Growing up in difficult times and circumstances, I consoled myself as a young child with a dream of having a garden, just like Mary had in my favorite book ” The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I must have read it at least a hundred times and could quote from memory whole parts. One paragraph in particular appealed to me and I adopted its message wholeheartedly: ‘Might I’, quavered Mary, ‘might I have a bit of earth?’ Mr Craven looked quite startled. ‘Earth!’ he repeated. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘To plant seeds in – to make things grow – to see them come alive,’ Mary faltered. The book is a bible of the healing powers of nature and positive thinking, as in the verse: ‘Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.’ This thought shaped my whole life.
When we bought the house I live in now, it wasn’t by choice but by necessity. It was the only house available close to the school our children attended. As I love old houses that are full of character and with large gardens, this modern house, built just 80 years or so ago, and with an average garden, was not love at first sight. The only good point was the absence of any garden. Over the years I have changed the house to look more like a cottage, complete with climbing roses over the front door, masses of huge-headed hydrangeas, and early flowering bushes, and the back garden became my paradise.
Knowing that I could not extend the garden sideways, I decided to go up, as in the famous hanging gardens of Babylon. As luck would have it, there was an old wall on one side of the whole property which could be covered with evergreen climbers, friendly to birds and insects, the whole year round. Next, I divided the garden into several large ‘rooms’, creating many pathways, some hidden from view. Another stroke of luck was a local farmer’s decision to change the planting of his fields. With one field spare, he advertised several tons of good soil for sale. I think I must have bought the whole field.
In normal circumstances, you build the infrastructure of the garden first and then plant; here I had to plant first and build later. It takes about five to seven years to fully grow fruit trees so time was of the essence as I wasn’t 20 years old and wanted to see the fruits(!) of my labour. The answer was to build temporary fencing for each ‘room’, and plant everything first (hundreds, if not thousands, of plants), and then rebuild bit by bit the fences. The ‘going up’ idea was to start with trees, then plants that would like to hug the trees; underpinning the trees with large bushes was the next task, then the smaller, evergreen plants, and finally, planting all around the edges of the beds – trailing plants, like periwinkle, lobelia and nasturtiums. The height of the beds, being between 1m to 2m, allowed for such great leg room that all the plants grew at speed. I now have nine apple trees, two pear trees, two cherry and three plum trees. Most are fully grown up and producing masses of beautiful fruits.
There are also many fruit bushes – redcurrants, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries. The most important point here is to be organic. A tip here for rich and healthy soil – I sprinkle on the top of the soil several handfuls of organic oats, although a good Scottish oats will do admirably too, then water the oats well, and cover with a thick layer of compost. In no time the worms make a meal of it and multiply vigorously. It seems to suit the plants too. Of course, I add also some natural potassium and nitrogen. More about this later. In another blog I will write about an army of ‘gardeners’ that are helping me to keep the garden healthy and free of diseases. They are small birds, like sparrows, blue and great tits, blackcaps, song thrushes, blackbirds and robins, and also ladybirds, ants, and others, but that is another story. Not using any chemicals keeps the soil clean, and the fruits fresh, moreish and full of goodness. The Victorians’ ideas of planting flowers among vegetables were very productive and I had followed them until recently. I wanted to have as much greenery in winter as possible, and so the flowers of hellebore, and other winter-flowering plants like highly scented Skimmia Japonica are now filling the spaces previously taken by carrots, broad beans and lettuce. The bees and bumblebees are ecstatic.
At the very back, a row of tall conifers provides a barrier against the wind, and in winter it keeps the house warmer. There is also a profusion of highly scented roses and many strikingly colourful plants like perennial crimson lobelias, yellow rudbeckias, blue agapanthus, frothy pink and lilac rhododendrons (in big tubs), white daisies, and many more, all making the garden wonderful to be in.
On a warm day the scent in the air is intoxicating and fresh. And here comes the most important fact – despite living about 100 metres from a consistently busy, highly polluted High Street, the air in the garden is fragrant and clean thanks to the oxygen creating trees and shrubs. The added bonus is peace, and silence, broken only by the chirping of birds. There is a place under the trees where a table and wicker armchairs provide a restful place to sit and look at the flowering beauty of all the surrounding plants, sip a glass of elderberry cordial, and be relieved of the pressures that exist in the outside world.
Being in the garden in good weather every day has proven health benefits from absorbing a good dose of vitamin D to lowering risk of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease. It simply helps us to live longer.