The Reluctant Gardener

For the last twelve years that I lived in London, I was in a small flat, on the third floor of an old block. I always yearned for a garden. Not the extensive ornamental kind, with lawns trimmed neater than crew-cuts; just somewhere to sit outside, during those few balmy evenings that we English laughingly refer to as The Summer. Our garden in Beetley seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Like Goldilocks’s porridge, it was neither one thing, nor the other, but just right. Shaded by large oaks, with the benefit of a sunken patio large enough to accommodate a table and chairs, it is mainly, as Estate Agents say, ‘laid to lawn’. On two sides, tall leylandii hedges offer privacy from view, and on the third, a good fence and some smaller shrubs complete the square. From the back of the house to the limits of the grass is less than sixty feet, and it is the width of the plot. So not a big a challenge, even for an unskilled, and somewhat reluctant gardener. Raised flower beds either side of the steps up to the lawn, and a feature bed at the far end, made from old railway sleepers, complete the picture. At the front of the property, there is a similar raised bed under the front oak, and a small strip of grass, screened by beech hedges. In front of, and beside the garage, there is enough room to park three cars, and most of this off-road area is covered in gravel, to avoid churning up the soil with car tyres.

Unfortunately, the previous owner did not spend wisely, and chose the cheapest materials for almost everything. The lawn is not premium turf, but lumpy meadow-clumps, made up of different types of grass. The bricks used for the raised beds do not weather, and once soaked with the rains, they crumble in the frost. The leylandii has been attacked by a virus (as have others nearby) and is dying off in places, leaving unsightly brown patches. At the front, the ground was not really prepared before the gravel was laid, so the stones have driven into the soil, pressed flat by the cars, and the passage of time. This allows weeds and grass to sprout through the stones, and if left, they give the place an unkempt appearance. The flower beds around the shrubs were never delineated correctly, and were not weeded before any planting. The consequence is a constant battle against weeds, creepers, ivy, and other nuisances. Even a fresh cut of the lawn is unsatisfying. Years of garden play equipment, and a large paddling pool left on the lawn, have resulted in areas of struggling grass in patches, and uneven growth all over. The patio slabs have weeds growing in the cracks, and they require constant attention to keep them even and neat. The sheer volume of leaves dumped by the two oaks, has to be seen to be believed. And they all have to be rakedΒ  up, swept into piles, and disposed of. The twigs and acorns accompanying the leaves manage to become embedded in the lawn, and have to be hand-plucked for removal.

The solutions could be simple. Have the lawn removed, and re-laid with new turf. Knock down the brick beds, and rebuild with better materials. Scrape up the gravel driveway, apply weed-killer, a plastic membrane, and a thick layer of fresh stones. Have the diseased leylandii replaced with beech hedges, or ornamental birch. Cut a nice border, remove all weeds, and replace the soil with healthy new compost. Cover all this with bark, or a similar inhibitor, and hope that solves the problem. Perhaps we should have the whole area attractively landscaped, with a path laid to the rotary washing-line, and much of the grass removed. After all, we don’t lie on it, we sit in chairs or loungers, on those increasingly rare pleasant days. If you say all this quickly, it seems feasible. But it all costs a ridiculous amount of money. Removing the hedges and planting a replacement, would on its own, cost over three thousand pounds. I got one estimate for a small landscaping of the back, from a company that is not too expensive, and that came to almost six thousand pounds. That’s not going to happen then.

We are left with the last resort. An untalented and unskilled gardener. A man of little experience, rare enthusiasm, and no artistic flair for such a project. Someone who gets tired easily after three or four hours working ‘the land’, and wakes up the following day, stiff and aching. A man lacking finesse, who manages to break the simplest garden implements, from lack of expertise, or poor application. A person for whom the prospect of shovelling a small mountain of earth and gravel to create a new drive, seems like one of the labours of Hercules. A city-dweller in an unfamiliar environment, who prefers to sit and view, rather than to toil and create.

That will be me then.

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18 thoughts on “The Reluctant Gardener

  1. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ Excellent writing, Pete! And of course, you are perfect for the job. Aiaia, and then the back pain…I’m so sorry!
    Big hug, Dina xo

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  2. I planted 4 dwarf sunflowers a while back in an attempt to create a “pot-o-gold”. I was thrilled when they started growing but the weird weather and resulting change in air conditioning meant we lost 2 of them (sad face) Yesterday I tried moving them to a bigger pot with more room and fresh soil – even fashioning a faux-stalk from a drinking straw to help them strengthen up…but the straw plan backfired and mutilated one of the sprouts… I feel like a murderer. Now down to one I’ve started a few new pots using what I’ve learned this far but I’m not holding my breath lol Bottom line…gardening is HARD! ha ha even when it’s done in the comfort of your kitchen πŸ˜‰ But you can do it Pete πŸ™‚ xx

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    1. You are right honey. Gardening is hard. That’s why it takes generations to get it right. Neither of us have got there yet, but at least we are trying! I call your sunflowers, and raise you a Hydrangea!
      Love as always, Pete. XX

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  3. We can’t even manage to keep window boxes going for more than six or seven weeks. Her in doors has put plastic ones in the boxes. Confuses the hell out of the bees and wasps.

