bedroom window. I went down to look at it again first thing on the Sunday morning and there were the last of the deep bronze and golden leaves floating down in the sun; blackbirds and robins flying back and forth grabbing their autumn harvest; the remains of the blackberry hedge still with a few late berries; small pits of upturned earth where the badgers had snuffled around for earthworms. This could all have been mine if only I hadn’t lost the plot.
After lunch on Sunday I checked my emails for the umpteenth time and OMG there was an email.He had telephoned his solicitor and the purchaser had not turned up to sign the contract so if I wanted it I would have to be at his solicitor’s office at 8.30 the following morning with the cash.
I couldn’t believe it. I literally jumped for joy and yes, as it happened, I did have just enough ready cash in the bank.
So at 8.30 on the Monday morning I sat in the solicitor’s expensive air-freshed waiting room clutching my banker’s draft, feet solid on their rich maroon deep pile carpet, watching my reflection in the polished mahogany furniture and waited.
After what felt like immortality a tall white haired man came out and silently ushered me into a room at the far end of the corridor. It felt like entering the inner sanctum of a religious order. He handed me a pen and there was the contract written in my name. An extra £1,000 had been added to the original figure which was clumsily crossed out and the new amount overwritten in heavy black biro. I knew it was pointless protesting. My hand shook and I wrote a wobbly signature and the deed was done. I could have kissed him. I don’t think he would have known how to react if I had. Instead he held out long legal fingers and limply shook my hand.
I took a deep breath, buttoned up my jacket, wound my scarf around my neck and strode down the High Street feeling as if I was temporarily the Queen herself. At the stroke of a pen I owned a little bit of England.
Everyone said it was serendipity and meant to be.
The bottom third is woodland with all manner of sky walking trees and a couple of drooping hazelnuts either side of an arthritic apple tree with apples shaped like lemons. The rest was covered in brambles up to my chin.It was a forgotten wilderness. I didn’t care. I loved it. It was my very own blessed plot.But I knew I was facing a massive challenge and, apart from sticking plants in the border and hoping for the best and cutting back a few stray branches I didn’t know the first thing about serious gardening.
‘Gratitude is heaven itself’
The big freeze gave me time to ponder. It also took my mind off brambles. I circulated my Christmas list which was not difficult as it only had one item on it: garden vouchers. An aunt sent me a straw nesting box and a suet filled coconut. My brother gave me garden shears, which I was very pleased with, but as I pinched the packages piled under the tree to see if there were surreptitious rectangular envelopes stuffed beneath the scented candles I knew there weren’t any garden vouchers.
It hit me like a squib out of a cracker that this whole enterprise was going to cost money. As I gazed into the fire and toyed with my roasted chestnuts I began to think how I could turn The Plot into a business.I thought about writing to Alan Sugar to see if it could be a project for The Apprentice. “I want you to turn a derelict plot of land into a small scale tourist attraction.”
I thought artists might want to come and paint or if I got a summerhouse writers could come and pretend to be Virginia Woolf for a day. I have a photograph of myself sitting on the steps of her writing shed at Monks House in Sussex. I remember the awesome sense that there just might still be a tiny bit of her DNA somewhere etched into the woodwork which would rub off on me. This simple shed was her own room with all she needed, a chair, a desk and a garden which on that September day was a mass of pale mauve Michaelmas daisies and bronze and yellow chrysanthemums.
As I gazed at the frozen landscape watching the birds making footprints in the snow all I could do was dream.
It snowed and snowed, the whole world over
Snow swept the world from end to end.
I needed a man with muscle who would relish a challenge. I asked around and the name on everyone’s lips was Scott Darwin. He would have to give a good account of himself with a name like that. Scott’s day job was digging out drains but he moonlights as a jobbing gardener. Digging, heaving and strimming were all in a weekend’s work for a man who spends nine to five hacking away at the bedrock.
But even his seasoned pickaxe would make no impression on the icy ground so I had to bite my nails and be prepared to wait.
