Monday, 29 July 2013

Furor Hortensis

My housemate Ben and I are still awaiting the delivery of some finishing touches for the absurd, gorgeous bauble which we have been creating over the last five months---renovating, as readers may recall, my lovely godsister Zoe's house in an Oxford side-street. Nothing, but nothing, has made me so happy in years as this. Ben and I constantly go around touching the walls and giggling like idiots, exclaiming at each other like astonished matrons in a Hogarth etching. When all is finished, you'll all be subjected to a fusillade of pictures. For me, part of the draw was the opportunity to make a garden for the first time in six years, and I've gone at it like an artist who's been locked up in a dungeon without paper or pencils. So let me talk you through it....

Here we are at the end of the garden, on the day we first saw it, 22nd February this year. As Zoe gave us the tour, I took in the lovely brick wall on one side (rubbish fence on the other, hmm); the full-grown fig-tree on the neighbour's side, the area of brick paving.

This is looking from the patio doors up the garden, where there is a fabulous little shed we call 'the Cell', for its Prosperan overtones. Ben is going to use it as a writing nook, though at this stage it was being used for paint tins, bits of old slate, pots, the dusty impedimenta of barbecues long past, and the like. I noted the lovely old apple-tree and the tangle of philadephus and ceonothus up at the end. Ivy on the wall: good; brambles at foot of wall: not so good.

Down by the side of the house was an area that had been concreted and was dominated by a leggy forsythia. I looked at the concrete and felt the dismal sense of the goddess Necessity having plans involving me and a sledgehammer.

So that was the end of February, and what we weren't to know was that spring 2013 was going to be the most bollock-freezingly miserable, cold, and dark for years. By early April nature was a month behind---no sun and not a shoot nor a bud to be seen anywhere---and I had began to feel actively cheated and depressed. 

But that's to leap ahead. That first day I sketched out the whole garden in my head, and on February 23rd Ben and I came back and I made the first incision, so to speak, planting the handle of an old red mop at what I already knew would eventually be the corner of a square of decking:

It might not look like much, but the placement was crucial, splitting the garden into two unequal halves both lengthwise and breadthwise. I got to tinkering and that night I drew up the full plan (click to enlarge):

As you can see the garden basically faces south-east, and gets strong light for most of the day. Black quadrilaterals mean seating; the thick black line is the brick wall. The black lump on the left is the trunk of the apple tree. There would be, I decided, a broken slate path leading to a square of decking under the shade of the fig tree, from which you would step onto a wider curvilinear path leading to the door of the Cell. The garden would be broken into sections so that there would be no vantage point from which the totality would be visible: unseen areas would always hover, hidden by hazes of thick, head-high planting, making the garden look much bigger than it is. The dodgy fence would be replaced with six-foot high hazel hurdles, beautiful natural objects made without a single nail.

That, dear readers, was the easy part; I then threw myself into the task like a man possessed. Ben and I did the house as an equal collaboration, but I think it would be fair to say I did the majority of the outdoor work. Of course, first the garden became the general dumping-ground for crap from the house, which was to linger until we got a skip in April. I bought a sledgehammer and a crowbar and began (THUMP...THUMP...THUMP...) to smash up the concrete by the house. It was several inches thick and laid on a bed of hardcore and bits of jagged, rusted metal. By early April, we had this charming view (note the incongruous box-ball which I'd picked up for a song):

The next month or so was grim: heaving the smashed concrete and 200 old bricks through the house in paniers (too narrow for a wheelbarrow), I filled a nine-tonne skip in a single weekend. By a stroke of good luck, the mass of rusted metal and other bits of tin crap were helpfully removed by two gentlemen of the travelling persuasion, whom I found rooting through the skip. 'Come in, come in!', I carolled, and in two hours they had cleared the house and garden of all unwanted scrap metal.

