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Playing in the garden

A new garden – and the gardening spark has been rekindled! There was I thinking that I’d been there, dug that and worn out the T-shirt. Even sent all my gardening books to the charity shop. And now, faced with a new terrain, I am back in thrall to my trowel, heaps of manure and – my imagination, which, sadly, seems rather more fertile than our stony ground looks. Still, the commercial apple orchard which backs onto our garden suggests otherwise, as each slender trunk is studded from tip to toe with burgeoning fruit. So perhaps my dreams will blossom too.

But what I want to tell you about is not my plan for a herbaceous border to rival the one at Culzean Castle, nor the courtyard garden full of mystery that I am longing to create on the sun-baked, sunken paved area of our garden – though I’m happy to do so if anyone, anywhere, is in the least interested. Let me set the scene for my musings.

The morning was warm and sunny. I had plans. What could be more reviving for the soul than a morning spent pottering in the peace of our garden, with the orchard at the back, and flanked by the tranquil gardens of our neighbours. True, the not-too-distant motorway is never silent, but we’ve already trained ourselves to think of that sound as resembling the gentle roar of the sea. The roar which assaulted my being was neither the sea nor the road. It was my neighbour cutting his hedge. I sighed, but consoled myself by reflecting that at least this was not the day the farmer had chosen to tractor up and down the alleys between the rows of trees, spraying.

The neighbour’s hedge is long, and he is thorough. But then the noise was over. The blessed quietness was audible. Then, as if pre-arranged, a petrol mower snarled into life and the neighbour on the other side began to cut his postage stamp lawn with a beast of a machine more suited to the grounds of Hampton Court than Sandgate Court where we live.

It got me thinking about the difference between my and my spouse’s approach to gardening. When we arrived at this house, there was a six-foot high, three-foot deep Leylandii hedge at the bottom of our garden. Any fairies we might have hoped to encounter there had long since flitted to a cleaner, more convenient abode. Mind you, plenty of mice were enjoying life there. Our four cats spent the first days of life here staring intently into its depths – and reaping the rewards of their vigilance.

Many discussions took place about that hedge and what we should do with it. As well as being unruly and fast-growing, it was covered in the traitorously lovely, white flowers of Convolvulus (Bindweed) which was spreading all over the garden, strangling everything that wasn’t a Leylandii hedge. We explored options, enduring the downturned mouths and gloomily shaken heads of a host of suntanned garden maintenance men, before we took a vote. The cats were over-ruled (yes, there are four of them and only two of us, but the bottom line is that we earn the Whiskas) and the decision was made. The hedge must go. Within hours, men swarmed over our garden with lethal whirring, cutting devices and precious little regard for their own safety. In the time it takes to fill six truckloads with evergreen branches, trample anything which looked like a tender flower, break the metal manhole cover by dropping a tree trunk on it, and demand a bank transfer of a sum which would have put Whiskas in the cats’ mouths for months, they were gone – and the hedge was too.

It seemed as if our garden had been reduced to a little patch of waste ground between our house and the vast orchard behind. All that separated us was the famer’s wire fence, neatly, but menacingly topped with barbed wire. Strange how we need to see the boundaries to feel safe in our own ground. I’m sure there’s a lesson for life there… but I digress.

What to do now? The garden devastation took place on Thursday and almost our whole family were coming for a celebration on Sunday. What had been a cosy, safe area was now a mess of lumpy, flint-ridden dry soil, littered with tree stumps, trailing roots of Bindweed and rusty metal posts attached to bits of chain-link fencing. The cats had no comment beyond knowing ‘we told you so’ looks as they headed off to gambol in the orchard and seek out the new homes of the beleaguered mice.

More bronzed men with shaking heads arrived, exuding just as much gloom as before the hedge was removed. ‘There’s a terrible lot to do before you can put a fence in there. The ground’s in an awful state.’

One man offered to contact his mate who had a digger. Getting it down the patio steps would be ‘no problem. He’s taken it over lots more steps than that.’

Archie’s eyes glittered with anticipation.

‘Of course, it’s a bit narrow there, and there. You might lose a few plants and it will have to go over the lawn.’

The light in Archie’s eye dimmed. The lawn is to Archie what a well-planted border is to me. A thing to be tended and nurtured. We have only been here a month, but already the lawn has been cut (three times), fed, weeded, bare patches filled. Top soil and sharp sand lies waiting in the barrow (making it unavailable for any other gardening duties). This mixture is to be painstakingly distributed into the ankle-wrenching potholes in our lawn in order to create what you might like to call ‘a level playing field’.

The digger idea was dismissed. We couldn’t get a fence before Sunday but perhaps we could make things safer and more easy on the eye. Archie disappeared into the house, a spring in his step. He returned, eyes alight, to tell me he could hire a small rotavator for a few hours for the price of a small shed. It’s clear he relished the idea of powering up and down our three-foot-at-widest border. He admitted there were some areas where it might not get past without moving a bush or two. He admitted the copious littering of flint in the soil might be a problem. He admitted the relevance of the proverb about sledge hammers and nuts.

‘We could try digging,’ I quavered softly, ‘I think that’s what people used to do before machines.’

‘That hedge has been there over 20 years. The ground will be solid. There’s no way we could break into it with hand tools.’

Discussion over. Decision deferred.

