It easy to get disheartened at this time of year, the days are glum but they're getting lighter. There's a cuckoo clock going off inside you, a mad desire to get outside and get things done but we only need to look outside, see the rain, the driving winds and the claggy soil to realise we may have to wait that little bit longer. Weeds may grow, weeds may sometimes win but gardens change with time and use. For us we started chronicling the lower garden back in 2010, long before we started to write about it, we never set out to have a blog, Facebook Page or social media but like the photographs we are better for it.
A couple of months before this photo was taken our neighbours, sick of the towering laurels, cut them back, the house at that time was vacant and it wasn't some random act of vandalism but a concerted effort on their side, and the owner's, to get some light in to the houses. We'd seen the garden in its jungle form, there where two large trees right at the bottom of the garden and there was barely a path between the laurel hedges and underfoot it felt like a living sponge snagging you with brambles. Here it is in early spring 2010 and Andrew is attempting to kill off the grass and thatch by putting black plastic over it. It seemed a good idea, it had worked on the allotment but the allotments we'd worked hadn't been left for thirty years to build up a really deep thatch. Digging was on the cards and we'd also have to strip off what was effectively eight inches of thatch and turf before hitting soil.
Some nice chaps with a few chainsaws and strimmers turned up in spring of that year and we had what was a blank canvas. We removed that much wood that we had a wood chip pile and three large stacks of wood. We had to build bonfires for the dreaded thatch, brambles and branches and stockpiled ash and laurel wood for seasoning (that's what those tarpaulins are covering to the right of the photo). In the middle of taking this photo our neighbour, the one who originally cut down the old trees by the house and cleared back the hedges, showed up on a mini digger and gleefully ripped out the laurel roots along the boundary. We call him John Wayne because he was our saviour, the few root balls we had left took us a year to remove and even now we are still digging up large laurel roots the thickness of a sumo wrestler's arm. Wayne whistled as he worked, seems those pesky laurels hedges had been causing friction between him and the little old lady who once lived here. Anytime he tried to cut them back she'd dash out wielding a sweeping brush, declaring: 'Those are my laurels, my late husband planted them, now get off my land' before ejecting him with the non-bristly end of the brush. Now the large root boles revealed the truth, they were on John Wayne's territory, and he wasn't happy. Thirty years he'd wanted to take them out. Thirty years of the sweeping brush and the dead husband who with cacked hands, milk bottle bottom glasses had planted them plum on wrong side of the boundary. This is how we got to know our neighbours, the great hedgegate of 2010, the truth had been revealed and then we nearly accidentally knocked down their shed, thankfully still on the photo above. This rotten, dilapidated, beautiful shed was nearly flattened by a large ash tree that we were removing, We said, 'Timber', it fell and it missed the shed by an inch. They were rather disappointed as they wanted to get rid of the shed anyway.
That first year meant a few beds, a few bonfires and an explosion of weed seed. We kept smiling and taking photos. 2010 indoors was a mix of nappies, sleepless nights and a tightening of our belts after redundancy and a house sale that fell through.
By summer 2011, we had become garden photography junkies. In just over twelve months we had taken the garden from Donald Trump's hair to a cottage garden tumbling down the hill into piles of rubble and building materials. We grew lupins for the first time, they had never worked at Drovers, they hated the soil, the location and the cats that plagued us there. Here they were as randy as the weeds, by now rose willow herb, sheeps' sorrel, chickweed and couch grass where common among the beds. We still fight all of them but the rose willow herb has declined to a manageable level thanks to a regime of pull it out when you sees it. The sheeps' sorrel and chickweed we smother under mulch but the couch grass is still by hand, is still time consuming and back breaking. This was the year we planted some new hornbeam hedges after discovering the hedges did an important job. They baffled the wind.
We grew onions, they don't like our soil, we grew rhubarb, it loved it.
We put up a large greenhouse and a small shed. The glasshouse, as we call it, due to it's size was put up on the very spot we had out first bed on. The waterbutts were ex-food produce barrels holding thosuands of litres of water but water became an issue quickly on an exposed hillside. Even having eight of these barrels on site we soon discovered they ran out quickly in a summer.
We sowed some cosmos. Then we decided things had to change. We were just replicating our garden at Drovers, but on a larger scale. We were broke, we had bills, we had to find ways to feed ourselves and surely we could do that on a quarter acre site. The Wartime Garden was born.
In 2012 we knew that the garden had to change to create distinct areas, we wanted to retain our love for the cottage garden, so that became the garden immediately behind the house. This garden would have to cope with the crippling cold shade in winter, and perennials would be the answer to this. It was no surprise that by 2014 our utilitarian desires crept into this area with food being produced alongside cutting flowers. Even by this summer it will be bordered by trained apple and cherry trees, soft fruit and climbing vegetables. If we get our finger out there should be chickens but this is part of a project to rebuild the retaining (more of that later in the year). Back in 2012 though we turned to Wartime advice but ditched the chemicals to create a small Wartime Garden.
By 2013, we where rolling along with a cycle of production, it was the year that this blog and our articles on the Wartime Garden started to creep into mainstream presses. We even did a photoshoot that appeared in Sainsbury's Magazine. We were asked to recreate our garden at BBC Gardeners' World, but sadly had to decline, we were still broke, Drovers still hadn't sold and house prices were stagnating. We had to concentrate on growing to eat, to survive and a show garden, though a wonderful, inspirational thing, would not have filled our bellies. This was also the first year that Little D took a real interest in growing. It was also the first year of bumper crops.
2013 also saw the addition of a polytunnel, don't get too attached, it didn't last long due to the exposed nature of our site but we managed to sell it on and sometime in the future we will get a new glasshouse to site beside the original one. This was the first year that we really saw the impact of the garden on our kitchen, and we started to preserve, learn old skills and take on the mantle of make do and mend.
Even in the cottage garden our food crops crept in on long bean supports.
In 2014, we were on fire, our make do and mend attitude meant that we were now using found wood not just for our wood burner but also for useful things. We built staging for pounds and pennies, saving ourselves a fortune.
Fruit planted back in 2012, part of a long term plan for the garden came in with a bumper crop that delighted us all.
A simple wander around the garden always meant something to eat. It meant our supermarket bills went down and down but we still faced problems with preserving food. We'd had a few mishaps, a few jars had gone off over winter and there was a lack of space indoors. Something we are starting to address in 2015.
Even the cottage garden was coming into its own, technically the oldest part of the garden, as the planting here has remained the same for some years, it has matured but still afforded us a great opportunity to bring in pollinators and predators.
The last five years, four seasons of growing has seen us approach Pig Row as something new, this was not an extension of Drovers but a new challenge to integrate several gardens into one structure for maximum yields and minimum input. We have gone on courses, given up digging for mulching, and have even turned to green manures, high yield beds, hot beds and permaculture. A garden changes as the demands of a family alter.