Reclaiming the garden


“Gardens,” said Mr Rudyard Kipling,”were not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.”

Once upon the time the garden was my baby. I loved plants and despised decking, idolised Vita Sackville West and her life’s work at Sissinghurst; I wrote for the paper on gardens, I planted and loved mine tenderly, and as all gardens do, this one, a little patch of earth in Kent, it thanked me.

Phil and I would barter: how much lawn can I dig up? Where might I place another bed?

And we are talking small gardens here. There are houses with big gardens in England, but there are many more with modest little patches of earth. I crammed a tiny Kent garden with colour and form and traditional borders, and Phil said I could have the grass as long as I sank small clay terracotta pots and made him a miniscule nine-hole golf course.

Which I did: and Summer nights were spent with tipsy friends trying to coax golf balls around the smallest course in England.

Gardens have manners. They are polite. When one lavishes care and attention on one, it is like one of those guests who, with every syllable, make you resolve more firmly to have them back again another time. Their company is a salve, a diverting conversation, a quiet companionable silence.

But when you leave them, and neglect them, they become like a recalcitrant child.

And it has been a trying few years here in England. Rain and cold do not encourage one to go out into the garden. Winter generally sends one inside for months at a time, leaving the garden to the cat and the dog, the fox and even the odd badger.

That and family are my excuses for neglecting the baby I once loved with such a passion.

Yesterday I looked out at the disgruntled garden which, ever since I moved in, I have so often ignored and short-changed.

It is a strange place, all paved and yet there is the forest at the fence, craning towards the little space with all its mighty strength, a small bastion of human occupation squaring uncertainly up to nature.

And I began. I put all the old plastic toys and bikes and pots and rubbish in the car and drove it to the tip. I set Phil to burning the old broken garden bench. He loves burning things.

Inch by inch I began reclamation of that space. I love you, forest, I said to it, but back off.

With secateurs I warded the old tree-spirits off, and I dug borders. My daughter was interested: but 12 years olds do not have a woman’s eyes, and things like weeds and dug borders fly past them unnoticed. I gave her some earth and a trowel and some flowers and she sat among the weeds happily planting. Thus is a love of plants engendered.

After a day of back-breaking work the bones of the old garden were showing again.

May Sarton said it best: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience,,” she observed,” everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”

Teatime. Phil suggested fish-and-chips and everyone said ooooh, yes please.

And after Maddie had pottered off with Phil to pick up dinner, I looked at her garden.

It had its own monolith, and unlike the great rocks of Avebury and Stonehenge this had pretty flowers planted at its feet. And it was inscribed: “Away with the fairies.”

Never a truer word.

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A response to Side View’s weekend theme: Amusing Consequences, details of which you may find here.


43 thoughts on “Reclaiming the garden

  1. compared to my garden yours has SPACE.

    how is it that people who can’t stand housework, love to garden, making all appear as delightful is more fun that making everything TIDY!

  2. I am not an enthusiastic gardener. I leave the clever planning, caring and tending to my wife and I get the hard labour (and burning stuff – it’s a man thing!). Our garden, too, was once well maintained and cared for, but has started to be reclaimed by nature: brambles are encroaching and weeds proliferate where once-lush plants wither. We are taking steps to salvage the situation, but progress is slow. Perhaps if we get a summer this year we will once again briefly triumph in the never-ending battle, but I fear we can never win the war.

    1. No, you’re right there, Darrell. Have you ever read PD James; Children of Men? That passage where they find a church that is quickly being taken over by the wild once again, and the Vicar chasing a deer round the church in a bid to hold back that inexorable force. We can only do so much.

      1. I haven’t read P.D.James, but it is amazing to see how plants can break through concrete, or how buddleias proliferate on neglected buildings

  3. Our tiny garden is a haven of peace and affords us endless pleasure. Each year tiny changes take place, as in a small place all changes are necessarily tiny. Just wish it wasn’t raining – again – today or we’d be out there:)

    1. Rain. Such a downer. It is – right now- brilliant sunshine here, and makes the garden seem like a rather wonderful extra room. The rain would send us all scuttling inside once more.

  4. Satisfying, isn’t it, to have dirt on one’s hands. Your photos are precious, Kate; the petunias and pots all nestled together in happy harmony, hopefully bracing against your forest. Well done.

    1. Thank you, Penny. Reading about your community project yesterday was most inspiring. But clearing is only the beginning: now the real fun begins. We have cut back invasive dark rhodedendrons so that some flower beds have a much better chance to success. Now to find the plants that grow in woodland soil best.

