There were many warm meetings of minds in the garden this morning, despite last night’s frost and an early mist. A feverish Spring sun lit up the quivering tails of squirrels on the gazebo roof and the glistening greens and blues of magpies on the rocks. A Pica pica pair have claimed the entire garden as their own, it seems. They are conscientiously and convincingly defending their land rights from the apex of the Christmas tree where they have assembled a capacious and artistically interesting nest. Sparrows are lodging beneath the roof tiles and nesting deep within the hedge, alongside resident blackbirds and robins. A pair of blue tits or great tits (I’m not entirely sure which) have moved into the beach hut nest box around the corner wall and a pair of wood pigeons are cosying up just over the fence in our neighbour’s lime tree. The goldcrests lingered later this year than last but appeared to have disappeared round about the time the magpies began asserting their authority. By the end of March I had assumed they were already nesting somewhere in Scandinavia. But as I was refilling the hog pots before dusk yesterday I caught a glimpse of the tiniest pale flicker of yellow out the corner of my eye. I looked more closely and there was a little goldcrest looking intently back at me from within the depths of the soft needles. That smallest of moments made my day and makes all the time, effort and expense put into ‘gardening for the birds’ absolutely worthwhile. The goldfinches made their timely new year reappearance, happily, just in time for the Big Garden Bird Watch.
I haven’t sown a single seed yet this Season. I reluctantly but resolutely ignored the false warm starts of March and longingly walked right on by the seed tin labelled “Do not open before April!” – casting my mind back to last year’s ill-fated zinnias. When April finally did arrive, it brought with it hard night frosts and the coldest April night recorded in more than a century. It even snowed. I pulled up my boots and went outdoors anyway.
This will be our third full calendar year living in this house and we’ve been working hard to bring this garden back to life. It took me a full cold February day to shear the top and sides of the 70 ft long, 8ft high privet hedge, even with a telescopic, power hedge trimmer. It was the first time I’ve attempted the whole hedge on my own and I took my time carefully shaping soft, gentle slopes where someone else had previously cut ferociously straight edges. I just can’t bear anything that even vaguely resembles sharp geometric topiary. More importantly, neither can the plants. It was hard work and it took me two more full days – and early nights – to recover. I spent another cold February day raising the canopies of the 10ft high conifers to 4ft off the ground (successfully destroying a pair of heavy duty loppers in the process) to create an invitational line of sight, through what was essentially a solid green wall between the kitchen window and the previously fully obscured furthest nook of the garden, to a newly dug out pocket bed amongst the slate chippings where a young morello cherry tree in early bud is settling in nicely. The bees welcomed it home with a happy hum.
Bloke and I constructed, from large pine sleepers, a new triangular raised bed (15ft long across what would be its hypotenuse if the opposite corner was a true right angle). Its first and central occupant is a miniature apple tree, a Golden Delicious, situated just a few blackbird hops away from a miniature Red Windsor, a year or so settled into its own pocket bed at the front of the top tier. Each apple tree is self-fertile but, who knows, a little cross pollination might just spice up life a little for both of them. Like cinnamon. I have planted the other two sides of the triangle with twenty or so strawberry plants in the hope that this year we might crop enough for everyone – birds, small mammals and humans alike.
We very nearly set solid three-quarters of a new rise of four, safe and secure, mid-garden steps, between the top and bottom tiers of the garden, before an unfortunate and ironic incident with a power tool landed one half of us in A&E. Recovery is slow (frustratingly so for one of us) and the top step remains unsawn. It occurs to me that anyone who describes gardening as a gentle form of exercise has never actually done any. Admittedly, the (empty) 72-Gallon galvanised agricultural trough turned out not to be as heavy as it actually looked but it did take an awful lot of shovelling and to-ing and fro-ing from the now fully depleted compost heap to fill it up. I sparsely planted it with a few small evergreen trailers and four young hazels. Very young hazels, root-trainer grown single stems, slimmer than their cane supports. I’m hopeful that they will eventually reach towards each other to form a small hedge of sorts, to screen off the old, benched picnic table near the shed where I sow seeds, pot seedlings on, stack old plant pots and generally create and leave a lot of mess. Unbolting and dismantling the unnecessary and unsightly back rests from the curved bench seats has made that space feel a little more – well, spacious, I suppose. A little less chaotic. But I feel only permanent planting can shape that space into one of functional and productive calm. I’m not a neat and tidy gardener. I fully embrace the rustic. But it is certainly true to say that the unfolding character of the garden qualitatively reflects – and directly influences – my general state of mind. The current state of the she-shed might honestly be cause for concern. And the tiny hazels appear somewhat bewildered and lost, adrift in a sea of mulch.
I filled a second 6ft cattle trough, outwardly identical to the first, with rain and tap water. It sits in the opposite corner to its planted partner, beneath the lowest edge of an old corrugated roof where it can collect rain water run-off, not as an open-topped water butt but as a pond. The off-centre brace makes a perfect perching place for thirsty birds. The last of the abandoned old bricks that it’s taken us two years to functionally disperse and deposit around the garden are stacked one to three courses high beneath the water line as shelves for sweet flags, marsh marigolds and water forget-me-nots. I wrapped sections of left over gabion mesh with chicken wire to repurpose them as twin easy-hold escape ramps for non-swimming critters, held fast with an absurdly complicated scaffold of cobbles, wire spirals, shaved bamboo sticks and copper plumber’s pipe – which added up to a perfectly reasonable allocation of a whole afternoon on a warm March day in lockdown. The remaining gabion triangles I hung, hypotenuse up, from the cross braces of the boundary fence as a somewhat industrialised slant on peacock fan trellising.
I dug up and relocated a struggling Spotty Dotty to an area where her sister is faring much better and replanted an alchemilla and a yarrow to positions where they will each have more growing room, I moved two small, but now healthy and strong, shrubs – a false holly and a viburnum – from terracotta pots out into the side border and planted a young dwarf eucalyptus (which I don’t expect will stay dwarf for very long) in another newly dug out planting pocket, where it best adds a little more balance to a somewhat scattered collection of evergreens. A liquidambar is waiting to go into the ground. It will be given ornamental centre stage, out in the lawn, where it can scatter its Autumn colour drifts widely in the years to come. I’m not expecting painterly greatness from it this year. Or next. It is a slender young specimen with short, slight branches and is only as tall as me. It travelled here very comfortably, with room to spare, laid out, pot-end in a dog bed, along the cornerwise length of my car. I’m awaiting the arrival of a tree guard before I dare plant it out to the mercy of the squirrels. I transported a diminutive Tai-haku cherry tree home in the same vehicle two Springs ago and it has now reached almost 12ft high.
Three of the four birches in the ‘birch boxes’ have been de-staked and they convincingly stood their ground against trying late Winter winds. I’ve added bare root lupins, aquilegias and lungwort to the top beds and borders. The rubble bank is happily sprouting the young green stems of poppies and cornflowers for the second year running and I have re-potted the tiny conker tree that a squirrel planted two Autumns ago in an old clay pot that a straggly honeysuckle usually calls home. I have brought the little conker tree, all eight inches and eight or so leaves of it, closer to the house and placed it beside the bench where I sometimes take my tea because its forgetful-squirrel provenance makes me smile each time I look at it.
The hogs are out snuffling for kibble well ahead of dusk each evening. Something smaller is burrowing a collection of tunnels in and around the corrugated raised bed beside the she-shed. The garden is alive. It feels like it is now working as a cohesive whole and is finally beginning to make sense. I am starting to understand its strange old shape.