In the mid 90s a lady called Nell commandeered a strip of ground on my parents’ nursery. She’d been a customer of theirs for years, and the community garden she shared with her neighbours was being reclaimed by the local council.
Nell was a quietly tenacious woman in her late seventies. Unfazed by the council’s decision she uprooted her entire garden and replanted it alongside one of my parents’ glasshouses. Once the job was done, she kept coming back. She walked the four mile round trip from her flat to her new garden almost every day until she died in 2001. Old Nell, as we fondly called her, became part of the family. And her coffee and walnut cakes became the stuff of legend.
For more than ten years Nell’s garden has been left to its own devices. But when we visited my parents on Mother’s Day, Mum sent me out there, spade in hand, to see what I could find.
It turns out many of Nell’s perennials are still thriving – they’re just long overdue a lift and divide. So I enlisted my Dad and Steve to help and we came away with quite a haul.
There was a wonderful collection of hellebores right at the back of the garden. They are healthy and vigorous with masses of flowers. We only took two for now as I’m not quite sure where I’m going to put them.
Several dense clumps of snowdrops were just going over. Actually, dense is an understatement. One clump filled an entire crate once it was separated out. While I was digging I was half afraid I’d unearth a skeleton; Nell was known for picking up run-over cats and burying them with a handful of bulbs.
We found some more bulbs behind the hellebores. They have snowdrop-like leaves and the buds have a pinkish tinge. No idea what they are, but they look pretty. I’ll try to identify them once they open.
Dad knows I have a thing for peonies and found this beastie for me:
It really needs to be divided and, according to the RHS, this is best done in the autumn. I’m going to give it a go, but I doubt it will forgive me on time to flower this year.
We also have armfuls of cowslips and sedums. And Steve couldn’t resist a patch of monstrous rudbeckia. Judging by last year’s stems they’ll grow to a good seven foot. Who knows where they’ll go, perhaps they can plug a few gaps in the hedge.
Old Nell was quite a character and I remember her with much affection. I think she’d be glad to see her plants being given a new lease of life.
I can count on one hand the number of times Steve has given me flowers. But he redeemed himself this Christmas with three bare root peonies.
They arrived on December 18th. Luckily he realised they couldn’t sit around under the tree for a week, so I was given them early. I loosely covered the roots in compost and scribbled down the names ready to Google them on Christmas morning.
Fair play, he chose some stunners. Akashigata, a lavender coloured Japanese tree peony, Border Charm a pale yellow intersectional and Emodii an early flowering white herbaceous variety.
Tree peonies are actually hardy shrubs. They have woody stems and can be slow to get going, but eventually reach anywhere between four and seven foot high. Intersectionals are a tree/herbaceous hybrid, their stems die down at the end of the growing season but their leaves and flowers resemble those of tree peonies.
For days I deliberated over where to put them. Peonies are long-lived and the herbaceous ones aren’t too keen on being moved about. My usual ‘stick it in and see what happens’ approach wasn’t going to cut it.
In the end I split the three of them up. Border Charm has joined my existing pair of herbaceous peonies by the back door. Coral Charm and Karl Rosenfeld are thriving in this sunny spot. It’s already planted with crocuses too, which intermingle nicely with the bright red other-worldly peony stems that shoot up early spring.
Emodii apparently tolerates shade pretty well, so I’ve put her under the apple and silver birch trees alongside a clump of Alba foxgloves. I feel a white theme coming on down here in the dappled light which I might take further this year.
I agonised over Akashigata. I made up, then changed, my mind three or four times. Tree peonies’ emerging buds can be frazzled by the sun on frosty mornings. Much of our garden is exposed to the east so my options were limited.
I stripped back an area of grass to put her in one spot. Then I remembered it was right in the path of our spaniel’s regular mad-dash garden circuit, so I had to think again.
In the end I put her at the back edge of an island border. It’s an obscure position for such a beautiful plant. But I hope she can quietly establish herself there without coming to any harm. It could be up to four years before she flowers and I think we’ll enjoy stumbling across her in full bloom one summer’s evening when we’ve all but forgotten about her.
If Steve gets really lucky, one of my new peonies might bloom in time for my birthday in June. He’ll never need to buy me flowers again.