My first lesson on becoming a gardener is that you have to be patient. Nature takes her time. She will only do what she wants to do when she’s ready to do it. But that didn’t stop me planning. What sort of garden did I want? Did I want to grow brussels sprouts and rhubarb; create an avenue of runner beans; plant an orchard with exquisite blossom in spring and pears and plums hanging like silken purple and green testicles in autumn; did I want to measure out rooms furnished with lavender, thyme and rosemary contained by miniature box hedges. Did I want to inhale intense perfume on a summer night? I could barely breathe with the excitement of anticipation.
I went and bought some books. Not just one or two but wheelbarrow loads of books by The Experts. Gone were the long winter evenings watching Coronation Street. I was training to be a horticulturist while I waited for the snow to melt. And I waited and waited and waited….
‘January cold desolate
February all dripping wet
I’ve never been so pre-occupied with the weather! Mostly I never notice it except to wrap up or strip off. But now I’m up at dawn online searching the detailed five day forecasts. How sad is that. My first thought on waking is not ‘desperate for a cuppa and must feed the cat’ but what is it doing out there? I listen to the weather forecast on Radio 4 and watch Country File’s weather for the week. I’m even starting to talk about the weather which is seriously worrying. Oscar Wilde said ‘talking about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.’ OMG. Gardens are supposed to be an art form.
I was also starting to get impatient. I wanted to discover what lay hidden underneath the snowy duvet and find out exactly the nature of the challenge I had undertaken.
But the skies remained tantalizingly grey with the constant threat of more snow to come. Then suddenly it all changed.
There was a feeling in the air one morning that perhaps the worst was over. The snow was turning to slush. There were shafts of sunlight breaking up the leaden monotony of the sky.
After a few days I was able to take Scott on a tour of the brambles. The ground had metamorphosed from rock hard ice to squelching mud and water so I would still have to wait a bit longer.
Lesson Two is that the weather is pretty much the boss when it comes to gardening. You just have to surrender to its demands and go with the flow.
“There is no spot of ground, however arid, bare or ugly, that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight.”
It was time for Scott to get out his strimmer. He turned up one Saturday morning and donned his helmet and set about blitzing the brambles. He worked like a man possessed with such furiosity and determination that I wondered what was in his mind as he wielded the long metal arm back and forth with such fiendish power. My plot had become a killing field. I began to panic about the slow worms and frogs and toads and all the tiny creatures who had built their homes in the brambles for years suddenly being forced to flee this monstrous invader.
I tried to attract his attention and waved my arms in front of him but Scott was in another world. Locked inside his enormous headphones he was oblivious to anything except the lethal power of his machine. After about an hour he began to strip off revealing massive biceps covered in tattoos of dragons with smoke curling out of their nostrils, a ram’s head and an eagle’s claw. It struck me he could have used a bit more imagination as I was sure these were pretty standard.
When it was all over he took off his headphones and stood astride the earth like the proverbial colossus. Standing over six feet tall with a thick mass of wiry black-grey hair with his hands on his hips he looked like a man seriously satisfied.
Despite the overwhelming display of testosterone I knew the minute I saw Scott there would be no risk of any Lady Chatterley trysts in the undergrowth. This was a relief.
Brambles are science fiction plants. Their suckers creep underground silently and invisibly weaving their way amongst all the other plants. They have to be destroyed at the source otherwise they come creeping back and begin their malevolent undermining all over again.
Scott had destroyed their surface layer so at least I could see what the plot looked like but this was only the beginning and there was the problem of what to do with them. They had metamorphosed into a pile of rubbish the size of the county bonfire on Guy Fawkes night. It just felt that no sooner did I solve one problem than it turned into another.
My brambles were floored but they needed to be destroyed. I would need to call upon the Great Destroyer again. We’d had the brimstone but I dreaded to think what he would be like with fire.
I’m scared of fire. It has an uncontrollable will and energy of its own and when you see how quickly forest fires get out of hand and rage across the Australian bush I thought how easy it would be for this huge pile of dried brambles to get a grip and for the entire plot to go up in flames.
Scott simply scoffed. The important thing was the wind. It had to be done with no wind or only a slight breeze blowing the smoke away from the neighbours. I wanted to get it over and done with because the longer the pile stayed the more likely there would be field mice, slow worms, toads and hedgehogs moving back in. Not to mention all the other mini bugs and spiders which we forget about in our drive to preserve endangered species.
It’s not just the cuddly furry ones but the long legged and slippery ones that count just as much and who would find my rubbish pile a ready made banquet.
