I know this feeling very well, and I think we will not be on our own. Mind you – there are easier ways to garden than this!
Anne Wareham, editor
The Monster Outside, by Valerie Lapthorne
It sits there all powerful, knowing that I am trapped, knowing that there is no escape for me. It completely surrounds the house, where I can see it from every window, striking despair into my very guts. I have become its slave, reacting to its every demand, physically worn down in the process of servicing it. The travesty is that I have created this monster myself. Born of hope and ambition, this living creature, like the cuckoo chick, tossed all competition out of the nest to be the sole offspring of its unsuspecting parent. Now in its thirtieth year, a mature entity, no longer in its adolescence, its demands are undiminished. This Monster, my Garden.
When we moved in, those thirty years ago, the house was a newly converted farm building and the garden a bulldozed farmyard, farm pond, and an ex orchard. Ex in that all the fruit trees were still there, but in varying stages of collapse and regrowth. None of this mattered as the children were all under eleven, and required nothing more. But we did. The pond, which had been part of a moat around a fortified farm, was full of farm debris, so we set to with the digger, cleared out the ironmongery and, after a couple of failed linings, added a butyl liner, which meant that the children had to miss out on a summer holiday. First big expense.
Gradually came the trees and then the shrubs. This was all new to us and we read about and visited gardens, iconic and otherwise. I signed up for a two-year horticultural course so that I would be able to look after this Garden properly and sat in lectures by the 1980s Grandes Dames of gardening, Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey, Beth Chatto, and John Brookes and Christopher Lloyd. I bought a greenhouse. This was a good time.
Then I discovered perennials, those plants that need lifting and dividing, And annuals that need sowing and pricking out and planting. And tulips that flower and then rot exponentially. And weeds, annual hoe-able ones and tenacious underground spreading ones. And the art of compost making. At this point I needed help. Just one day a week perhaps.
Now that I had help, I’d make a Sissinghurst white garden and order every white flower in the catalogues, and plant them even if they turn out to be grey-white, pink-white or yellow-white or have flowers so small that they could only be classed as “botanically interesting”, the ultimate badge of shame for a garden plant. How about some garden rooms? I need a bit more help here. Perhaps a full week’s help?
And the lawn. Neighbour warned that underneath the existing field grass is rubble, the stones and hardcore brought in for the cows to stand on. We try to mow it as it is, but after ten years of this, we bring in the digger and take away the top fifty centimetres of rubbish and lorries of topsoil and after leveling and sieving we lay the finest turf and it looks like a bowling green. Himself spends a good portion of his Saturdays on his knees with a potato peeler, levering out the wrong sort of grass.
Reading gardening books, practical and aspirational no longer enough. Day release myself to the local horticultural college. Good for practical stuff. Can graft and prune with the best of them. Garden feels this is not enough, so up a gear to a course of garden design. Need to put new skills into practice. Lots of digging and humping of materials. Looking good. Asked to open for the village Open Gardens Day. Happy to show off. Garden knows I am caught. Pressure on to present Garden to outside world. Need to master cream teas.
Must add a potager. No self-respecting Garden is without one. Battle pigeons, slugs and snails, moths, insects, mice, rabbits. Spray for diseases. Gluts of veg and fruit. Supply family and neighbours. Spend extra hours in the kitchen, freezing and bottling. Nothing nicer than a stocked larder of jams and a bulging freezer. Buy an extra freezer. Find I prefer to nip to Tesco Express for potatoes than don wellies in the rain and search in the mud for clay caked spuds. Work out that it is costing me £50 a cauli, if I pay myself minimum wage. Perhaps I need some extra help.
Thirty years have past in a haze of sowing, planting, pruning, mowing, spraying and the knees and hips are giving out. I find the effort of getting down to sit and weed means I stay down long after the reachable area is finished and stretch out on the grass and watch the clouds scud by. Buy a stool and a long handled hoe. Soon my gardening life will be reduced to thumbing through plant catalogues.
Now you will expect me to say that, as I walk in bare feet through the garden at summer dusk assailed by evening perfumes, that it has all been worthwhile. Well I won’t and it hasn’t.