Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Cheaper than carpets

Quite some years ago when we moved from a flat to our first house we acquired a tiny garden. Despite being a small plot something still had to be done with it and so my initial interest in gardening was triggered. As I have a tendency towards an 'all or nothing' approach, I threw myself into developing the knowledge, skills and, dare I say, artistic temperament that goes with being an enthusiastic amateur horticulturalist.

One thing I did was to read widely the works of well known gardeners. Some historic, such as Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, some before my time, such as Vita Sackville West and Majorie Fish (We Made a Garden is one of my favourite garden books), and  others more contemporary, in particular Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey and Beth Chatto. Alongside my reading I visited theirs and others' gardens. I joined the RHS and visited Wisley and attended the Chelsea Flower Show each year on members' day. We lived very close to Hyde Hall Gardens and started to visit it when it was still in private ownership and continued to do so after the RHS acquired it.

Vita Sackville West who established
Sissinghurst garden with
her husband Harold Nicholson
Marjorie Fish who gardened
at East Lambrook Manor

The late Christopher Lloyd of
Great Dixter, and one of the most
interesting and enjoyable garden writers
Beth Chatto whose garden at
Elmstead Market is also home to her
famed nursery. She still gardens aged 94.

The first 'famous' garden I visited was Beth Chatto's at Elmstead Market near Colchester. This experience made a very strong impression on me. The only gardens I had seen up to this point were the average town or suburban garden with narrow borders along the fences and a rectangular lawn in the middle and planted with a relatively limited range of common plants, mainly shrubs and annuals. Here I was confronted with deep, richly planted borders and island beds with not a trace of soil on display. It was full of plants I was then unfamiliar with including many perennials and grasses. There was a satisfying mixture of form, flowers and foliage and complementary colours. I had never appreciated what might be possible.

A small part of Beth Chatto's garden

With a growing family we looked for a bigger house and a key criteria was a much larger garden. We moved to a house with a decent sized garden which was "laid to lawn" as the estate agents have it. For me this meant a blank canvas and I could begin a garden from scratch. Gradually much of the turf was stripped away to be replaced by borders. A pond was added, not for fish, but to grow water plants, and a small bog garden established for moisture-loving plants. I also took on an allotment so that vegetable growing went on in parallel with 'ornamental' gardening. Reading and visiting gardens are important aids but you only really learn by doing and through this building up experience and practical knowledge.

At one point I felt confident enough to seriously consider opening my garden to the public under the National Gardens Scheme with its famous Yellow Book. But life was just too busy with work and children to see it through.

Partly as a respite from a busy professional life I decided to undertake a course which had nothing to do with work, so I did the RHS General Certificate in Horticulture at nearby Writtle College. This was a part time evening course over eighteen months. We were lucky enough to have as our tutor for that year-and-a-half Christine Walkden who now features regularly on TV presenting her own gardening programmes as well as being a Gardeners Question Time panelist on Radio Four.

Christine Walkden

Christine, with her common sense and down to earth approach (in both senses) is a real counterbalance to some of the 'posh' gardens and gardening writers I had become imbued with. A bit of a culture shock perhaps for the one or two 'ladies who lunch' who were also on the course. I'm not surprised that one of her books is titled No Nonsense GardeningI remember once someone complaining about the cost of planting up a new bed and Christine's response in her distinct Lancashire accent was "well it's cheaper than carpets per square foot". We learnt an immense amount from Christine and, swot that I am, I passed with a distinction.

How you see Christine on TV is how I found her in real life. She speaks naturally, without the usual cadences of the professional TV presenter. She is a passionate hands on gardener first and foremost.

I enjoy the creative challenge of ornamental gardening and garden design but over time vegetable and fruit growing took an increasingly prominent role. We found space for hens for eggs in the garden, and the satisfaction derived from self-provisioning grew in importance. When we moved to our current place a few years ago, with its much larger space, the opportunity to develop this much further presented itself. Although we now keep a range of livestock and are virtually self-sufficient in meat, vegetable and fruit growing remains at the core of what we do.

So our journey to smallholding was not really a sudden leap into the unknown, but rather, in many ways, a natural progression from what we had been doing already. The real lifestyle change came about when I gave up full time employment to free up the time to work the holding. It is hard work and keeps me busy but I no longer have to do everything at breakneck speed to fit it all in, and in the winter months I get to see and enjoy it in daylight hours.

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