The day arrived. I wasn’t sure whether to leave Scott to get on with it or to hang around like a security guard and keep an eye on him.
He assured me the weather conditions were perfect. He made a small hollow in the ground away from neighbouring fences. He lit a pile of dried twigs. They spluttered and sparked and he started piling on the rubbish and in an instant there were sheets of flames about ten feet high waving in all directions. I pleaded with him to damp it down but he shook his head and said it was going really well and we would have the pile burned in no time and kept piling on the brambles.
There was thick smoke winding through the branches. I knew that clean sheets and freshly ironed pillowcases throughout the neighbourhood would be smelling of bonfire and it would cling for days.
Still within a couple of hours the rubbish had been reduced to a pile of hot smoldering ash. Scott was well pleased with the speed of his demolition and poked around the embers with a stick saying they would cool down by the next day.
But what if the wind got up and started scattering sparks on the dried up landscape? It won’t said Scott. I couldn’t see how he could be so sure and I was determined to keep watch on the ash pile until it was cold. This meant several trips throughout the day to make sure a wayward ember hadn’t embedded itself in a dry clump of shrivelled weeds.
Every time I thought the ash had cooled I poked at it with a stick only to find it was still so red hot underneath I could feel the heat on my face. I was a bit worried about going to bed that night.
The next morning the enormous ash pile had slumped to a flat grey dormat and it was almost cold.
Lesson three is that Nature is the perfect performer. She never goes away she just changes her costume and keeps re-appearing in a different disguise
‘Winter always turns to Spring’
Japanese Buddhist Monk
I had to face the stark reality that the plot was a total mess.
The only ray of hope was a group of three daffodils poking their shoots up through the ground ivy in the woodland area at the far end. They’d probably been there for decades but they were hardly a Wordsworth poem. Still I went and said ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ and go forth and multiply but they had probably exhausted their allotted multiplication by now
Away from the wood the rest was a strimmer’s landscape bordering a tired blackberry hedge and a gigantic pile of rubbish.
The apple tree without its leaves and lemons looked even more crippled.But after the violence of the war zone I wanted to do something altogether gentler and more creative. I would buy my very first fruit tree. It would be a plum. I’d only ever heard of Victoria which grew in my grandmother’s orchard so what cornucopia when I went online and discovered just how many varieties of plums there are. And their names! There was Avalon, Excalibur and Guinevere, Seneca and Czar, Opal, Ariel and even Blue Tit.There is a perfectly good bird called a Blue Tit so I couldn’t understand, given the richness of the world’s literary heritage why they couldn’t have come up with another Knight of the Round Table, Roman Philosopher or member of a Royal Family or a Shakespearean heroine. What do you say when showing someone the garden “Do you like my Blue Tit?” “I can’t see any Tits, I saw a Robin just now.” “No it’s not a tit it’s a tree, it’s my plum tree”. Oh never mind.
As for the colours – what a display of rainbow succulence; dusky red, purple, red-purple, purple-black, blue-purple, golden, yellow, green.
In the end I plumped for Victoria and girl power.
I ordered it from a well-known nursery and the waiting was almost too much to bear.
On the due date for delivery came the knock on the door and a vast package. Inside was what appeared to be a bale of straw. I began pulling it apart but there was nothing there, just masses of straw so I thought there must be some mistake. Then buried deep at the bottom I glimpsed a sudden shaft of silver catching the sunlight. A foil bag. I pulled it out and inside was a bare branch. Well not even a branch, a stick with a couple of threads stuck in some compost. There weren’t any buds or leaves, nothing.
The label said Victoria Plum St. Julien Rootstock. I gazed at it in utter disbelief suffused with misery. Gone were the weeks of planning and visions of lush foliage with the promise of an autumn harvest. I took some deep breaths. I would have to seek out another Expert.
I’d bought a one year old Maiden Whip.
It sounded like some sort of ice cream cone or an ancient instrument of torture used to force primeval virgins into submission.
According to The Experts it would probably be three years before there was even a single plum.
I stared at this bare fragile creature depending totally on me for its future growth. I decided I would love it and nurture it and in the fullness of time it would bear fruit and, like Queen Victoria herself, reign over my realm. Come to think of it, it looked like it could do with a good dose of rain.
