My husband Brian is an enthusiastic gardener, and very good at it. In between undergraduate and postgraduate studies he worked full-time as a gardener at his old college. When we first met he would tell stories about the exhilaration of physical labour in the depths of winter, and being able to eat two lunches a day to compensate. I hated the idea of being outside in the cold, let alone the physical labour, but the two lunches appealed. In all our years together I have been a fair weather gardener, which doesn’t allow for much time when living in England, but I do what I can. I can’t take responsibility for the creative elements of the gardens we have built, but have happily helped with decisions, provided labour, fair weather enthusiasm, and enjoyed the benefits.
We made our first garden together in a new house overlooking the Grand Union canal which we rented from Milton Keynes Council. It was in the early days of building the new city and public sector workers were eligible for housing. After we married, we were allocated a lovely three-bedroomed, three-storey house. The back garden was small and full of builder’s rubble and heavy clay soil, and we didn’t fancy tackling it first. The lounge was upstairs at the canal-front and had a balcony with large picture windows. Inspired by “Dutch windows” we had seen on a trip to Amsterdam, we decided to concentrate on greening the inside. Before we moved in we had amassed a collection of house plants, and we set to placing them around the house and on the balcony. We learned how to make macramé plant hangers and the front window looked quite spectacular. We learned about house plants through trial and error, but a few of those we bought in the early days survived until we left for the Solomon Islands 15 years later. We had to leave them to their own devices as they were too big to move from the house, and nobody we knew wanted them – particularly the large and painful collection of cacti. Two large rubber plants, one cheese plant and one mammoth dracaena were sadly mourned when we returned from our travels.
Happily, our wedding present grey bark elm bonsai tree survived, and is still with us today, now over 40 years old. The tradition has filtered down, and our daughter asked for house plants for her 25th birthday this June, and we bought her a good number so she and Ed can try out their skills. If they marry, we’ll buy them a bonsai tree, and hope it will be a blessing not a curse.
We hired a rotovator for the back garden to break up the clay, laid a small brick patio, and filled it with potted plants. However, our priority was also to build up enough furniture for the house, and to decorate it to our liking. The interior therefore took up much of our spare time. We also had plans for moving on.
It was the days when aspiring young professionals could afford mortgages, and we wanted to buy a home. In my first job as an early years teacher in London, I had opened a homebuyer’s savings account, and this was now just enough to pay a deposit, despite properties in Milton Keynes doubling in value just before we bought! We had looked for homes further afield in Northampton, twenty miles away, and had been on the verge of buying a beautiful house with a large established garden at a very reasonable price. Then the survey pointed out some defects, and we were inexperienced, got frightened at the cost implications, and pulled out. We also decided we didn’t want the commute so focused on buying in Milton Keynes. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy council house scheme came in at the right time for us and we were offered the rental house at a discount. But we were good Socialists then as we hope we are now, and did not want to buy public housing when we could afford to buy outside that system.
So after two years we moved to an 1860’s Victorian mid-terraced red brick house with a small, square walled and fenced garden mostly laid to concrete. We had fallen in love with the house and its potential, rather than the garden, but hoped to make our mark on both. The house had stained glass windows intact and rare white marble fireplaces. There’s another article to be written about home renovations……..
We stripped and varnished all the wood floors, stripped textured paint off every wall and once again decorated the house to our liking. Just writing this feels tiring, but it’s what we are still doing, though more slowly and with more time – and knowledge.
Back in the garden, once again we laid a brick patio, and sourced a supply of black edging bricks and engineering brick pavers, which contrasted with the red. We put up a shed, and shaped out flower beds, plus an area for multiple pots. We got seriously into cooking, jam and preserve making, and beer and wine making from kits.
We wanted space to grow fruit and vegetables, which we did not have in the garden. We applied for and secured an allotment within walking distance, and this became our new project. However, it was short-lived. From the first visit, we were befriended and later felt continually harassed by the man who had the neighbouring plot. He said the previous couple had not stayed long, and we soon knew why. He had opinions on everything we did, and everything we did was wrong. He was always there, we couldn’t escape him. Despite Brian’s gardening experience, it was hard to keep going. A friend of ours was invited to share the plot and her father came to help her work it. He was an experienced vegetable gardener and apparently felt like putting a fork into the neighbour, who also tried to tell him what to do. So it wasn’t personal, but it was a barrier. We only managed to grow potatoes and onions that season, and then gave up.
By this time we had been there for two years and were ready to move again. We had made the house lovely, and filled it with things we had bought from auctions and junk shops, that fitted with its period, but we wanted more garden, this time attached to the house.
Our next three houses have been bought by chance, before we had begun seriously looking. Each has popped up in the local paper or on internet searches, and we have not regretted it.
