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Gardening: Appreciating Change: 4) The Susceptible Gardener

On to human influences

In Part 2 we pondered on major weather changes and the seasons, and then in Part 3 the facts of changes through growth and even death of our plants.   Each of these things, remembering the point of this mini-series, are things to appreciate, things to watch out for, things to enjoy. So far they have been things largely out of our control, but now I want to move us on to think about the way we ourselves interact with our gardens and the way we can be influenced by things outside of ourselves to bring changes to this plot of land we call our garden.

4. New Ideas – Boredom with Old

As I have looked back over the years, trying to remember where we have been on this odyssey in our garden, I have this slightly uneasy feeling that there have been two aspects of who I am as a susceptible gardener who has given way to the wiles of modern marketing, that have provoked changes in our garden. One of them is the desire to move on to something new, to have a project to work on, and the other is the recognition that like most of us, I suspect, I like seeing new ‘products’. So let this be a time of confession and see if you are like me, or are you one of these people who are absolutely happy with what you have and you don’t want change?


The Garage & the Vinery: But then we had an old garage that never had a car in it, and thus just accumulated junk, as so many garages do, but as the years passed it became more and more dilapidated. By now our three children used this Aladdin’s cave to make den’s and even now when they are in reminiscent mood (in their late thirties) they recollect this wonder-hole.  But now it was starting to fall down. So what do you do with a collapsing garage when there is no longer space down the side of the house to get a car there – not that we had ever used it for that! You have a project. Recycling has become a ‘thing’ in recent decades. I think I can claim to be a recycling forerunner. Much of the old structure became what was lovingly called for a number of years – the vinery, a glass-fronted structure that had a flower bed at one end and a mini-workshop at the other. A vinery? We grew two vines there for a number of years.

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Grass & Roses: A project is any thing you see in your mind’s eye that is going to take some working at, probably not just a quick couple of days’ work. When we first moved to our present home many years back, I have already explained, our garden was one mass of grass at about three feet and my Dad, bless him, took it on himself to come over with a scythe and bring it down to a manageable length. I think it was more than a few days’ work. But then we discovered that, hidden in the grass were well over forty rather (no, very) old rose bushes that were seriously beyond their sell-by date. As we were expecting our first child and therefore wanting a child-friendly garden, these roses had to go. That took more than a few months, I seem to remember. Early projects to tame the garden.

Sheds: Modesty would prefer that I omitted this part but if I do there will be howls of angst from my family.  When we moved into this thoroughly dilapidated garden there were at least half a dozen ‘structures’. To call them ‘sheds’ would really be a gross exaggeration but they contained ‘stuff’. Over the years they fell down or were patched up (recycled materials – buy as little as possible!) and one summer I made eight trips to the local council recycling banks as they are now called (the ‘tip’ in days gone by!) getting rid of as much as possible of the contents of these various ‘huts’. A vague sense of respectability came to this aspect of our garden when one day, it’s got to have been at least twenty five years ago, my wife who was a teacher, asked me to build her a ‘summer house’ half way down the garden where she could escape from the phone to do her marking.  

 This was obviously going to be something of a completely different calibre from the rickety structures that for a decade or so had been scattered around ‘the estate’.  I actually bought timber and planned on this ‘shed-cum-summerhouse’ being about 8 feet wide by 4 feet deep. Thus one summer afternoon I had these 12 feet lengths of feather-boarding laid out on the grass with various vertical posts lying nearby. The plan was to cut the 12 feet into 8 foot lengths for the back and the remaining 4 feet lengths would be the side. And that’s how it should have been and that’s how it would have been if I hadn’t received a call from someone in a real crisis and I had to flee the building site to go to their aid.

It is a measure of the stress of this crisis that when I came home a few hours later, my mind was simply still on the crisis and so I got on before it got dark with nailing the back wall together the feather edge timber on the posts – without cutting the boarding, which is why today, and yes, it is still there some twenty five years later, we have this 12 feet wide by 71/2 feet deep shed! Why seven and a half feet? I don’t know. It wasn’t until I had nailed up the whole of the back wall that I realised the mistake but it was too late then, so my wife had a ‘summer house’ as requested. Over the years one of my sons and his friend slept in it in the summer but with the passing of time it has lost its former glory but it is still there, no longer a ‘summer house’ with chairs in but a place that resembles more the old garage of earlier year. What goes around, comes around, they say!