Spring meant the planting of Victoria. Then I discovered that according to The Experts the best month for planting a bare-root (maiden whip) plum tree is November.
I was vaguely annoyed that the nursery hadn’t pointed that out as it was six months too late. Then another Expert wrote that it’s OK to plant until the end of March.
She was still two weeks late but I reckoned that was only according to the Gregorian Calendar and if I was planting by the moon or according to the Babylonians or some other Ancient Calendar we might still be in October or December or even June.
Bare-roots apparently are in a state of shock and suffer extreme stress when they are uprooted. It was deeply touching to think that this slender stick was going through a profound emotional trauma. I wondered what the gardening equivalent was of Rescue Remedy. She would definitely need careful handling.
I contacted Scott. He needed to dig a hole. The day dawned and I went to great lengths clutching downloaded pages of instructions to explain how delicate the planting procedure was and how important it was to gently spread the roots over a small mound of earth in the centre of the hole and break up the sides of the hole to create ventilation and so the roots could spread out. I was ready with the Bonemeal and compost, the watering can and a stake. (I should point out that there is no water on the plot yet. That will have to come later with a carefully considered construction like the above mentioned summer- house or a shed with a downpipe and a water butt.)
Scott doesn’t like being told what to do. So he stood and listened and I thought I glimpsed a slight twisting of his upper lip which could be interpreted as mild contempt and the sort of response a man like him might give to a woman driver who backed at an angle into a tight parking spot.
Scott also doesn’t do gentle. He began to dig and I watched. The hole seemed big enough but there were still lots of weeds which I suggested in hushed tones and a suppressed mumble it might be good to get rid of. Scott did not reply but dug deeper.
Then he took the can and filled up the hole with water and handed it to me and asked me to get a refill.
I was very nervous about leaving Scott alone with Victoria.
When I came back she was in and upright and the hole filled in. I knew deep down there had been no gentle spreading out of the roots. He had also forgotten to put in the stake. He took it and hammered it hard into the soil beside her. I could almost feel her wincing.
Still, it was done and all I could do was hope she would settle into her space and fulfil her true plum potential.
Lesson Four Check out what you’re buying before you buy it
‘Question: What is Spring?-
Growth in everything-
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together..
The May Magnificat – Gerald Manley Hopkins
May really does feel like the beginning of Spring. It’s my favourite month. I was born in May and I am told I was wheeled in my pram along country lanes near my grandparents’ farmhouse. That was when I first smelt cow parsley which blossomed in the grass verges underneath hedgerows of white hawthorn.
So I was thrilled to see that under the trees I had my very own miniature field of cow parsley. And there was hawthorn in the adjoining hedgerows.
By this time I had done a bit more research into Whips! Victoria is a one year old single stem bare-root tree with no side shoots. (If she had had side shoots she would be a “feathered whip” )which made her sound like a 1920s flapper. I’d love to know who conjured up these feminine fripperies for names. Still, the root of the matter is that fruit trees are propagated by grafting a bud (scion) from one original tree onto the root from a different one (rootstock). The knob, yes knob, where they form their life time commitment is called a ‘Union” and all being well they live together happily ever after.
Fortunately Scott had not buried the knob below ground. It has to stay above soil level otherwise the knob might take root itself.
If you buy a pot grown fruit tree from the garden centre you might get the fruit a bit earlier but you won’t be able to choose so many varieties.
When I sat back and thought about it, it turned out I had accidentally done the right thing except I would need a great deal of Patience.
Then with the leaves filling the trees people started to notice the change in the plot.
It’s amazing how many people give you advice when you become a gardener. Neighbour (1). “Have you thought about the tree”? Not yet I said. Neighbour (2) “That’s an amazing tree in the middle, you’re not thinking of cutting it down are you?” Not yet I said. Neighbour (3) “It’s the wrong species. This one will drive you mad shedding its saplings everywhere. You must cut it down and replace it.” Not yet I said.
I felt like asking them who had actually bought this plot and paid thousands of pounds for it. But you have to try and keep on the good side of neighbours so I just nodded and said Rome wasn’t built in a day and a few other time worn clichés
Lesson Five is don’t ask for advice and if you get given it don’t necessarily take it
‘It is no use asking me or anyone else how to dig… Better to go and watch a man digging, and then take a spade and try to do it.’
