What is a garden for?

I have a friend who wants to downsize her house, as she needs to reduce her mortgage debt, but is quite understandably is sad about losing her large garden.

I’ve spent years casting a covetous eye over anyone with a large expanse of grass and plenty of room to swing several cats. Yet, I’ve put a lot of time and effort instead to embrace the smaller garden that we have. As a result we’ve gone from having a rather mediocre space to having something that draws comments and admiration from visitors. I’ve chosen to celebrate the garden space we have and risen to the challenges that space limitation offers.

To do that I really thought hard about what a garden should be for, as for many things in modern life, gardens can also become status symbols, and as such appreciating them for what we actually gain from them and learn from them becomes overlooked.

Our garden performs many functions and meets many of my expectations despite its small size:

  1. I can grow fruit and vegetables in it. I grow up walls, in planters and pots and in our front garden. As such, despite the small harvests I have learned about the growing cycle and can eat food that has been grown in our soil.
  2. Somewhere to sit is important. Having somewhere to sit in a garden and listen to the birds, enjoy the fresh air and be among green, growing things is key for me, hence the six seating spaces. One allows me and my son to sit and watch the son come up and eat our breakfast. The second is next to our (very small) pond, but it is home to a frog nonetheless. The third is in the front garden. This is one of my favourite seats – in the summer the sun moves to the front of the house and it’s a great place to enjoy the evening warmth and stillness. A fourth is an area of decking where a living roof of a grape vine and boston ivy grows. Another is a raised bed on which I’ve built a little perch. I want to plant a scented clematis near this so I can enjoy its fragrance. Finally I built a very little summer house with a pull-down table and two benches.
  3. We have several trees, one of which, a rowan has had a treehouse built around it, which leads me to point number 4…
  4. It offers somewhere for our son to play. We don’t have the space to buy off-the-shelf garden toys such as swings, climbing frames etc, so we have built a treehouse with a slide, and a couple of dens. We don’t have the room for him to play football, but as we live around the corner from a large playing field, I’m rather glad that he won’t spend all his summers round nextdoor’s asking for his ball back!
  5. It offers a place for wildlife. We have trees for birds, berry-bearing shrubs such as cotoneaster, rowan and pyracantha. The front garden is maintained with minimal intervention to leave it to wildlife.
  6. A garden is the first place that a child interacts with nature. It’s also in an increasingly urban world a place where adults can interact with an environment that allows them to engage with things that aren’t plastic and manufactured.
  7. Hanging washing out. I love the smell of washing when it’s dried in the open. We have a covered area at the side of the house that means I can dry washing all year round.
  8. In modern parlance gardens are now entertaining spaces or outdoor rooms. We have a lovely enclosed area filled with wooden benches and underneath a golden birch where we can sit and eat in the summer or sit outside round a chiminea at Christmas time.

In short, despite its size, our garden is a little piece of urban paradise and fulfils all the things that a garden should do.

“My little plot, my little Eden I call it. So small, but so well beloved.” EF Benson.


Tuning into the seasons

This week is Lammastide, or more officially August 1 was Lammas or Lughnasadh. The Pagan wheel of the year from which these calendar markers come from, is I’ve found, one that’s worth looking into if you want to break away from commercially enforced seasonal markers. There are some overlaps: Yule is the winter solstice and shared with Christmas, Ostara, or the spring equinox is roughly equivalent to Easter and Samhain falls on Halloween.

When I started to research a bit more I found out that Lammas traditionally marked harvest time and also the turn of the season from summer into autumn. But surely August is still summer isn’t it? It’s when we all take our summer holidays and pack up our buckets and spades. But August can be an incredibly wet month and so many a bbq or summer fete has been rained off this month as our expectations of this time of year override the soggy reality. As I look out on to my wind-blown garden I can see rowan berries ripening into jewelled-orange and boston ivy tinged with purple-red, spiders are festooning the cotoneaster, and in the early mornings there is a damp earthiness in the air that smells like the turn of the season despite what the calendar says.

Over the last few years I’ve been coming to the realisation that taking note of seasonal changes is about looking around me and noticing rather than sticking rigidly to a calendar that imposes dates and times on the natural world. It makes more sense to me that autumn should be August, September and October culminating with Samhain on October 31.

And this is where it gets interesting. On the Pagan wheel of the year Samhain is when the wheel turns, one year ends and another begins. There’s always been something about the marking of New Year’s Eve on December 31 that has never fitted with me. I hate the way that after a three-month run-up to Christmas, the Boxing Day sale adverts start on Christmas Day evening and these all-important mid-winter celebrations are encouraged to come to an abrupt end all ready for January, the Monday morning of the new year. Celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next at Samhain, however, makes so much more sense when the fecundity and growth of long summer days has turned golden brown, set seeds and begun its winter hibernation. The winter months of November, December and January culminating with Imbolc on February 1 as the start of spring then become a time to huddle indoors round the fire, or go for bracing walks in the cold, expectant for the first snowdrop to raise its head and begin the whole cycle of growth all over again.

