Monday, 25 April 2011

How does my garden grow?

 My name is Rachael and I am a garden bore. There. I've said it. I love my garden. I love getting dirt under my fingernails and leaves in my hair. I carefully pick up freshly dug worms and put them back in the soil, tossing the odd one to the robin who always appears as soon as I have a spade or fork in my hand. From April to October, I have to spend at least five minutes every day checking what's blooming, what's fading and what's downright surprising.

What's most surprising is that I have become a gardener at all. I used to be the girl that not only killed all her own house plants, but also transferred the kiss of death to any plant I bought as a gift. The first two gardens we owned I viewed with suspicion and tried to keep under control, but no more than that. When a Japanese Maple tree started throwing up suckers in the grass and then, even worse, under our kitchen floor in our last house, all my suspicions were confirmed - nature was the enemy.

All that changed when we bought our current, beloved, house. It came with a mature and extremely well-loved garden. On our second viewing, the then owner, Angela, made coffee and confided that they had just turned down an asking-price offer on the house from a man who wanted to dig up the lawn and put in a swimming pool. When we moved in, the neighbours told me how Angela would stand on the terrace every morning with a cup of coffee, just looking at the garden. I felt an immediate responsibility. This garden I had to look after.

As it turned out, in the first few years there wasn't much to do except keep things ticking over. With a toddler and then a new baby, I was glad to let the garden do its own thing. Every year things grew, things flowered. Throughout the summer the garden was filled with colour - purple and pink hardy geraniums, sky blue lupins, sweet lavenders, blousey pink roses, creamy-white and fragrant mock orange. The pear tree dripped with big-bottomed fruit. The cherry tree flowered twice a year, spotting the tips of its brittle branches with puffs of blossom. I watered and feed and tidied and continued to think of it as Angela's garden.

I knew when we decided to moved to New York for a few years that leaving the garden would be hard. One warm sunny day in early-June, we sat on the patio eating take-out chicken and thinking just how beautiful it was, while the men inside packed up the house and the children ran around on the grass. It seemed cruel that we had to leave just when the garden was at its very best, but leave we did.

We returned three years later to one of the worst summers in London for many a year. Cold and wet. The tenants had moved out six weeks previously and the grass was knee-deep. Three trees had been lost to the January storms earlier in the year. But, much worse, the ivy had run amok. It covered the deep flower beds, all but meeting the grass. It had grown right over the top of the pear and apple trees, and even the tall cherry tree was bowed under the weight of an ivy canopy. The letting agents argued that this had all happened within the six weeks the property had been empty. I knew this was three years of neglect.

I cleared as much of the ivy as I could, rediscovering the old paths and border boundaries, pulling and teasing lengths and lengths of the stuff out of the trees. For every foot of ivy there were two of bramble, lashing cuts up and down my arms. There is only so much one small woman with a pair of secateurs can do and the final hacking back took two men and a chainsaw the best part of a day.

And then we waited. And waited. Surely some of the old perennials were still alive under there? The hardy geraniums earned their name and dutifully came back. A nameless silvery shrub thrust out soft spears of purple flowers - it may be a Salvia, I'm still not sure. The evergreen Euonymus shrubs still marched down the shady side of the garden.  A woody rosemary bush was alive but in danger of being pushed out by one of the many ant hills. Little else survived.

Angela's garden had gone and I had never taken the time to find out what all those wonderful plants were. So I started again. It's taken me three years, but I now know (more or less) what I have in my garden. As I sit here in late April, I can see bluebells and grape hyacinths, just passing their prime. The hardy geraniums are lush with leaf and in a few weeks will be smothered with both flowers and busy-bottomed honey bees. The lime green leaves and stems of purple alliums stud the length of the beds, some already in full bloom, others with their buds still closed in tight green bullets. Self-seeding aquilegias are already sporting their pretty pink bonnets and the sea holly and hostas are in full leaf, with the promise of colour to come. The wisteria is dropping its pale purple confetti on the lawn with every gentle breeze. From behind me comes the thick scent of lilacs, shortly to be replaced by the equally lovely fragrance of the mock orange tree.

And, happily, after years of hiding and sulking, some of Angela's plants have come back. There is a peony I forgot we had that has suddenly come into leaf. The smaller trees have recovered from their tussle with the ivy, and the firethorn tree is especially grateful for its release, with blossom in the spring and masses of hot red berries in the autumn and winter. The roses and flowering shrubs that had become woody and barren have been hard pruned and fed and left be and are now happily flowering again. Last year, a small grey nub of a stub that I decided against digging out for no better reason than laziness suddenly sprouted new branches, then leaves, then beautiful white flowers with blood-red hearts. It's a hibiscus. The ants have been evicted and the rosemary bush is happy. Even the hostas have been spared by the slugs this year, possibly because some hedgehogs have moved in and they love a nice juicy slug.

I don't kill things anymore, I grow them. A garden, a family, a home. All built on solid foundations and thriving.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely post. I sort of found your blog as a result of curiosity about the E Dulwich Writers' group. An old school friend, Sue Lanzon, is a member. Will you write some more about your home and garden? This post makes me want to know more. I too love gardening, but I'm not very good at it. I have a very small garden at my cottage in Zeeuws Vlaanderen in south Holland, but I'm only there at weekends, so it's difficult to stay on top of things...everything is just so prolific! Anyhow, would love to read more.