It was starting to look as if the earthly kind was going to be the only solution to banishing the brambles permanently until a friend said “What you need is a good dose of Roundup”. I had actually heard of Roundup so I decided to browse the shelves in the garden centre. There were rows and rows of red, yellow, green and blue plastic containers with different shaped nozzles and sprays and sachets you could dissolve in a watering can.
The manufacturers use language of full blown revolution with names like pistol, vanquish, asteroid and, I could not believe it, there was one called Scott’s Hammer! This was slaughter on an industrial scale. I had no idea where to start so I went to the café, ordered a cappuccino and sat down with my Ipad.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy about this approach of maximum destruction. I quite liked some of the garden weeds like daisies and I drank dandelion and nettle herbal tea and bees adore dandelions.
I decided to investigate what was actually a weed or not a weed. Were they just perfectly good plants in the wrong place or outlaws creating a disturbance. Perhaps it was simply a matter of opinion but even so the idea that I had to blast an asteroid onto something as delicate as a daisy seemed akin, from their point of view, to humans dropping the atom bomb.
A slow trawl through weed websites produced lists of some equally amazing names that I had never heard of – Fat-Hen, Fool’s Parsley, Sticky Mouse-Ear, Nipplewort, Common Fiddleneck. Where did all these culprits hang out?
Some were clearly dictators intent on territorial invasion but others were rather small and pretty.
Another trawl and I learned that there were different weedkillers for different types of weeds and for all kinds of different environments. They also worked differently. Some were selective and didn’t harm surrounding grass; others went deep into the root system and stayed in the soil for several weeks; some that you sprayed on the leaves were not very effective. A couple of hours on my Mac and I knew that the killing of weeds was a serious science. It was time for another Expert. If I used a weedkiller would it be dangerous to badgers?
Low Toxicity to wildlife I was advised. But how do we really know?
I’m told badgers can eat 300 earthworms in a night although usually it’s about 150-200. I wondered who had actually counted them. If you seriously think about it how on earth could anyone actually count the number of earthworms a badger snuffles up during the hours of darkness. Has anyone done a clinical trial on it? Worms come in different sizes. When I dig a hole there could be no worms or two large worms or several small ones. How do we know they don’t eat 85 or 250? I am an amateur surrounded by the Experts but gardening is starting to make me question the occasional confident assertion and statistic.
But if there was a tiny pin point of weedkiller left in the earthworm’s blood multiplied by 300 how do we know what might happen? (Earthworms have a fascinating anatomy if you ever fancy taking a look.)
So weed control confronted me with a much more serious moral problem. I didn’t want toxic residues in my soil and any thought of chemicals was out of the question.
It seemed there were no shortcuts to getting rid of brambles. They had to be uprooted quite literally.
It took Scott the best part of a week to clear them. I had to admire his determination. He doesn’t shrink from a challenge. It was him against the brambles. Every now and then he stopped for a swig of something. I didn’t ask what it was. It looked like water but it could have been gin and tonic. But every upturned clod was a battle won and I knew he would win the war.
Suddenly I had a huge open weed-free space.
Lesson Six it’s worth doing a bit of digging around, not of the earthly kind
‘O, thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair, and smell’st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, would though hadst ne’er
William Shakespeare Othello Act IV Sc. IV
Weed or no weed they have a momentum all their own and I had to keep them under control because they self seed and lurk deep in the soil and spring back to life when your back’s turned. They needed constant suppressing.
Off again to the Garden Centre where there were rolls of different kinds of netting. Netting for birds, netting for ponds, thick netting, thin netting, open netting, closed netting – a large opaque black thinnish roll turned out to be ‘weed suppressant membrane’. Perfect. Laid in sheets over the soil it would deprive them of oxygen and stop them growing.
One thing gardening has shown me is that there is an unbelievably dizzying amount of bewildering choice. You have got to ‘know your onions’ as the saying goes otherwise you can end up spending a fortune on the wrong thing.
Lesson Six is that gardening does not come cheap. There are ways of making massive savings but you have to search for them.
I bought 60 metres of the black sheeting and set about laying it over the soil like a bedspread. I pegged it down at every corner and in the middle and put lumps of dug up stones to weigh it down. The little darlings would never see the light of day.