ANTIDOTE: Look around you to observe times of the day and year, rather than referring to clocks and calendars.

Bringing the outside in

Each May the lilac outside our front window bursts into heavily scented blossom. It’s such a short-lived flowering and a reminder to me of the passing of the seasons. Running along in the background of our overly busy and disconnected lives the world around us ticks along to its own beat, flowering in the same weeks in the same months triggered by subtle changes in temperature and light. I can’t control when it flowers, all I can do is appreciate it when it does. This year I’ve picked a few blossoms to turn into lilac syrup so I can preserve their scent for a few weeks longer. For our pre-fridge ancestors preserving the fruits of the spring and summer would have been the only way to store food, but beyond the purely practical there is something lovely about bottling produce at the height of its plumptiousness and then opening the bottle weeks or even months later to be plunged back into the glory of a May hedgerow or a bountiful summer garden. Last autumn I made hedgerow syrup and in the winter it reminded me of picking brambles in the woods in the warm dying days of the summer; a light in the darkness.

Hidden nature: A review

Hidden Nature: A voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler

I’ve been a fan of Alys Fowlers’ approach to gardening for some time: her embrace of non-conventional methods makes a refreshing change to the rather strait-laced approach of some gardening writers. So, I was rather intrigued to learn that she was about to release a book, not about how to grow your own, but about exploring canals.

Alys, as anyone who has watched The Edible Garden knows, is that often rare thing in media land, someone who has left the orbit of London, in her case ending up in Kings Heath in Birmingham.

And she didn’t let me down with her unconventional approach to the canals of her adopted city. After a chance conversation with a friend about wanting to be an adventurer in her early years, she was advised, essentially, to adventure in her backyard and see what she found. The result is this book that speaks of transitions of old lives to new ones, the familiar to the unfamiliar and looking at ordinary things; canals, wildlife and waterside plants with wholly fresh eyes.

The book is essentially two stories bound up in one. The first is the adventure she has, after abandoning her garden for a few seasons, armed with a red inflatable kayak and a fold-up bike around the various locks and cuts of Birmingham and its environs. It’s a beautiful story of how she paddles along the canals enjoying a different perspective on the ordinary and the overlooked, sometimes solitary at other times with friends. She travels the canals taking them in sections for hours or full days at a time, charting their industrial decline but post-Inland Waterways Association renaissance, but not yet their gentrification or the development of eye-watering by-the-canalside properties you’d find in the capital.

The other story within this book, which is part memoir, part nature study, part urban commentary and part self-discovery is the disintegration of Alys’ marriage to her husband Holiday, and the guilt she feels about making a new life for herself, with a woman, leaving him to deal with his cystic fibrosis without her as his wife and carer. In this way it has parallels with Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, which charted his return to health after a severe depressive episode by him leaving the familiar and coming to love the East Anglia he turns to for rehabilitation. The restorative power of nature is a common genre for writers in this country.

But what I liked about this book and its approach to the healing power of the outdoors was that Alys doesn’t turn to a perfect wilderness, with sweeping vistas and stunning scenery to document her dark night of the soul. She turns to the abandoned, the overlooked, the litter strewn and in some cases the polluted, and this coupled with the beauty in unexpected places, seen up close from the waterside demonstrates how nature always finds a way and can recolonise what man has left unloved. In her eyes the common buddleia, the pigeon and the rat rise above their over familiarity to become something worth a second look. Her section on eels is particularly rewarding.

Where you or I may see just a weed growing next to a tin can she identifies a rare plant thriving against the odds in poor soil. As a writer, she is at her best extolling the virtues of her ungentrified, unsanitised environment. I hope that she continues in this vein for other works of exploration or our urban environment as I enjoyed her transition from gardens to waterways.


Avoidance of technology for its own sake

I’m half way through Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. It’s one of those books whose words and images go to bed with you at night and it’s rather melancholic and haunting. One of its messages, that we’ve distanced ourselves too much from nature, reminded me of the back end of last year. I’d offered to hold a 70th birthday party for my mum in December, so the day before the party she came round armed with a bucket and mop as well as chemicals to clean my house in preparation. I told myself that she was trying to be helpful rather than insinuating that the house wasn’t up to scratch, but the jury is still out.

The morning of the party arrived, and so did my brother. Armed with a leaf hoover. He duly set to work, under my disbelieving stares to clean up the leaves from the garden. “Your kitchen is always full of leaves,” said mum. “Shall I buy you one of these for Christmas? They’re ever so good.” I replied that the morning before the party was the first and last time that my garden was going to be hoovered clear of leaves.

The leaf hoover offends me on two levels. Firstly, I enjoy having leaves, foliage and mud out of the garden on the kitchen floor. It helps me blur the lines between the house and the garden. It reminds me of the change of the seasons and how the wheel of the year is turning. Plus, I have a four-year-old, mud and he are as one.

Secondly, it’s an example of technology for technology’s sake. My mum was clearly enamoured of the thing. I just saw a gadget that would take up loads of valuable garage space. If leaves are so offensive, what’s wrong with a rake?

#paulkingsnorth #garden #leaves #nature #modernlife