Helen's Garden Renovation Project

Wednesday 4 October 2006

How did it get like this?

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 5:57 pm

Sometimes people want to redesign their garden because they don’t like what the previous owner did with it. I can’t use that defence because when I moved in, there was hardly anything in the garden. There were two apple trees, leaning towards each other, right in the middle of the garden. There were many, many bulbs. There was some kerria. I think there may have been some crocosmia. There were a couple of saplings which my dad said I didn’t want and dug up the first time he came to visit. The builders had put back the topsoil and sown grass seed all over the area. That was it. That was my garden.

I can’t claim that my aspirations have changed much, either. In 1987, when I bought my first house, I was reluctant to take on a garden. I had only just left university, and I was about to start my first job, and I didn’t have much confidence in myself to look after a house. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with a garden. But then, I found the ideal house, and it had a little back garden, with a path running through the middle of it, and a brick-built shed at the end. “All right then,” I said, “I’m having a garden. But I’m not growing anything I can’t eat!”

The following March, I sowed broad beans. Later on I grew tomatoes, mange tout and purple-sprouting brocolli. The neighbours dug up their apple tree and offered it to me, and I planted it in the lawn. Encouraged and fortified by this good food, I planted heathers and sowed flower seeds. By the time I came to move house, a good garden was on my list of requirements.

My next house had a mature garden which was small but well planned. It had several trees and shrubs, and apart from digging a pond which never produced any frogs, and killing a hebe by pruning it too harshly, I didn’t do much to it. Some of its inhabitants included a beautiful but very prickly berberis which was painful to prune, a vigorous and variegated hedge which didn’t hurt, but which didn’t take much notice of being pruned, and a mop-head hydrangea which always looked rather miserable, probably because I couldn’t be bothered to dead-head it.

Finally, I moved to my present house, which was a new build, hence the almost empty garden. By now, a big garden was almost at the top of my list, and the garden didn’t look very big, but my mum said that was because it was empty, and that if I looked next door, they had four mature beech trees in theirs. The next door garden was actually quite a bit wider than mine, but it was the same depth, and the beech trees were undisputably growing in it.

So, what an opportunity! A blank garden of an easy shape (about forty foot square, and almost perfectly level) with virtually nothing in it. I could do anything I wanted with it. As an inexperienced gardener, I could have been intimidated by such freedom. Indeed, I wished that I could have had more constraints so that it was easier to decide how to arrange it. But I decided that I would have a go, and see what I could make of it.

My primary strategy was to get some structural plants started as soon as possible. There is no substitute for time in a garden. (I told my dad I was gardening for growth and not for income. He thought that was quite funny). I bought the RHS Encyclopaedia of plants and chose the shrubs and trees that I wanted. It was April when I moved in, and the front gardens in the neighbourhood were glorious with magnolias. I definitely wanted one of them. I also remained faithful to my principle of growing things that I could eat, and decided that I would grow raspberries. There had to be a pond, too, and this time I would put it where it got some sun, in the hope that the frogs would prefer that.

So in June my parents came over for the day and we erected a raspberry frame with the posts set in concrete. I ordered my raspberry canes from Ken Muir and planted them in the November sleet. They produced raspberries the first few years, but after that they sickened and didn’t put on much new growth. I think they must have contracted a virus. I knew I couldn’t plant a new set of raspberry canes in the same place, or they would die too, so I bought some apple trees to grow inside the frame and some blackberries to grow up it.

The pond was put in by Lotus Landscapes, and I soon realised that I should have had it put a bit further away from the back fence so I could grow something behind it that would hide the fence. But the pond did well, and attracted a large colony of newts. I was delighted. But then the right hand edge started sinking. It was a good few inches lower than the left hand side. I think this could have been because it was built on a disused soakaway.

I dug a long, straight border on the right hand side, and planted shrubs and perennials. I also bought some conifers to grow along the back fence. But they were slow-growing, and I decided that I wanted more privacy sooner, so I ordered some Leylandii by mail order. Ten plugs were posted through my letterbox and I planted them. I moved the conifers to be in front of the Leylandii so that in the right hand side I had a double row of conifers – in the sunniest part of the garden!

Then I decided to have a blackberry frame in the right hand corner (this was before I started using the raspberry frame to grow blackberries up). I got Lotus Landscapes to extend the path they had built in front of the pond so it went right the way around the garden. I dug up and moved the magnolia to make room for the blackberry frame. It sulked for several years, but eventually forgave me and started flowering again. The blackberry frame blocked out sunlight for some of my shrubs in the right hand corner, and they never really thrived.

When I was mowing the lawn, I found that the grass cuttings would land in the pond, so I dug up some of the grass in front of the pond and planted some low shrubs there to block the grass. I also used some of the space for growing vegetables – I had not included a vegetable patch in my original plan and I was missing growing vegetables. At least I put the vegetable patch where it got some sun.

I took out the apple trees. They produced plenty of apples, but the apples from one tree had bitter pit, and those from the other were always rotten. The trees were large, and I knew I could do much better by buying new ones – as indeed I did.

And then I got my patio laid, and that was when I suddenly realised how bad the garden looked.

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