I went back for several days to check and there wasn’t a green shoot in sight. Bliss.
Day eight dawned bright and sunny and off I trotted to survey my patch.
Blitz. Ripped up strips had been rooted up and there could only be one culprit. The Badgers had been busy doing their nocturnal foraging and
large parts of the membrane were in shreds. I would still rather have the badgers than not and they were after all just searching for food. Still, this was a setback.
The elderly man who had once owned the plot and used to potter down there wheeling his wheelbarrow and wearing a trilby hat, was meticulous about his garden and had built a shed with corrugated iron. Over the years the shed had collapsed and got buried in the earth but it was still there waiting to be dug out one day and, I thought, disposed off. But I saw another Scott project for it.
Sheets of corrugated iron laid over the membrane would surely deter the nightly wanderers in their hunt for worms. It was worth a try.
Within a week my carefully weeded landscape covered in its smooth black
counterpane was now covered in rusted corrugated sheeting and looked like something out of a Detroit suburb. It would stay there for six months.
“Not quite what you had in mind” murmured a friend wistfully.
“Still, it will be good for snakes and sloworms. They’ll love hiding under there.”
“So will the slugs.” I replied.
Lesson Seven Weeds are just as big a part of gardening as fruit, veg and flowers. The American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox said that “A weed is but an unloved flower!’ That sums it up. There is always the question of what is a weed? I have decided that is up to me. One gardener’s weed is another gardener’s flower.
‘There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may – light, shade and perspective will always make it beautiful.’
August is such a strange month. It’s as if the summer takes one long intake of breath before letting out its last sigh and packing its bags. I’ve always felt slightly out of sync with August. If it’s hot it’s too hot. If it’s wet we feel cheated. All the schools are on holiday so everywhere is teaming with kids who are actually quite bored which is weird because when I was at school I couldn’t wait for the summer holidays. But August is a bit like a four week Sunday afternoon with everyone waiting for something to happen or getting ready to go to work on Monday.
The summer flowers are coming to an end and the autumn ones haven’t quite come into their own.
My plot was similarly in limbo. Covered in corrugated iron, I was struggling to see beauty or perspective in its rusted, jagged, flattened forms.
I could also see the calm, measured lines of a neighbouring allotment with its tilled soil, healthy green slug free veg and not a weed in sight. It was the epitomy of efficiency and planning.
But no point in making a comparison. Mine was an embryonic vision yet to be fulfilled. I wasn’t a mathematical precision type of person anyway so I didn’t want an allotment all straight lines and immaculate pruning.
Victoria was still a sapling putting down her roots I hoped deep enough in the ground. The blackberry bush was showing signs of having a crop of blackberries and the two hazelnut trees were covered in nuts but otherwise as I hadn’t planted anything yet there was nothing going on. Down in the woodland bit I had hung loads of bird feeders so at least I could do some bird watching and they were diving back and forth and seemed pretty appreciative of these extra culinary treats suddenly hanging off the branches.
Looking around I was pretty pleased with my efforts so far and progress had definitely been made.
It was time to think about what I was going to do next. I decided that I would definitely want somewhere to sit and study the slow transformation of my barren plot into a living landscape. A little area protected from the wind and rain with one of those low-slung padded chairs that you can sink into and stretch out on, preferably with a footstool to match. I might even splash out on a parasol. It could be my corner of contemplation. I would need a patch of grass. I wasn’t going so far as to say lawn. At least not yet. Maybe never.
There is a world of difference between mowing the lawn and cutting the grass.
Lawns are preened to within a pinpoint of perfection. They are smoothed, rolled and trimmed. Their green is the only green of its kind. It is the very essence of greenness. Think tennis, croquet, bowls, cricket pitches, Capability Brown. Their immaculate complexion speaks a silent superiority.
Grass on the other hand is a bit of a rebel. Rough round the edges, a bit patchy, a few bumps, could do with a good haircut. The lawn is Her Ladyship. The grass is Mellors. If you haven’t read Lady Chatterley’s Lover then, I can’t resist this, fingers in ears, it’s your ‘turf’ luck!
