It’s surprising what will trigger a garden memory, or where an early love of gardening acquired in childhood may lead. For me, it was helping my grandmother deadhead annuals during the war (WWII); and ditto for my great aunt in the 1950s. I learned so much about plants when on my knees – and I wasn’t praying! The gardening bug did not really hit me until years later, and now I have so many memories that they jostle each other for space in my elderly brain. Not a day goes by but something, somewhere, will trigger a gardening memory from the past.
No matter where any man or woman strives to create their own little patch of paradise, the starting point will be the same. The circumstances may differ, but in essence it’s all about making the garden YOURS, be it an acre or more, or pocket-handkerchief in size. You yearn to put your own stamp on it, create you own private space. Is it a new-to-you garden (you’ve just moved), a start-from-scratch space (new housing estate), or one where nature has been allowed to run riot? The challenges to create your own ‘Cotswold Acre Memories’ – under whatever name – are the same.
The acquisition of our house and garden in June 1969 was almost a spur of the moment decision … no protracted negotiations – we bought at auction. The house was empty and partially derelict. And the garden? We had not realised its size, for most of it was hidden behind a tall and flourishing elder hedge in the full bloom of summer. We thought that hedge was the boundary. It was, of sorts; and to an old orchard. The property had been a farm since the 1600s, then a 19th century pub, and then a private residence, latterly for one very old lady. There were centuries of history in this one acre … and years of rubbish buried in the soil! Creating a garden would be a labour of love.
Whilst husband and children reclaimed the house, the garden was all mine! I began by ordering fruit trees: apple and pear, damson and plum – bare rooted trees that arrived during one of the hottest summers on record. I dug holes deep and wide in the Cotswold clay; hole-by-hole soaked the ground, spread the roots, returned the soil. Night and morning I watered those 20 trees – two buckets at a time, from the well. Then left them alone.
That experience taught me a valuable lesson about watering. You do not need a hosepipe, or mains water. Forty-five years later – now minus the well – it is the same. We harvest rain water. In dry periods we resort to grey water, as we have in this equally hot summer of 2014. The garden thrived – or did; as you will see.
The Years Between
Gradually, bit by bit, small areas that had once been in productive use were made my own. I championed the use of raised beds, for our ground was more stone, rubble and pub rubbish than earth. It was beautiful, a haven for us as a family during a frenetic period of our lives when running a publishing business. A haven too for wildlife, and the ducks, hens and even geese which we reared.
The years progressed. At the time when most people ‘retire’, I set out to market myself; In the right place at the right time, I had the good fortune to become a free-lance writer / photographer. Appearing in printed magazines initially, and then producing online e-newsletters and Blogs. And realising that most of my readers were unlikely to be working an acre of their own, I split a large proportion of our ground into mini-plots. each had their own identity: Dobies ‘Secret Garden’; ‘Potager’ – herbs, vegetables, wild-flowers – a true mix of all the things I love; Eco-Garden with fruit and shrubs, which gradually expanded down into the ‘Cider Garden’; the Square Foot garden – and, though I had no input into it, my husband’s traditional vegetable plot. Not a true veg plot, as he would only grow the things he preferred with no sense of adventure, and a strange sense of rotation.
Each has been remastered more than once; re-made and replanted over the years between 1969 and 2012. Other parts of the acre have been incorporated into the plan – the Shed, the hen run and roost, composting area, productive boundaries, nuttery, vine-border, spring bulb ‘plum-patch’, self-seeded cowslip mini-meadow, greenhouse, and minuscule areas devoted to photo-friendly potted containers and edible produce. Oh the past joys of it all. Oh the sadness at what was to follow.
Cotswold Acre Memories
Looking back, I realise that I had set myself an impossible task. There was never sufficient time to properly complete or maintain all that I had begun. I learned more from creating these plots whilst keeping an ongoing diary and writing feature articles than I would ever have done had I just gone my own sweet way without editors to satisfy and deadlines to watch. All was fuelled by constant reading and research, by endless visits to properties here and abroad, and by keeping my eyes open to even the most bizarre combination of wildflowers and seed heads (weeds to some) along roadside verges.
That is what I would recommend to every gardener: use your eyes, your camera, and notebook or scrapbook / sketchbook. Ensure that your garden blends into the local landscape or urban setting. Create a trials area where you can, well, ‘trial’ varieties new to you. Be not afraid to be different; whilst remembering that our gardens are all a part of a gigantic, world-wide eco-system. We kill what we do not like, or want, at our peril. Be thoughtful and neighbour-friendly, but do not be bullied into submission by the ‘know-nots’.