    We have decided that if we ever get a place with a garden we would find a retired neighbour that was keen on gardening to manage the garden for a nominal fee.

    Guess that’ll not be you then Pete. πŸ˜‰

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  4. One of the most enjoyable (and humorous) posts I’ve read, Pete. I live in a patio home, so the back yard is very small, just a fraction of the size of your yard. I decided to post a photo of one corner of my back yard on my blog. Check it out. With the exception of planting the bamboo (a temporary lapse in DIY work ethic), I have done all the labor on my property with my own two hands. Like most desert yards, it is xeriscaped with gravel (I chose a natural coral pink color). I don’t know how many times I’ve shoveled into the back yard a 3/4 ton haul of gravel (that’s all my truck can handle), but it took a few years to build up a sufficiently deep layer through which no weed can hope to poke through. Apart from the gravel, back yard projects have included a pavestone patio, the small pavestone patio extension in the photo, two double-trunk Mexican fan palms, three rosemary plants, and two oleanders.

    Although the patio was a pretty major project, which included creating a sunken flat bed, and then putting in layers of gravel and sand before topping them off with pavestones, the biggest job was planting the double-trunk palms. First, I had to take them out of the back of my pickup truck (the nursery used a forklift to put them in). The wooden containers were shaped like upside-down truncated square pyramids, and were quite large (so-called 36″ inch boxes). The double-trunk palms were about half my height in terms of trunk length. I don’t know what these newbies weighed, but it literally took me three hours to scoot each box to the back yard, one inch at a time, using all my strength and working nonstop. It took another three hours to dig each of the two holes in the back yard. Each hole consisted of 27 cubic feet (three feet wide, three feet long, and three feet deep) of planting space. The shoveling part was easy compared to breaking through the hard-as-concrete caliche with a pick. Once the holes were dug, I had another problem to face. I couldn’t just pick up the containers and drop them into the holes! So, once more braving defiant caliche, and spending hours at the task, I dug wide ramps from yard level to bottom-of-the-hole level. This allowed me to scoot the containers downward into place. Once in place, I broke away the containers, exposing the root balls. After that, the job simply entailed filling up the holes surrounding the palms with wet mixtures of dirt and sand, decorating the planting area with natural stones, and installing the decorative borders. This work was all done the week of April 15, 2004. For the last ten years, I’ve watched the palms grow. Now the problem is cutting off the dead fronds, as I have to unfold a long, segmented aluminum ladder in order to reach them. The palms are roughly 25 to 30 feet tall now….

    Fortunately, I can foresee no need for any future yard projects, although I have considered raising the height of the cinder block walls, which, thankfully, came ready-built with the house!.

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    1. That sounds like the sort of job I would definitely have paid someone to do David. Your endeavours in your ‘yard’ make my efforts seem puny by comparison. Your place doesn’t sound all that small either, with two palms,and a lot of gravel, it seems big enough for your needs.
      Thanks for putting my couple of hours of digging into perspective!
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  5. I can feel a winter job coming on πŸ™‚ I’d be there for you Pete, but the house and baby come first, then the pups, then my garden, then the orchard, then…..
    All the best and good luck, just remember it’s a series of small jobs πŸ™‚ And build a compost pile for the leaves and anything else that you throw away that is organic, you know it makes sense.

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    1. Eddy mate, I know that compared to your estate in Winkoland, my jobs are small fry. You would have it done before breakfast. But then you are a ‘man of the land’, and I am a man of Vin Rouge, and advancing years.
      (If I throw the weeds in the compost, won’t they just grow more weeds?) We do use the Norfolk Council ‘brown bin’ method; pay a fee annually, and it all gets taken away, and turned into compost somewhere else. (Then we probably buy it back from Tesco!) Cheers old bean, love to all. Pete.

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  6. Haha, this had me smiling Pete. You know how much I yearn for a garden, though I’m not so keen on the hard landscaping stuff, I don’t think my back would last long digging up the driveway! I’m no longer a lawn lover, too much maintenance so I’m looking for a courtyard style garden. And gravel always runs the risk of becoming a giant cat litter tray in my experience. But it looks nice – if weed free.

    Take it a little at a time is my suggestion, starting with the bit that annoys you the most. And just think of the self-satisfied smug feeling you’ll be entitled to when you achieve perfection πŸ˜€

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    1. Three hours plus just digging weeds out of a small border today!
      The gravel is actually a good ‘burglar alarm’ as it is impossible to approach the house without ‘crunching’. (I will get around to weeding it soon…)
      It is too sharp for the local cats, they prefer to use the piles of leaves, at least in the autumn.
      Courtyard garden sounds great, as long as it is big enough that you don’t feel hemmed in.
      Regards as always, Pete. x

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