But we all buy lawn mowers, not grass mowers. And yet, we are told in no uncertain dictatorial terms to “Keep off the Grass”. There is a bit of a personality overlap here.
I knew in my heart I was a grass girl. Even so, I never thought I would ever be in a position to be sowing grass seed anywhere. It just wasn’t in my CV. The instructions by The Experts sounded quite intimidating. Weeks of weed elimination, rotivation, treading it down with heavy boots in different directions, raking it in different directions, dividing it into sections, measuring out the seed and then when it’s done the birds will most likely scuffle it all up by taking a dust bath or eating the seeds
All I can say for Lesson Eight is keep calm and carry on.
After ten months of going it alone I decided I needed to go and see what real garden restoration looked like. In early September I rented a cottage in one of Cornwall’s most picturesque coastal villages, Mevagissey, and headed off to the Lost Gardens of Heli
Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers..”grow, grow”
The Lost Gardens of Heligan are magical and for a struggling novice gardener like me, they were a total inspiration. Everyone was also very Helpful and not at all superior Experty. (Not that Experts are generally like that but there is a difference between not knowing a plant from a weed and winning gold at Chelsea.)
Heligan is a collection of different garden styles set in acres of woodlands and open fields. The house was bought by the Tremayne family in 1569. In the 18th and 19th centuries the family gradually turned the estate into a series of exotic gardens until the First World War when Heligan House became a convalescent home. By the 1970s the house had been turned into flats and sold and the garden had become a wilderness where it lay untouched for twenty years.
But in 1990 a descendent of the family who inherited the estate began restoring the gardens. The only way to experience Heligan with its individual gardens, history, working ethos and wildlife is to go there.
I knew there would be no point in comparing it with my plot – that would be a recipe for despair. So I decided to pick the brains of the girls in green shirts with wide angle rakes who were lovingly tending the vegetable patch which stretched in long level lines to a distant horizon.
It was not too late to sow grass seed. No need to be intimidated. Just rake over the ground and scatter it and it will all happen. It would take about two weeks to germinate. They made it sound so simple.
After I had spent several days watching birds in the hide, walking in the woods, making copious notes about Edwardian planting schemes I came away feeling as if my own small, slightly chaotic gardening world had been restored. But then Heligan is an anagram of healing and they say gardening is good for the soul.
I brought back from Heligan 150 spring bulbs, a heady mix of different varieties of daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops. Now I could do some serious planting and even though it was the middle of September I could already sniff the scent of spring.
But it was time to buy some grass seed and get it established before the early frosts. (Steady on – that sentence sounded a bit like gardening speak…) I knew that this would not be a straightforward experience and I was right. There was grass seed for luxury lawns; seed for football pitches; seed with wildflower mixes; seed for the wear and tear of family life; seed that grows slowly so you don’t need to mow/cut it very often; seed for drought; seed for shade; seed for the coast; seed for agriculture – to mention just a few.
I just wanted a bog standard bit of grass to sit on and have a picnic and there was a multi-purpose seed so I opted for that although a friend said I should mix several types together to avoid getting moss but she wasn’t sure which ones.
I chose a patch and raked it every which way stamping on it in all directions with my heavy duty trainers. Then I raked long narrow furrows and measured out 50 grams a meter with my cooking scales. Somehow the top soil I had raked off to one side didn’t cover it when I raked it back and all the seed got churned up. They didn’t tell me about that at Heligan! So I started all over again and the same thing happened so I covered it with some compost.
The next day it rained heavily. Not just a drizzle but heavy downpours and flooding. There was no question of doing any gardening. I knew the grass was doomed. It rained on and off for the next few days before the weather cleared and the patch was a sodden square of mud. Was it worth re-doing it or should I wait until the Spring.
I decided to give it one more go and I went through the whole rigmarole all over again, covered it with netting heavily pegged down to keep out the birds and hopefully the badgers who made a beeline for any newly dug up soil because of fresh worm activity.
Now I would plant the bulbs. OMG. I had undone the original bags to sort them out but left them in plastic bags outside in my courtyard. I had forgotten to put them in the shed. They were soaked through.
I could have cried. I picked them out one by one and in fact things were not as bad as they looked. I lost about ten to mush but the rest had survived.
