I would have been about ten when my father took me to see a friend who lived in a part of Wingate called The Old Pit. I can’t recall the lady’s name but what I do remember, most vividly, is being amazed at the sight of her garden. I suppose today it would be described as a typical cottage garden, lawns surrounded by herbaceous borders, full of flowers in a myriad of colours, with the tallest at the back. It was where I saw hollyhocks for the first time but it was the giant red hot pokers or kniphofias – flowers which I’d never seen before - the memory of which has always particularly stayed with me. (Ironically, it refuses to grow in my garden, much to husband Glynn’s disappointment).
My grandparents, on reflection, had a small front garden which was ablaze with colour, mainly roses of various types, but we were never allowed in the garden, indeed I almost forgot it was there when I stayed in the tiny Aged Miners’ Cottage where they lived, for the front window of the two-up, two-down house was small and so heavily clad in net curtaining to stop prying eyes from gazing in that it also succeeded in inhibiting views of the garden for the insider trying to gaze out!
My uncle’s garden in the house where I grew up was different. There was a small front garden, regimentally ablaze with roses – Peace climbed happily around the green garden fence and my uncle’s favourite, the icily splendid Pascali, stood elegantly amongst Whisky Mac, Ena Harkness and others the names of which I’ve now forgotten. One didn’t walk in this garden for there was no path and it was bordered by a low red brick wall which I bravely walked along one day, falling off and hitting my head on a large, very hard man-hole cover. Blood spurting from my head, my aunt calmly cut away chunks of my hair to uncover the offending cut, dabbed it with stinging iodine and rubbed butter on my forehead to subdue any bruising. I never ‘walked the wall’ again!
The back garden, however, was given over to vegetables and was fronted by a narrow border in which pot marigolds rioted alongside annual clarkia which was given to me to sow from a cheap packet of seed from Woolworths. This garden backed on to The Drill Hall and evenings were punctuated by regimental noises off. Uncle George grew mostly root vegetables in very straight rows – no pulses at all: peas for Sunday dinner were either steeped overnight or were marrowfats from a Batchelors tin!
The soil was riddled almost to extinction and manured to growing perfection. Whenever a horse deposited in the street a competition took place as to who could collect the offending matter first. (I often won, prompted by my uncle). I was also sent on mole foraging visits to nearby Tudhoe Wood to collect the meticulous, red soil from the abounding mole hills, my uncle being convinced that it encouraged the vegetables to grow. He may well have been right as he regularly managed to produce enough to feed four hungry adults and one very parky child more than adequately, for I don’t recall my aunt buying many vegetables other than new potatoes in season, my uncle preferring to grow maincrop for mash and chips.
Our first house had a minute circular bit of garden surrounded by dull concrete and quite a large back yard where we decided to try to manufacture a garden from breeze blocks. Our neighbour worked for the builder Harold Stephenson and arranged for a ton of topsoil to be delivered. It was dumped in the back lane and I spent hours with a borrowed wheelbarrow tipping it inside the breeze block border. Eventually roses, sweet peas and bedding plants tumbled alongside miniature cypresses which I struggled to dig up when we moved on to our present house with its large prize-winning garden – complete with central lawn and wide herbaceous borders - reminiscent of that Old Pit garden of my childhood.
Knowing very little about plant needs and names, other than weeding and restraining over-eager climbers, in the first year I did very little other than consult RHS books and borrow lots of gardening tomes from the local library to try to identify exactly what was growing in the garden. I still have the original notebook of names and a tentative outline planting scheme begun in 1979 and am constantly amazed by the number and variety of plants which were already in situ. This was a garden of mature apple trees – one with a wonky branch that was a regular haunt of a tawny owl, now long gone – and two large pear trees which then produced delicious conference-type pears. My mother-in-law tipsily delighted in the wine produced!
The design of the borders remains much as it did back in 1979 with the addition of many more and different plants. A summer house – a surprise 50th birthday present – delights at the bottom of the garden and the vegetable and strawberry patches behind it now are given over to herbs, a small woodland-type area and yet more herbaceous planting. There is also a tiny pond with a pygmy water lily and last year’s frogspawn produced tadpoles but no frogs as yet, sadly.
My husband looks after the lawns and aims for cricket ground stripes, not always successfully. Pablo cat is master of all he surveys and has his own ‘penthouse flat’, complete with fleecy bedding, on the top staging of the greenhouse from where he lords it over any other cat which dares to trespass in his garden domain. His exploits and adventures in the garden can be followed in the Garden for Pablo blog.
(Originally compiled for Wendy Robertson’s ‘ Writing Game’ which was broadcast monthly on Bishop FM – 105.9 and is available as a podcast)
The autumn leaves
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day:
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
We always spent the October school holidays – ‘potato picking week’ it was always referred to – in Scarborough, renting a small cottage near the church where Ann Bronte was buried. The weather was variable of course. We had some wonderful sunny days spent walking on the beach, followed by milky coffee or hot chocolate at the nearby Harbour Bar and equally squally days watching the waves beat against the harbour wall, drenching foolhardy folk who ventured too close for dry comfort.
But for me the week was always associated with the crunching sound of autumn leaves which lined the verges and blew about the Italian Gardens. There is something very comforting about reverting to childhood and trampling the leaves underfoot and, when no one is about, jumping into the desiccated mounds.
The ideal gardener collects fallen leaves, stuffs them into plastic bin bags, pierces the bags a few times, and then adds a drop of water to aid the rotting process. The filled bags are then hidden at the bottom of the garden and left for months until able to be used as compost in their own right.
I’m afraid I’m too impatient to do that and instead swish them onto the borders where I hope they’ll act as a mulch and help protect the plants from winter frosts.
Just watch the leaves twirl in and out
As if they were alive.
They circle, twist and twirl about
Like bees around a hive.
They trip it so in mazy reel,
It cannot be by chance:
I think it must be fairy folk
Who teach the leaves to dance.
from ‘Our Book of Poetry’