A Grandmother’s Garden

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There is a huge dead tree in the garden beyond my back fence and I have mixed feelings about it. Mostly it is a stark and depressing reminder that it must once have been beautiful, its low sweeping branches casting welcome summer shade over the lower part of my garden and my neighbours’ gardens on each side.

It looks very like an oak tree: was an oak tree. I find myself using the present tense when I think or write about it, as if it were still alive; with its all-pervading presence, and its still intact dome dominating the skyline, it does seem so.

An oak tree and an heroic one at that. It has that classic shape and it must be at least fifteen metres high, and its spread is vast, overshadowing the garden where it grows, grew.

When I first moved here, I hoped that it would be felled as it was just too sad to see it each day at the far end of my garden. I hoped that someone would buy the derelict old house and rescue both it and the garden. But it is almost three years now and the house is still vacant, unsold, unrescued, and what must once have been its lovely garden, like the house, looking more forsaken as each day passes.

I sometimes walk past the front, hopeful that I will see signs of someone there — someone other than the man with a mower and a blower who keeps the grass cut and a semblance of order. I watch for a ‘For Sale’ sign to appear and someone looking to buy it. But so far, no sign, no buyer, no gardener who will garden there and bring the garden back to life.

The garden at the front is intriguing. Amongst the weeds, I have spied some treasures there. Across the front are, I think, the remnants of a hedge of Lorraine Lea roses: occasionally, valiant salmon-pink buds struggle up between the weeds and sunburnt Boston fern fronds and blossom there. Now that it is winter, there are arum lilies in the overgrown garden beds, all unfurling in their neat Chinese-scroll like way. Early in the spring, there are hundreds of delicate, green-tipped snowdrops, and a little later the rough grass that was once a lawn is a sea of old fashioned fragrant freesias. Later again, tucked away in a corner, a wonderfully gnarled old camellia — a japonica, I think — is dotted with small dark, dark red flowers. Continue reading

Dark Happenings in the Garden Shed: The Saga of the Worms

The worms have left home again. It’s the second time they have done this and I am in despair yet again. Just like last time, they are all over the floor of the garden shed, their poor little desiccated bodies making me feel sad and guilty. They seem to have been heading for the door as if they had wanted to go out into the garden.

Why did they do this? Make this doomed lemming-like journey? I thought I was taking good care of them. They lived in the garden shed in a worm farm (a two-story plastic box on legs designed especially for them). They were fed regularly with vegetable scraps, and I even chopped the scraps finely just as the instructions on the packet that the worms came in told me to do; they could not have been in search of food, surely.

Perhaps there was something they did not like, though I carefully removed the cabbage leaves after I read somewhere that worms don’t like cabbage. And the egg shells because they seemed to studiously ignore them even though I read somewhere else that they like to lay their eggs in them. I never gave them onions, which I also read they dislike.

I sprinkled their bed mostly fairly regularly with a soil conditioner, as instructed by several worm-savvy writers on the web, and I always wet it with water that had been standing in the shed overnight so there was no chemical imbalance or drastic change of temperature to upset them. The shed is cool in summer and relatively warm in winter, and I even put a large cardboard box over their home to improve the insulation for them against our recent cold winter days.

But, no, the ungrateful creatures just up and left. They must have wriggled their way up the sides of their apartment, then under its lid and then down the legs on to the floor. There are some still left behind, I can see, but not half as many as are now littering the cold concrete.

Perhaps there was some kind of civil war going on and the defeated have been driven out and those left behind are the victors — a battle on the scale of Milton’s Paradise Lost, all in the garden shed.

I’ll have to do some more reading about worms before I decide whether to replace them or not because I cannot bear the thought of going through this leaving-home business again. In the meantime, I must sweep the floor of the shed to remove their poor little bodies and the sad reminder that worms are a mystery and a source of great anxiety to me.

. . . . . . .

Elsewhere in my garden right now …

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This is a one of the wild strawberry plants that have obligingly taken root amidst the dichondra ground cover under the birches. They are so pretty and the fruit so delicious I have decided to leave them there, even though it is a race between me, the local low-life like slugs and snails, and the visiting birds and my grandchildren, as to who gets to eat the little berries.