Planting even 140 bulbs is no mean feat and it was four days of dibber digging before I had them all arrayed in clumps around what would be the grassy Corner of Contemplation and nestling under Victoria’s skirts.
Lesson Nine is that when you buy plants (and get tempted by all those special offer bulk buys) don’t forget you do actually have to plant them in the ground.
“The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger. He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place.”
– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
My grandmother used to make pots of crab apple jelly and I’ve always loved their pinky white blossom and the small round red fruits like large overripe cherries so top of my list was a crab apple tree.
I thought Victoria needed company. She was starting to look a bit lonely as the only fruit tree on the plot. There would be more in due course but for now I would get another tree I had at least heard of. This time I would buy it already grown in a pot. I chose one called Red Sentinel. It’s Latin name is Malus Robusta which augured well. The Experts said it was ‘resilient’ . I planted Robusta with a little help from a friend on a Sunday afternoon in the right sized hole with compost, staked and in the perfect position with plenty of sun and shelter and all I needed to do was let it settle for 24 hours and then make sure it was well watered.
It had about a dozen bright red fruits. Then the accustomed killer blow from a local gardener “badgers love crab apples you must take them off until the tree gets established. Badgers are so heavy they will try and reach the fruits and break the tree with their weight.” So the fruits ended up as a still life in a dish on my dining room table.
I began to worry about the badgers leaning against the trunk as it was still slender and quite fragile. I went out the next day to check it was still standing. But I didn’t water it. Tuesday came and went, so did Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Each morning I padded off to the plot on badger patrol and came back satisfied that so far all was well. Then Saturday – epiphany –OMG I hadn’t given it any water all week. I made several trips with a watering can as it looked droopy and had lost its shine. The leaves were pointing downwards. I gave it a good soak but I couldn’t remember if the leaves were meant to be pointing downwards or upwards. It had gone an entire week without water. I needed to see other crab apples to see which way the leaves were pointing so I set off to visit some local allotments. I only found one and it was vivid green with bright fruits and upward pointing leaves.
This did not look good. There was no sign of revival in Robusta later in the evening but I didn’t know if I gave her (she had to be a sister to Victoria) another can whether I would be over-watering.
The next day I was walking along a nearby road and suddenly I saw a blaze of red fruits cascading over the wall and some of the leaves were up and some were down.
By the next morning Robusta had perked up and I knew she would live up to her name and survive.
Gardening, especially if you are a novice like me, really does arouse every emotion. I wondered if gardeners ever need counselling. By now I knew I could easily talk about ‘overcoming disappointment’; ‘managing expectation’and ‘giving myself permission to feel joy’.
When you think what gardeners have to deal with – clematis wilt, plum rust, badgers munching through their corms, aphids, all manner of beetles and flies and top of the pest list the slippery slug.
But I suddenly found myself facing a bit of a moral dilemma. As a lover of all wildlife who won’t kill an ant if I can help it, for me gardening throws up some moral questions which is pretty much summed up as ‘should I kill a slug to save a lettuce?’
A slug is a sentient being with, apparently, a complex sex life involving extensive foreplay. A lettuce, is well, a lettuce. It’s the same with earwigs who, apparently, have highly developed parenting skills. Caterpillars also turn into butterflies and moths.
I don’t want to give the impression that I am a follower of Jainism. They are a deeply admirable sect of Indian monks who practise non-violence to the point of sweeping the road before them incase they walk on an insect. We have to live in the real world and let nature take its course even if it is often ‘red in tooth and claw”.
The countryside was sliding into Autumn and the leaves were turning. The days were dewy in the morning with cobwebs hanging off the hedgerows and the evenings were lasting longer.
I was coming to the end of my first year and it was time to take stock.
It had been an incredibly steep learning curve but my plot now had two fruit trees, 150 bulbs, two small areas were sown with grass seed which would probably not do much until the Spring when I would know if they had germinated or shrivelled in the cold. The brambles were under control although I knew they would be weaving their wicked ways out of sight and reappear in the Spring.
But the wilderness was slowly being tamed and now I could really begin to think about what to do next .
Lesson Ten Don’t listen to any of the killjoys who see gardening as ‘outdoor housework’ ! Even when it all goes wrong it’s a lot more fun than doing the washing up!
The garden is now slowly transformed and the next instalment will bring you up to date.