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Thursday, 26 September 2013

Falling in Love ...

With my grandfather (1944)
My love affair with plants and gardens, and the landscape in which they find themselves, sprang from occurances very early in childhood. Going for walks with my grandparents in Surrey; sometimes helping in their Edwardian garden – dead-heading love-in-a-mist and pulling weeds (the scent of crushed ground-ivy still rolls back the years; it’s a plant I have to have). Watching my parents grow fruit and vegetables in north London for survival during the second-world war - and pinching red-currants when they weren’t looking! A gift from my great-grandfather - a treatise on the history of plants (at a time when books were almost unobtainable); and another from my godmother: a book of poetry from whence sprang a passion for words. 

“At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. …..”  

(John Drinkwater,  ‘Moonlit Apples', c. 1900 
- click on the link to read the whole poem)

Somewhere to create a garden, though we didn't realise the size of it (1969)
- 2013 and we're still here
Ignoring my own childish attempts at growing green things in a sooty northern city, and subsequently in adulthood in the first garden we, my new husband and I, acquired when we married in 1958 – me so ignorant of what would do well in suburbia in heavy clay soil on the site of a former brickfield (though I became besotted by eucalypts, and still am). I never thought that those moonlit apples would become reality, with space under the eaves in which to store them. Quite by chance, in 1969, we bought at auction an almost derelict 1600s farmhouse in the Cotswolds, with a bit of ground.

Somewhere to grow food, raise our children, and geese, ducks and hens
We did not realize that beyond the barn lay an acre of ground and an old orchard dating back well over a hundred years. Apples a-plenty, yet I planted more – time-tested varieties of plums and pears, figs and vines, and a nut plat, too, whilst my husband and three young children tackled the task of re-building the house. Reclaiming the garden and house has been an ongoing labour of love; a family affair. Our children grew up here, climbed trees, made dens, reared ducks and hens, and collected bucketsful of stones off the intended vegetable plot in exchange for pocket-money. It became our mini-paradise.

Nostalgia - my potager in its heyday; it's second year (1980)
the year the calendula ran wild and leeks were allowed to seed

(tip: mix flowering annuals with your veg to encourage pollinating insects)
I spent endless hours reading books and magazines and became absorbed by the idea of potagers, ‘square foot gardening’ and raised beds. I wanted to create a garden that was both productive and joyous: vegetables, salads, shrubs, fruit, herbs – and flowers. There have to be flowers! The garden took over all my spare time. I learned how to sow seeds, transplant trees, take cuttings, adopted and adapted a 'no-dig' philosophy, encouraged beneficial wildlife to share our plot, revelled in seasonal exuberance and even came to love the fallow years.

Grandchildren enjoying themselves, flying kites in a local field (2002)
The children grew and left home, married and gave us beautiful grandchildren. It was they who now helped us whenever they visited; though dens were still the order of the day! There was still plenty of clearing and digging, time for running wild and helping to prepare the produce they had helped to grow. 

Digging space in our lower garden in 2004 for their own small raised beds
(tip: let children have their own space and choose what they will grow)
Later that summer, crops are flourishing and Kate weeds her beds
alongside mine (safety tip: cover canes with polythene cups to prevent injury)
Sharing a love of the here-and now, and what has gone before, has always motivated me, ever since my teaching days in the 1960s when I encouraged my  young pupils to open their eyes and look around them (hardly any TV then!), to identify plants, grow beans in pots, collect blackberries and record what they saw in paintings and hand-made notebooks.

A highly productive year when we thought Summer would never end
Our Cotswold acre developed and has been through many phases since we arrived: from initial wilderness to magazine showpiece in a series of mini-gardens each designed to inspire newcomers to gardening to start from scratch. Produce was preserved and potted, edible flowers and herbs dried, fruit bottled and turned into cider and wine. The days of wine and roses. 