Friday dawned fair. Archie went off blithely to have his now-mended broken wrist checked at the hospital. Time for action, I decided. Laden with spade, fork and pick, I headed down to the rubble patch. I’ve already mastered using the pick last week, digging out a forest of Lady’s Mantle from the rockery, but after a couple of swings with it, I put it aside and plumped for the fork. The pick just couldn’t get a grip in the earth – because the soil was so loose! By the time Archie returned, I had turned over a quarter of the area and filled a sack with bindweed roots. We toiled together, but with few words.

Soon I noticed that Archie seemed to be focussing on one area only. A closer inspection revealed that he had dug a huge hole around a metal post and was trying to free it from the ground by rocking it back and forth. It did not budge. I pointed out that his time and energy might be better spent on dealing with the rest of the border. ‘Yes, I think that post will need to be cut below ground level with a Stihl saw,’ he said, longingly.

And that’s the moment when I finally realised that he and I have irreconcilably different approaches to the garden. For him, it is all about rising to the challenges thrown up by the land. The more money, machinery and gadgets which can be enlisted in the battle, the more satisfaction is gleaned. The more radical the devastation, the more successful the project.

Digging and hot-bath restoration treatment completed, we surveyed the results of our work. It would do for our Sunday visitors, but there were still big questions as to how a fence could be erected, given the impediments in the ground, not least the 12 foot high, 8 foot thick, rotting double tree stump hulking along the line where the fence should go. A tree company was summoned, arriving with an arsenal of weaponry. The boss gave one perfunctory glimpse to our stump, and many loving glances and caresses to his machines.

‘Can’t touch that with these (I swear I heard him say babies). Look at all that fencing nailed onto it. One touch from that metal and my chain’s ruined. Just can’t take the risk.’ Archie placated him by setting him to work on some metal-free stumps (that weren’t part of the job), and reassuring him that the offending stump would be loosed from its chainmail over the weekend. That was the last I saw of Archie until the men left. Undeterred by clouds of noise and wood dust, he leaned on a post and unashamedly watched the slashing and grinding process until it was ended. A great day’s entertainment and worth every pretty penny.

‘How will we get the fencing off the tree?’ I ask.

‘Oh, I’ll need a pair of wire cutters for that at the least,’ he returned, joyously. ‘Let’s pop to B&Q.’

We’ve only lived here for a month, but the car can get to B&Q blindfold. We examined minutely the relevant (and irrelevant) tools on the shelves. ‘Maybe I should get an angle grinder too,’ he pondered.

‘Let’s just get what we came for and see how it goes,’ I murmured, aware that a tool-buying orgy was imminent and could not be fended off by my plaintive cries of, ‘But when will you use that?’

I should have known better. Back at the coalface, barely five minutes had passed before the cry went up, ‘I wish I’d got bent snips instead of straight.’ Less than five more minutes of life ticked by, when, ‘I think an angle grinder would do this better – can you see how much they are.’ A token two minutes passed while I found a price online, but I could have quoted thousands and the outcome would have been no different. He was already clutching the car key. ‘Won’t be long.’ And he wasn’t. And the job wasn’t long either.

One is tempted to reflect on what made the difference. The tools, or the mind-set of the wielder? At the risk of receiving accusations of disloyalty, but in the interests of making my philosophical point, let me list Archie’s garden-related purchases over the last month. Apart from the above mentioned wire-removal implements, we sport new secateurs, a shiny new spade and spanking new fork (both bought after the digging was over), a plastic rake, a lawn fertiliser spreader, numerous lawn cosmetics, topsoil and sharp sand, all stored in a shed one wall of which is rotting away. So today, new planks, a gutter and various wood treatments were bought to repair it. Who knows what tools will be needed to complete this renovation?

‘Outrageous!’ I hear your indignation, ‘Surely a garden is about plants.’

Exactly. And to that end, there have been a few little purchases of my own. Well, there was a serious shortage of flowering plants when we arrived – and only one rose! How can you call a plot of land a garden when there is only one specimen of the queen of flowers? True, there are now five… and some new rockery plants. But I ask you, should a rockery just be a tumble of rocks? And of course I needed manure and bone meal to help them along… and with the family party, we had to have some instant colour created by some begonias in pots. But, after all, it is a garden. That’s what gardens are about isn’t it?

It all depends on your point of view.

The family get-together on the Sunday. 

Postscript

Yesterday, two men came to remove that huge double tree stump. As we came back from our walk with Sanday, we saw one of the men standing at the front of our house, obviously waiting for our return. We couldn’t hear his words, but his body language spelt agitation. When we were near enough, he told us that, as he attacked the stump with the chainsaw, the dry, old wood had ignited. Sure enough our garden was enveloped in  clouds of smoke. Archie rushed to the rescue with a couple of buckets and a watering can. Though the tree was dampened down pretty fast, smoke went on appearing from different quarters. It reminded me of the time we visited Vesuvius where little puffs of smoke kept appearing from different cracks.

I deposited the dog inside and reported for fire-fighting duties. Cue for Archie to take drastic action. ‘Pity we don’t have a hose,’ he said, ruefully. Then he brightened up. ‘I know, I’ll drive to B&Q and get a hose and you keep working with the buckets.’

He scurried off and I plodded back and forth to the tap with occasional encouraging comments from the tree men. By the time Archie returned, all signs of smoke had been obliterated.

Post-postscript and vindication

This morning, Archie looked out of our bedroom. ‘Believe it or not, it’s smoking again. He rushed down and with the help of 40 metres of hose, was able to douse the trunk in an instant.

Esther Cohen