What Does A Garden Mean To You? Part 3

Camera in hand last night we ventured out into the garden, to catalogue our garden in late summer. To answer the question set a few days back. A question that has fired the imaginations of so many, and has brought criticism from some quarters. It is a personal question, a fleeting answer, and it is sometimes an answer that we do not want to share. So, as we set the question, it seems only fair that I share why I garden.

The cloister planting of rosemary and nasturtiums

There is nothing like the feeling of creating something from nothing. That is the essence of why we garden, a packet of seeds, a cutting, a division, a grown on seedling, that we then plant and then place in a border. When I first started to grow it was part of my road back to recovery. At the age of 29 after many years of writing for television and film, a disc in my spine blew. This may sound dramatic but I still remember the consultant saying as he sat down behind his desk, 'Worst case scenario is that the disc has blown on both sides, which is rare'. He then looked at my scan, went pale and followed up with, 'Oh dear'. In those two words he sealed my fate. My spinal column has been flattened, I could barely walk, I was in a wheelchair and when I did try to walk I was using two sticks. It was the darkest time of my life. It was also the most painful moment of my life. My first back spasm had me on the floor, screaming at my wife to cut my left leg off. It was like my entire nervous system had been put into deep freeze and then dumped into the core of the sun. I had nerve damage and no feeling in parts of my left leg. There was hope though, I could with time, exercise and with medication learn to manage the pain, walk again and lose weight. The losing weight was a big part of my recovery, and to stop being sedentary. I had two choices, swim or garden. 'Low impact sports', as the consultant referred to them. Gardening was promoted by my physio because it was an activity that developed core muscles but more importantly, kept you moving. The worst mistake I made when my back went was to listen to a badly trained doctor who told me to rest. The damage was done. I could lament about the year of agony, the months of pushing my spine back to neutral and the laughable attempts to get me to go under the knife. I was not keen for any surgeon to go through my stomach to get to my spine, neither was I keen on the odds of success. I was in pain, but pain I could manage, pain I have learnt to live with over the last nine years but surgery was a dangerous and unknown step. Gardening beckoned.

Smoke bush cuttings

What did I know about gardening nine years ago? I had helped my Dad on his allotment when I was a child. This mainly comprised of me eating peas from the pod, fighting with my sister and building dens in the copse that surrounded the allotment in Rivington. I must have learnt something I knew the basics, if a little misguided. I still go to my Dad's garden and he still shares cuttings with me. The first garden I tackled was called Drovers, it was a small cottage garden, no bigger than the Land Rover I drive now. In the first year I planted runner beans and some annuals. In those early days I gardened on my belly and knees. It was hard for me to walk and I would often crawl around the garden. I had no choice, my back often buckled beneath me. I sweated my way round the garden, I swore my way around my plants and they grew, and I lost weight. I laughed a lot too, pain does that after awhile, you come out the other side, grinning and chuckling.

I became interested in herbs, this happened because we had a well drained but poor soil bed that ran beside the garden path. If I had been stronger I would have dug this out but sometimes, as any good gardener will tell you, you have to work with what you have got. I still believe in that. It is pointless sometimes to try or bend a whole garden to your will, it won't work and you'll spend a fortune trying to change it. The bed was eight feet long and only a foot wide and I planted it with herbs, from thyme to rosemary to a bay tree. I learnt later that the location I put the bay tree in was wrong, that it should have died, but it didn't and grew strong for a decade before succumbing to winter winds. I cut it back to ground level when we left Drovers, I returned a year later to find that it was growing again and the foliage was lush and green again. Thyme though never survived in this bed. Oregano, chives and welsh onions all thrived.

Lupins growing back

I took on an allotment in my third year. I wanted to do something bigger, my back was stronger and I knew I wanted a challenge. I also wanted somewhere I could grow lupins, at Drovers they always curled up and died. At my allotment, on the way to Mottram, potatoes grew well, lupins died, and I started to grow flowers and new vegetables from seeds. I loved at that moment, in that place, that I had a greenhouse. In that greenhouse, in those few months I was there, I learnt more about how seedlings grew, what they looked at and how one weed can drive you mad. We had problems with mare's tail on the allotment and it was rampant. After one season, the travelling became too much, my back was showing further weaknesses and I had experienced a number of spasms. Sadly, I had to call it a day. It wasn't the gardening that was damaging, it was the driving and carrying of tools. During this time, I was still working full time, even with a disability I couldn't claim benefits as my wife worked more than thirty hours a week. Through gritted teeth I worked. I was doing too much, living too fast. 

It would be another five years before we would move to Pig Row and in that time I redesigned, regrew and replanted Drovers several times. I went from raised beds, to new paths, to a potager and one of these gardens ended up being highly commended in Britain in Bloom. This meant a lot to me, I had gone from knowing hardly anything about growing (I had during my first year raised a tray of weeds, having pricked out the actual seedlings) to designing something that I could manage. I was walking again, and I had dropped around five stone in weight. Even today I am working towards dropping a further two stone but it takes time and I have to do it slowly so not to cause further problems with my discs.