Encapsulating all that has evolved over 45 years into just one Cotswold Acre Memories blogpost is a tall order. It needs an entire book! I prefer to garden solus, without help, feeling no need for company or chatter. For few might realise the significance of an emerging self-set seedling; birds nesting in the unkempt shrubbery, or of bees in the borage, hoverflies on the thistles or green woodpeckers in the orchard grass probing for ants. So much would be missed without the solitude to be as I am.
Here and Now
Time does not stand still, and neither do we. Nor does the garden. As a wild-life haven, it has benefitted from neglect; the brambles arching like triffids twenty feet a year, rooting down to form new plants. Fearful and impenetrable. This demise began around 2011 when my elderly husband first became unwell. From someone so capable, it has been heartbreaking to see his decline. Able to do less each year, each season, and now hardly venturing outside, what was I to do? I determined that at least his beloved veg plot would not suffer. I kept it weeded, and took over a half of it, to create a flower cutting patch, divided into beds which shared the space with trial vegetables. That has been a success and all varieties grown have been supplied by Dobies – it really is worth taking advantage of all the special offers that wend their way into your in-tray or post-box.
Of my own plots, the overgrowth grew ever more dense, but with the bed-rock of plants that are still flourishing underneath it all after previous years of care. No matter, I thought; I will devote the summer of 2014 to pulling everything back into shape. And then came the cruellest thrust of all. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five months later, and after two operations (the last only two weeks ago, following which I am not allowed to garden, dig, lift, clip, drive or do virtually anything at all, except fret), I am hopefully clear.
I have re-assessed all the mini-gardens. Plans are in hand for a revamp and to growing what will be more easily maintained. The plants, equipment and seeds are ordered to make life easier whilst providing a continuity of produce – fruit, vegetables, salads, herbs and flowers.The kitchen will be brought into action as a nursery. Documentation is ongoing, as are almost daily photographic images. I must grasp all this beauty whilst I can.
Dear to my heart is the little enclosed ‘Secret Garden’ enclosed by a dense shrubbery. Its four raised beds were used originally for salad crops, but as it is the one part of the garden that can be seen from the kitchen, these are being converted to permanent beds of unusual herbs, spring bulbs and summer annual flowers. A new alleyway entrance is to be introduced: climbing roses trained up and over four linked obelisks. The ‘Eco-Garden’ will be least changed, for it is already well-stocked with fruit bushes – which just need a good pruning, re-training and a general tidying – including the removal of 5ft nettles! The ‘Square Foot Garden’ has defeated me, probably because it is farthest from the house, was once so neat and tidy and has become a wild-wilderness. I cannot reach the prolific harvest of figs growing against the brick-wall boundary, nor now even enter the Shed. I have a mind to convert the six narrow raised beds to ones in which I can grow perennial vegetables, probably through a mulching sheet to cut down on weeds.
As for my beloved Potager – the first of the areas to be reclaimed in the 70s. It is larger in size than the other feature gardens, for it actually comprises three mini-areas combined. The original raised beds will be removed so as to be able to dig out the brambles and self-seeded hazels. I need to re-establish the path and bed along our northern boundary so as to replant a dense hedge of berried shrubs and summer roses. The originals have been cut away by a neighbour who thought he was doing me a service. Gone are the evergreens. Poor thrushes. Beds will be enlarged, paths widened and the area – not sure what I will call it – will be host to shrubs, apothecary herbs, dye plants, perennial flowers and decorative veg such as ruby chard – so bright on a dull day in Autumn. In fact spinach and chard are grown in every available space in our acre; to use as cut-and-come-again greens for my flock of six hens. And comfrey for composting and mulches. In time, there will be a new tranche of Cotswold Acre Memories … all building upon the past, and reflecting what can be managed by one elderly couple. To destroy the wilderness would be anathema to me, but it truly does need to be brought under control.
This final post for Dobies of Devon Gardening Companion is my ‘swan-song’; it is time for me to move on to pastures new. I leave you with a collage of some of the newly acquired plants and products that even now are speeding towards our house and garden on the edge of the village. I will never stop writing (it would take a death-bed hiatus to bring me to that.) If you have enjoyed reading my garden-related stories, why not follow one of my personal blogs – maybe “Grandma’s Eco Gardening Notes” , which was shortlisted as a finalist by the RHS in 2013 in their blogwriter’s competition. Almost a website, it will will lead you to other pages; or to my other blogs on travel and creative mixed-media art (amongst others). They all interlink; as do my informative daily social networking posts: and illustrative Pinterest Boards. It’s been good to have had you with me over the years as I hand over into the capable hands of the Dobies team. Farewell, best of luck with all your gardening endeavours, and maybe our paths will cross again sometime in the not too distant future.