All is well …

Things are looking up, literally: the silver maple, over which I was agonising when I last wrote, is now six metres tall and looking great.



The ‘stick’ that I despaired of then now has ten or so branches and a mass of lush, sharply lobed leaves which, true to form, when the wind blows, twist and turn on their long petiole and reveal their silvery underside. It is nearly two years old now and the worry that I had not planted it properly, that my family had sabotaged the planting ceremony, that the summer months were too hot for a tree from northern climes, is now behind me. (I was so worried on one particularly hot day last summer day that I placed the outdoor umbrella over it to protect it, laughing at myself as I did so.) But all is well and now I am enjoying watching the leaves turn gold and drop to form scattered pools of gold and silver at its base.

In fact, I have been enjoying watching the whole of this my new garden take on its autumn cloak and prepare for winter. Especially as it is only three years old and when I first came here there was nothing growing except a rapacious wonga-wonga vine and vast swathes of kikuyu grass.

Now there are four trees (the silver maple and a grove of three silver birches, ‘… the most beautiful of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods’ according to the Romantic poet Coleridge). Perhaps I have rather overdone the tree thing but there are few grand trees in this area and I like to think I am helping to make it lovely for the future. Besides, I have always been mindful of that great Australian gardener Edna Walling’s injunction that ‘trees come first in the making of garden pictures’.

The hedges that I planned to give the garden a feeling of enclosure — one of Portuguese laurel and another of murraya — are looking as if they are destined to become hedges after all and not just a row of scrawny little soldiers who have not done their dressing-off drill correctly so that they form a nice straight line.

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The east-facing deck is now one-third sheltered by several Boston ivy vines, and its southern corner, my pride and joy, is almost covered by the old fashioned climbing noisette rose, Lamarque. Having climbed valiantly something like seven or eight meters last summer to reach the overhead beams, it rewarded me a few weeks ago for all the care I had given it (and the skin of the breakfast banana each day) with a single cluster of its fragrant creamy white blooms. It was such a huge effort to get to the top that I think all its energy for the growing season was spent doing just that and it could do little more; but I also like to think that it wanted to reassure me that, yes, it would produce flowers but not in any profusion until next spring, when it will have rested a little. That’s okay by me: it is a tried and true rose in my experience and it promises to be so lovely it can take its time. Gardeners are patient people and understand that a garden is not mature until it is at least five years old.

Gardeners are also usually quiet achievers and not given to boasting, but I must say that I am hugely proud of the dichondra ground cover that I planted under the birches to replace the kikuyu grass: it has spread and spread, making a dense, and so far, tough, mat-like covering (you can see it in the pic of the silver maple above). In the first year, when there was little else covering the lawn area, I planted some seeds here and there; now I just dig up a spadeful or two and place it where there is a gap. It really is a most obliging plant, and, to add to its qualities, together with a prostrate thyme and some wild strawberry plants, it has created its own line on either side of the path that leads to the garden shed —‘a line more charming and elusive than any human can devise’, as Edna Walling put it so eloquently.

This is the third significant garden I have planted, and, as a friend commented, it is probably a great act of faith to make a garden in one’s late seventies. There are times when my back aches and my determination to keep tilling and tending does flag, but as I look out on the lovely drifts of golden leaves fallen from the birches and now lying on the ground at their feet, and when the red and gold autumn leaves of the Boston ivy are glowing in the late afternoon light, I am awfully glad I had that faith.


PS. In case you are interested, here are the botanical names of the plants I have mentioned: Portuguese laurel: Prunus lusitanica; Murraya paniculata; Silver maple: Acer saccharinum; Silver birch: Betula pendula; Wonga-wonga vine: Pandorea pandorana; Rosa ‘Lamarque’; prostrate thyme: Thymus serpyllum; wild strawberry:  Fragaria vesca; Boston ivy: Parthenocissus tricuspidata