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 raked 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.