Finally we had a more or less empty box. I could then---on one of the spring's rare nice days---begin the work of digging out the borders, using the hosepipe to outline where the broken slate path would go:

I knew the whole damn thing would have to be turfed (backbreaking) and then double dug. There's something honest and enjoyable about a hard day's digging, but large areas of the garden were very hard work, and simultaneously, you must recall, we were working like dogs on the interiors. (This was the point I tore the meniscus in my left knee.) The fig and the various shrubby trees---which included a holly and several vigorous ash sports---had filled the area under the grass with their parching roots, which had to be pruned back severely. I always knew when I'd put my spade through one of the odd, reddish roots of the fig because of the sour-sweet green odour that filled the air.

At this point I ordered two tonnes of horse manure to dig in to lighten the heavy clay soil. The house is only about 600 yards from the Thames and the soil is thick, fertile clay that holds water in winter and bakes into concrete-like cakes in summer. The compost was meant to come bagged, at the end of April. Well---did it fook, as my friend Ian would say. I was waiting in for the lorry on the appointed day, conscious that it was 11am and I had The Dream of the Rood to teach at 2pm. No sign. Around half 11, I heard a lorry backing up the street, and wandered out from the house---only to find that the bloody bastard driver had gone and deposited two tonnes of loose manure into a parking space actually in the road, four doors down. And had driven off.

Two tonnes of manure, mes si chers, is the size and shape of a car, now slumping into the road.

First I rang the compost company up and gave them an earbashing. Next, in that odd state of seething, steely panic that dire necessity brings, I borrowed a wheelbarrow from the neighbours and set to work: shifting all two tonnes into the front garden in just under three hours. I had to cancel the Rood class, but I turned up for the tutorials which were scheduled after it quite literally covered in shit.

In retrospect, I think that was probably the low point of the whole process.

After another fortnight, the nearer part of the garden was double dug and ready for planting, though it still looked an awful mess. I was also beginning to sow manically, as you can see from the table in the picture below: verbena bonariensis, oenothera, digitalis...

A problem was the sheer quantity of roots and perennial weeds, especially ground elder and creeping buttercup. There's nothing for these: you just have to burn them, and you can see them smouldering sullenly in the picture. The area that had been under concrete and hardcore had now been liberated and a monstrous buddleia stump excavated with a mattock:

In the end, I dug in five tonnes of organic material, figuring that this kind of effort right at the beginning of making a garden is never wasted. In this I was continually accompanied by two robins, three blackbirds, a thrush, and a squirrel, which lent a certain Radagast-the-Brown fantastical quality.

The next step was to make the decking, which I did by watching youtube videos (full of bluff middle-aged men saying things like: 'Obviously, first you take yer two-by-four...') and then just getting on with it. Down it went, with a membrane underneath to stop the grass growing through:

Note that by this time the Cell door and windows had been painted in Farrow & Ball's 'Green Smoke', a lovely and elusive green-blue-grey colour chosen to look good at any time of the day. Below you can see the finished deck, and at this point---the first few days of May---you can see that the first planting had taken place:

The remainder of the project was a little easier. It took me until July to begin to dig out the two borders at the back of the garden, as they were also choked with weeds and were dominated by mature shrubs which I sliced to the ground. Improbably, half an old car was buried on the left-hand side:

When the slate chippings arrived in a monstrous bulkbag I began to lay the paths. At this point, magically, the structure of the garden suddenly became greatly more legible and I could begin to work on the fine detail of planting. It's currently thin and pinched: it will be far more wild and witchy next summer when the biennials and perennials I've grown from seed flower (over 350 of them...). 

Discussion of the ideas behind the planting will have to wait for another post, but here are some photos of the garden taken on the 23rd of July---exactly five months after I first pushed the mop handle into the ground as a marker.


eindeloze sfeer said...

Il faut cultiver nos jardins...

be careful with the assumption that manure is a quasi-magical improvement to clay soil. It's often more complicated than that, though of course it depends on the type of plants one is trying to grow. (nor are most clay soils really as bad as people assume them to be) I see you have a couple Melianthus major there, I think. Do seek out the somewhat harder to find Melianthus villosus. Its foliage smells much nicer.

At any rate, congratulations, that's a marvelous transformation for such a short time frame.

Humberto said...


Bo said...

Thanks Humberto! And thanks, eindeloze sfeer, for the advice!

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