To confirm the veracity of an earlier comment about being a project person, I perhaps need to confess that ten minutes ago I went down the garden with a tape measure to check the size of this shed so that I would not exaggerate it, and on the way back my wife spotted me, saw the tape measure in my hand, and said with a broad smile, “OK, what are you planning now?”  It took more than a few words to convince here that my actions are innocent. I will not tell you why we have nine sheds (no exaggeration) in our garden today; there is a story behind each one but it would take even longer to tell than this last one.

Trends come and go. I don’t ever remember hearing the word patio when I was a child.  Decking has its phases and if you are a Gardeners World watcher you are probably now a far more sophisticated gardener that forty years ago, more aware of different styles of garden, colour pallets’ etc.  Raised beds and no digging have come in strongly in recent years.  Raised beds, we are told, are good for controlling soil types and, although they need more watering, apparently are more productive if you are growing vegetables.   

But for the big ideas, it’s not just the proliferating local garden centres and the TV programmes, it is also the influence of ‘Chelsea’ and the other garden shows, and even more recently the ‘Gardeners’ World Live’ show at the Birmingham NEC each year, that generates interest and creates new ideas. For Chelsea you need to be seriously healthy and fit, but the Birmingham show is a much scaled down version and more easily managed.

I have to confess that it has been a combination of all these – TV, Garden Centres, and the shows – that have stirred us to now have within the garden things we might not have thought about thirty years ago. The Garden Centre with the amazing display of the different colours and types of Heucheras was to blame for me giving way to that ‘something new’ vulnerability that I have, so we now have six of them flourishing in different places around the shady parts of the garden.  

Years back ferns had grabbed my attention, so much so that although I never bother to count them, my sons told me one day they had counted sixteen different fern types in the garden. How did that happen? My wife’s equivalent is Hellebores. Irises drew themselves to my attention several years back, an awesomely beautiful and majestic plant, even if it doesn’t flower for long. I think the grasses came with the TV shows and a visit to the Beth Chatto Gardens the other side of Colchester, provoked some further ideas. But all of these things shout to the modern gardener, there’s not just one of these plants, there are loads of different sorts, and as my wife says, the problem becomes where will you put them.

I mentioned earlier on in this series that at our first home we had this Hydrangea which, at the time, I disliked, but Hydrangeas have come back into fashion in recent years. I didn’t know that when, visiting a local garden centre, I spotted an amazingly beautiful variety of Hydrangeas, so I have to confess we now have four different ones in different parts of the garden. Part of the appreciation of the garden has to be appreciating the amazing variety of colours, petal types, and general shapes of so many plants. Come on, just sit in front of some of these incredibly beautiful plants and be amazingly moved by them. Colour, texture, shape, change, it’s all there for your pleasure.

I doubt I would have got into composting if it hadn’t been for dear old Monty Don on Gardeners’ World but today with three compost bins, a leaf-mould bin, and a wormery, I am a total enthusiast. How can you garden without a compost heap? See you in a bit.

Other Miscellanea: I like projects and new ideas and so creating a pond, creating four compost bins, taking down a small forest of Leylandii trees, reshaping this area, walling in that area, have all fallen into this category of ‘projects’ and have been great fun. Having noted at the end of the last article that our six low box hedges are all showing signs of blight, I suspect that the next ‘project’ will be how to replace these divisions by something else.

Outside Influences

Over the last forty years this country has changed dramatically and one of the great changes has been the influence of gardening programmes on TV and the advent of ‘Garden Centres’, sprouting up all over the place, today some of the most sophisticated businesses, often accompanied by a café or restaurant. Perhaps these changes might best be summed up by quoting from the Gardeners’ World Anniversary magazine of just over three years ago that looked back fifty years, commenting on how our gardens often become the ‘outdoor living room’: “In 1991 we were relaxing on plastic patio dining sets. Now we fill our gardens with sophisticated barbecues, fire pits and chimeras, outdoor sofas, waterproof bean bags, cushions and all kinds of outdoor lighting”