  5. It looks lovely, Kate!

    I reclaimed our driveway and front gardens yesterday, and while it’s not my forte, it feels so good. Today I’m going to restore order to the back yard! Felix has discovered the croquet set, and is disappointed in us for letting the grass get unruly.

    1. Ah, the disaprobation of the young, I know it well. I saw those lovely pictures of FB yesterday – youhave done a fabulous job! Good luck with the croquet pitch!

  6. I always approach the necessary tending of the lawn with some trepidation because I know that once I start doing more than just mowing and trimming that I will spend the entire day pruning, sawing, hacking and digging to make some order of the chaos. I will admit that once done, it always feels good to just stand back and admire the handiwork, this is before the sore muscles make me aware of their presence. A quick advil and a bottle of beer usually solves that situation, though. A cheer to gardens, big and small.

    1. Yes, the advil was useful, I’ll own, Lou! I have little more than a blank cavnvas now: time to go back to all my old gardening textbooks to find some woodland shrubs which will flower all Summer long as a backrop to the more showy perennials and bedding plants. Delicious stage to be at.

    1. Do you remember The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgeson Burnett, wasn’ it? I love that book because it sums up the wonder of unearthing the framework of someone else’s beautifully planned and planted masterpiece.

  7. I love gardening. Our problem here is not enough rain and too much very hot sun. In fact, I need to get outside and water plants before it gets to ninety-plus degrees. But there’s something so soothing about gardens and flowers, trees, birds, squirrels and even the occasional wild rabbit. I think it keeps the blood pressure down. I like Maddie’s stone monument and inscription.

    1. Gardening soothes the spirit, Gale, of that I am sure. I intend to spend a lot of time out there this Summer, rain or shine. Your weather sounds so very different to ours!

  8. Your garden is just lovely, Kate. The Kipling quote is so true. I’d not heard that before and it certainly resonates as part of my experience. I have always loved working in the garden, and weather isn’t a constraint, but family responsibilities and weekly travel to my daughter’s house for my darling girls eats into what was once “my” time entirely. But when I get my fingers dirty and make a corner bloom I am so thrilled. I love your photos and appreciate the work that went into a lovely day. I hope you continue to enjoy the work of your hands. šŸ™‚

    1. Debra, I always love your plant posts and am continually amazed at the incredible differences in our climates, and what will grow in each. Time is a continual constraint, as you say. But it’s lovely to reaquaint oneself with the garden whenever possible.

  9. I love the “Away With The Fairies” monolith, Kate.
    Go Maddie!

    Glad you rewarded yourselves at teatime with some Fish & Chips.

    1. Thank you, Jamie. The garden at Sissinghurst is everything you would want it to be: beautiful traditional borders, stunning show gardens, a glorious informal wildflower meadow….I hope you get to see it someday. With a picnic, preferably.

  10. Your garden may not be Sissinghurst but it sure looks like the real thing to me, Kate. I hope you will write a sequel to this post so we can see how it blossoms over the warm weather months ahead. As you know, I live in New York City proper, so when I need a fix of nature, I just flatfoot four blocks up my street to Central Park. But there is a small patch of garden that the people who manage my building maintain. Soon I expect it will be blanketed with colorful flowers, now that they’ve finally give up on the Xmas tree they replanted three seasons back that never fully took root.

    1. Hmmm, Lame . Warm weather months ahead. Know what the temperature was today? Eight. Degrees. Centigrade. That’s 46 F to you. It is May. MAY! I am currently costing large tugs to tow the British Isles into the Med.

      Warm weather seems a distant dream. My garden may shiver its way through the Summer…

    1. The most glorious soil in the world does little if it is freezing cold, Tammy, and we are in the most preposterous cold snap. I fear we will never be able to grow anything meaningful again! But I’m sure I’m just being melodramatic…

  11. Best of luck with your garden – and it’s reclamation. This weekend I just got in all the annuals and veggie garden, since it’s only warm enough now to do so. The rest … well, it’s trying to grow like crazy and the weeds – as usual – are outpacing me, but THIS year, I swear I’ll catch up (or try). šŸ™‚ Hope it’s a much better summer for you and your garden.

  12. The toughest obstacle for me is to get started. Then I wonder why it took me so long! Your garden looks lovely Kate šŸ™‚

  13. I do miss my version of the English garden I had up north. Here, I avoid the heat, which means I also avoid gardening. I’ll live thru your lovely flowers vicariously. Love the photos, Kate.

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