The ‘autumn tidy’ is always a bit of an oxymoron in our garden. Especially so this year. I can’t have spent more than two or three hours out there in November and the only pre-Christmas job I did in December was stringing up fairy lights.
But at last the festivities are over and I managed to sneak out for a few hours yesterday morning.
I mostly wandered about and caught up with where things are at. Snowdrops are beginning to push up leaves; bright red peony shoots are breaking through the soil. We’ll be enjoying the witch hazel flowers’ acid-yellow spideriness soon.
The main borders are a jumble of stalks and seed heads. We deliberately avoid chopping plants back in the autumn to provide food and shelter for wildlife.
Over the past weeks I’ve noticed hordes of finches in the garden – far more than in our previous winters here. Many of them have been flitting in and out of clumps of rudbeckia stalks. I thought they were hunting for insects taking refuge there. But it turns out they’ve been feasting on the seeds.
Embracing untidiness instead of fighting it makes gardening at this time of year an unhurried, leisurely affair. It couldn’t be further from the mad spring dash to get seeds in and young plants hardened off at just the right moment – exciting though that is.
On bright, crisp mornings this attitude pays off. The collapsing heap of last summer’s growth is transformed into an ice-encrusted wonderland.
We have a few new projects in mind for next year. The two main borders are being extended to give us tons more ‘full sun’ space. And we’re going to start creating some wildflower areas. There will be lots to do, but for now I’m happy to potter and procrastinate.
This is a guest post I wrote for the lovely guys at Modern Mint, a garden design firm. I met the Director Darren Lerigo at a Garden Media Guild event, and he asked for my thoughts about what gardens offer children.
For a few scary minutes this summer I lost my three year old daughter. We’d been pottering outside one minute, and she was gone the next. I scoured the garden, then the house, then the garden again. She’s quite sensible, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have wandered off by herself. And the dogs would have made a racket if anyone had come into the garden. But as time ticked on I became worried.
I finally ran out to the road feeling a bit panic stricken. Then I spotted her on the overgrown bank at the edge of the garden.
She was quietly gathering leaves and putting them in a stacking-cup, murmuring to herself as she worked. I broke the spell, shouting that I’d been worried, why didn’t she come when I called and what was she doing out there anyway?
It turned out her imaginary friend was unwell. He needed the leaves to make him better. Of course he did.
Adventures in the garden
I don’t really consider the bank a safe place for a young child. It’s steep and rough, full of nettles, thistles and other spiky things. Not to mention the four foot drop to the lane. It’s sectioned off from the main garden by a stretch of chestnut paling with a seldom used, tricky-to-open gate. I asked how she’d got out there. She answered by pushing a loosened pale to one side and squeezing back through the fence.
A big part of me wanted to say she mustn’t go out there again. But I found myself just asking her to be careful. And not to eat any leaves.
Exploring, hiding, making dens and imaginary concoctions is heaps of fun for kids. Experts in child development reckon outdoor free play is really important. Especially if it involves taking reasonable risks.
Gardens offer a perfect springboard for this. Even a small plot has the potential to offer a wilderness ripe for adventures; providing adults are prepared to be a little bit indulgent.
In a medium to large garden, it’s easy to let a forgotten corner run wild. Leave the hedges untrimmed, the grass uncut. Better still, sow a meadow mix to create a haven for children and nectar-lovers alike. You could leave a few bits of wood, sticks, bricks and other random stuff lying about for impromptu den-making or props.
Smaller gardens might be able to accommodate a wigwam or two – these are easily rigged up using hazel sticks or canes from a garden centre. Build them with a wide base, at least 1.5metre diameter, and leave enough room between two of the uprights for an entrance. Runner beans or sweet peas planted in May or June will soon provide enough cover for a little-person’s summer hideout.
Whatever happens, don’t tell the kids what you’re doing or why. Hidey holes and wildernesses are ten times more exciting if the grown-ups don’t know about them. They need to feel like unchartered territory or a forbidden land.
I learnt this the hard way when we made a sweet pea castle for my daughter. She was very enthusiastic about building the structure and growing the plants, but barely ventured in there all summer. On the other hand, every under-five who came to play made a bee-line for it. No doubt they assumed they were being terribly naughty pushing through the flowers to sneak inside.
You can see the original post here: http://modernmint.co.uk/let-run-wild/