The next move was to a house described in the newspaper as having ‘a 160 yard garden leading down to the canal’. The canal turned out to be the river Great Ouse, although we have a canal nearby, but we were immediately drawn to the advert and visited. The house was an Edwardian end-of –terrace that had belonged to an elderly woman who had died. The house had been gutted and very poorly renovated by a self-styled builder who had run out of money. It would need a great deal of work. The garden had been neglected for years, and had little planting we could identify, except for an ageing lilac tree, which later died of honey fungus, and several fruit trees half way down. So we had a complete blank slate and one-third of an acre, plus an entire house to renovate. However, we did stay there for 26 years, so gave ourselves time.
In our first year, we spent all our holidays working on the house and garden. Being so close to the river, the soil was amazingly fertile, which meant an abundance of nettles, giant hogweed, brambles and cow parsley. It took us some weeks of hard labour with scythes, spades and forks to tackle the waist-high growth. We did not know what was under the grass, and little by little we found animal bones, old Victorian bottles, metal signs and Edwardian car wheels. The original owners had run a butcher’s shop and buried the offal in the garden, to add to the fertility. Our bonfires grew to the height of haystacks that summer, and the pile of scrap metal was the size of our car.
Even in the early days, Brian had a plan for the garden. It lent itself well to being zoned, with a jetty and damp-loving plant area at the riverside, a shrub and wild area, an orchard with bulb lawn, potager, herbaceous borders, pond and patio. We visited Villandry chateau in France, and vowed to re-create the kitchen garden there. Well, we didn’t manage it, but did make our own version. My creative husband entered a competition to have your own garden design advised on by a team of experts. We nearly won! The feedback was almost as good as winning, and we will keep the plans and correspondence till death.
Over the years we built a few jetties, dragging heavy railway sleepers to form steps, and hammering poles in place. The flooding that we experienced yearly was so strong that our first couple of jetties were washed away, together with a heavy wooden picnic table, an inflatable boat and a wooden rowing boat. We think intruders took the boats and never recovered them. Eventually, we learned how to build a stable structure and enjoyed many evenings just sitting and watching wildlife. In the early days, the bottom of our garden and the four adjacent ones were woodland and wildlife havens, with species of birds no longer found locally, such as three types of woodpeckers. Creeping urbanisation and commercialisation changed the landscape, but earlier this year when we visited, ‘our’ garden is still lovely.
Some of our proud achievements have been planting a tulip tree which is now a magnificent specimen, creating a pond that is home to dozens of great crested newts – a protected species – a bamboo thicket, and a handkerchief tree. We had a successful vegetable and fruit garden until work and parenting responsibilities became dominant, and we never managed to get to relax in the garden without undone jobs rising up and hitting us. But we handed the garden over to a couple for whom it was their ‘forever’ home, and who love the garden as much as we did.
For six and a half years we have worked on our final UK garden, four and a half really as we took two years out to return to Solomon Islands, and we had bought the house and built a double extension that we had opted to finish ourselves to cut costs. This took up quite a bit of time before and after we went to Solomons, and once again, we couldn’t prioritise the garden. We inherited an established garden that had been left to grow wild, but there was a hidden structure somewhere, some fine trees, and many shrubs. This garden is also a third of an acre in size, not far in distance from the last one, and backs onto the same river. A brook that feeds the river runs down one side of the garden. For two years we just kept the grass under control, as Brian was still working overseas, and I was tied up with supporting Kiran with her studies and trying to find her a place to live in London. We had also become regular travellers, sold our flat in France and bought a house there, and were therefore not spending long periods of time in England. We nevertheless love the house and garden and in the past year have begun to shape the garden to our liking, and taken on a number of projects.
The one apple tree in the orchard area has been joined by more apple trees plus pear, peach and mulberry trees. Brian is now a conservation and parks volunteer, and learned the art of willow fencing, so we now have waterside boundaries. We have created a large compost and storage area, and a number of fruit beds with blueberries, goji berries, strawberries and raspberries. We already have an abundance of wild blackberries, hazel nuts and our own walnut tree, and look forward to fighting the squirrels and birds for the produce. We have planted hundreds of bulbs which we hope will naturalise and give us early spring colour, and have plans for a pond. Near to the house we have a conservatory ready to erect when we finish our current travels, and just before we left the UK we battled with torrential rain to lay a patio in time. 2017 is the year when we plan to travel less, so can reap the benefits of the 2015/16 labour.
Finally, the house in France has given us the chance to create a Mediterranean garden. The front and back plots are thankfully small but the house and garden are carved out of volcanic ‘schist’ which is tough to work in, and we have laid decking in both gardens for now, and will complete the planting later. We have already planted bougainvillea, a fig, oleanders, lavenders, wisteria and of course, a grape vine. We plan to cover the ground with native plants, and herbs for cooking and smelling.
We haven’t finished with moving or gardening yet, and the next move will be to live closer to our daughter, most likely within the next five years. Our most memorable gardens have all involved water, and we have talked about moving to the south coast of England. Roll on the next challenge in our comfortable life!