On Keeping Warm in July by Digging

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I was going through my old files recently and found some twenty-year-old clippings of a weekly gardening column I used to write for the Herald Sun in the days when it had a lively little weekend home magazine edited by a wonderful editor, the late Tony Hitchin. ‘Write me something that you would write for a dear aunt,’ he would say. ‘Someone who loves her garden and likes a good story.’ It was good advice for any newspaper columnist and off I would go, a particular dear aunt in mind, and write something I thought she would like to read.

Amongst the clippings was a column I wrote for her in 2000, in July, that typically chilly month we are enduring now, when you would rather be by a cosy fire than in a bleak, windswept garden. It was mostly about digging and, in particular, digging and tending herbaceous perennials, those plants that produce some of our finest and favourite flowers. Unlike annuals and biennials they keep growing, becoming larger and larger each year. Hugh Johnson, one of my favourite garden writers, says that by combining the permanence and certainty of shrubs with the brilliance of annuals they make themselves indispensable.

Among these indispensables are gorgeous plants like cannas, shasta daisies, Japanese anenomes, day lilies, delphiniums, aquilegias, lupins, borage and more. They flower in their season, from early summer to late autumn, and die back, usually in winter. Some die back briefly; others for a month or two, so that you can easily forget where you planted them.

I was glad to find this clipping because I have planted a lot of herbaceous perennials in my new garden, relying on them to quickly fill the vast empty garden beds that came with the new house and hide the ugly paling fences and bare brick walls that back them until climbers and creepers take a hold. And they are doing just that: in three years they have grown so much I am wondering if I rather overdid the planting, but working on the principle that you can never have too much of a good thing, I will ignore that problem for now.

Gardening being a perennial subject, I was glad to find that what I wrote then has not dated. This is what it said.

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On making a backyard into a garden …

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The builders have left the site and you are left contemplating a desert. Or, the estate agent has put up the sold sign and you have your dream home — well, it will be when renovations are done. But the garden! It’s more the stuff of nightmare.

This daunting prospect faced me many years ago — more years ago than I care to remember, actually. It was the late 1960s and the backyard of the little terrace house  we had just committed our meagre finances to seemingly forever was just that: a backyard, an ugly bleak space that you could never have called a garden.

I was young and new to gardening, an occupation of ancients in my eyes, and I floundered around, not knowing where to begin with this gardening business, but, as luck would have it,  I found some superb garden writers, all of whom had a thousand wonderful things to say about gardens, and especially where to begin. Perhaps they will be helpful for you too. Continue reading