Wild meadow

When we came to Pig Row I became more and more interested in creating a large scale potager garden. We did have concerns that I wouldn't be able to manage such a big garden but I knew, I believed that I could do it. No driving was involved and I could do it at my own speed. This could be a garden that would help me to keep healthy, thin and mobile.  

I was faced with a derelict garden and it appealed to the romantic side of myself. I was a fantasist, I wanted to run a Victorian walled garden but the practical side of me knew that my health would never stand up to this but I could dream. I started that first year by capitulating to my wife, she was right, there was no way I could clear such a large space on my own. It took me two weeks to dig up one bush. We paid for five burly men, with strong backs, to clear our garden. It took them one day. In rain, they cleared the garden with chainsaws and strimmers. My neighbour, the farmer, brought in his mini digger and tore up the much hated laurels that he lived next to for over thirty years. These towering monsters ran the boundary between us and only when we cut them down did he discover a shocking truth. They were on his side of the boundary but for three decades the old lady who had lived in our house had affirmed that they were her's and that he couldn't touch them. This is how hedges can become more than a boundary, they can divide us. We had a grand bonfire that night and delighted in their demise. This municipal and poisonous plant was no more. I knew there had to be hedges, my choice was hornbeam. A neighbour at Drovers had a large garden which was overlooked and I had helped him to select hornbeam. A hedge that was lush green in summer but wouldn't rob him or his neighbours of sun in winter.

Our hornbeam hedge in its second year

I knew it was easy to plant, to grow on and that I could over that first summer slowly dig over the area they were going to be in. It took me four months to add manure and dig over three hundred feet of ground for the hornbeam but it was the first time in years that I could dig. It did me and my back good. I went at my own pace and any sharp pains were met with a swift cup of tea, and a gentle walk around the garden. I never stop, my wife says this all the time, she wonders why I never sit down for long and the answer is simple, my garden is calling and my back won't let me. I will watch a film, I will drive long distances but I have to get my hands in the ground at some point in the day. I need to feel productive, I spent too long being sedentary. Even now whilst typing this, it is the longest I have spent at a computer for some time. Computers are what destroyed my back. It was akin to being in a slow car crash and many people suffer this fate every year as we embrace a more technological age and forgot that much more can be achieved down a slower path. This is what gardening has taught me, that I can plant a sweet pea seed, that I can grow it, plant it on and months later I can take pleasure in its sight, scent and the fact that I can fill each room with them and bring the garden indoors. There is more pleasure in a sweet pea seed than in all of the internet. 

Sweet pea

It seemed odd to me then that other people wanted to hear about my garden. At Drovers, the garden effect rippled across the neighbourhood as people stopped to see my garden and ask questions. I was not a trained gardener, I still struggle with latin names but I was happy to share what I knew with my neighbours and this was returned ten fold. My neighbour taught me how to make butter, I never suspected in this day and age that anyone still made butter but each week my neighbour used some of his milk to make butter to his taste. I shared with him my first success in flower seed growing, lychnis. A lovely pink campion that spread like crazy around our small garden that worked effortlessly between the rhubarb leaves.

Drovers rhubarb at Pig Row

When I came to Pig Row, we had less neighbours. There are a mere nine house in our hamlet on this old toll road from Lancashire to Yorkshire. I decided to write an article for The Cottage Gardener, I was a member of the Cottage Garden Society, and I wanted to give something back. I'd trained as a journalist and worked for the BBC in the 90s but I didn't want to write simply factual articles. I wanted to put some of myself into it, to show there was a reason to garden beyond design television programmes and quick weekend do overs. I wanted a garden that would grow with me and I wanted to show that this was a slow process. I decided there and then, as a response to my own road to recovery, that everything in our garden would be grown in our garden. That each seedling, division and bulb would take its chances, it would have to work hard, it would have to sweat to be on our exposed hillside. 

Empress of India nasturtium self seeded

This meant plants that worked at Drovers may not work here. In our old garden nasturtiums had thrived, here they continue to struggle. For me, everything had to start with the soil, from the ground up. Just as I had to rebuild my health from the bottom up, Pig Row would reflect this.
Soil, the building block
The only thing I would buy in was the fruit and bulbs. Our fruit would be heritage or come from the area we lived in, it would be a true Yorkshire orchard. Market gardens once thronged these hillsides but the orchards had been grubbed up long ago, the specimens from exotic to everyday were lost.

Japanese Wineberry

I wanted to plan well ahead, that I would set myself goals and be willing to change those goals as I learnt more and more about our garden and my health. The day I dug up a thigh bone, I was convinced that we had bodies in the garden but that was the day I learnt that this place once housed pigs and that I would find plenty of pig bones. This explained the hooks and low window in our kitchen. This old window was a door for the pigs and the hooks were for....well you can fill in the gaps now you know we had pig bones in the garden. The name of our garden was born, it wasn't just the garden, it was Pig Row.
Digitalis Alba for next spring/summer
This slower way of life was reflected in our jobs, my wife was made redundant and my hours were cut. It would have been easy to just give up there and then but life had taught me that I could face anything. With my wife by my side, I could do anything. We often forget that strength doesn't just come from within, it comes from those around us, I draw it from my wife, the people who love me and the landscape I am in, my garden. This is why I garden, it makes me feel human, it makes me feel calm, kind and happy, and loved.