A sampler I designed and stitched
for our daughter's 21st birthday -

it 'catalogues' our garden
Gardening does not happen in isolation; it is the catalyst for so much else. I have been fortunate over the years to use our acre as a springboard for so many of my passions – the creative side of me. From journals and samplers to paper-and-fabric stitched books, the garden is always with me. Not a day goes by but I make notes, take photos, sketch, listen to birdsong, observe a multitude of wildlife and am constantly aware of the changing seasons. Hand-made artifacts emerge.
Garden Keepsake: inspired by plants I grow in my garden - paper napkin
overprinted and fused to fabric, stitched and ready for assembly with similar pages

Taking note of the pumpkin trials at
Hidcote, National Trust
Inspiration lies beyond the garden gate, too – ‘refilling the well’, here and abroad. Absorbing ideas, learning from experts, seeking beauty that could, perhaps, be adapted or replicated back home. The tiniest object will trigger an idea. Whether visiting a National Trust garden, an RHS Show, or touring abroad, notebook and camera in hand. Spotting the latest trends, new plants, supplies, tools and equipment. Enjoying the ambience of place, moments in time that live on in my mind. 

'Through Nature' - an amazing show garden based on Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter)
as visualised this summer at the RHS Flower Show Tatton Park.
This image shows one half of the garden, the 'cultivated' side ...  

.... 'Through Nature' - the wild end of the garden was equally inspired -
the tree stumps were sourced on the Tatton Park estate


Traumatic - two years of neglect  due to ill-health -
the once beautiful and productive potager is nevertheless
about to enter a new phase making it easier to maintain
The bubble burst, old age crept inexorably closer; my husband now over 80 became ill and I eventually succumbed to the stress – resisting for too long the fact I needed help and moral support. I became a stranger to my garden – you would hardly recognize the overgrown and neglected acre, once so productive and beautiful. ....... Now is the time for new beginnings: I make way for gentler things, embracing new techniques, new initiatives, new technology.

My shed, built for me by my husband
in younger days, and faced with
waney elm boards bought at auction
Lower down the garden, and equally neglected, are other raised beds. Oh the weeds, the cow-parlsley, teasels and docks - a haven for wildlife. The teasels attract bees and butterflies and the docks are fed to the hens; the cow-parsley is beautiful, a creamy froth of flower, until it seeds. I hack a path to my shed, therein to store the where-with-all for eco-dyeing – boiling paper wrapped around garden weeds that will become fragile journal pages. 

How to cope? What’s to do? Move? Definitely not; all this space is essential, it's my cloak of many-patterned memories enfolding me as if it were made of gossamer. If I gathered it around me, might time stand still? Might I become invisible to the waking world, could I turn back the clock? Of course not. Instead, I take out my books, assemble seed and plant catalogues; scatter wild-flower seeds, plant a few exotic parrot tulips. I begin to plan.

Gathering apples for making our own cider
Two months pass, I am revitalized: metamorphosis – the garden is changing yet again, acquiring a new lease of life. Quite what and how has yet to be decided – it’s an overwhelming task; but needs must. The love affair has not ended yet … how could it? Once upon a time, long years ago, I danced barefoot over daisies in the orchard on a dewy morning in May; I might still do that next year. Right now, there are apples to gather, though not by moonlight … !

Before I leave:

Seeds for the future
Gardeners are passionate beings, each with their own specific interests and skills. But everyone of us is but a blip on the planet and not immortal, though names may become revered and live on. 

Bare bones of some gardens remain faintly visible, often discernible only from the air, waiting to be discovered and excavated years - even centuries - later. They all tell a story. It matters not if the tale is obscured by the distance of time, so long as we have lived our gardening lives to the full, bring happiness to others, sowing seeds that will inspire those who follow. Our earthly days will not have not been wasted.

'In my Garden' - or rather, the various mini-plots, each created to
develop a different aspect of what I love doing - the eco-garden (top left),

'square-foot' potager in the making (top-right), planting herbs and my quiet
space where sometimes I sit and write (middle right), cider from our orchard apples
and the 'grow-bag' garden, demonstrating that you can grow crops
on ground waiting to be reclaimed.

'Garden Inspirations' from wherever I travel: 
Malvern Shows (so good to see? the excitement of children, there and at other RHS Shows); Aberglasney (Carmarthen, Wales); Rudesheim (on the Rhine, Germany); and Goodwood (Chichester, West Sussex) where spare ground has been converted into a herb garden used every day by the Chefs at The Kennels restaurant. I record all these visits in notebooks and on 'Pinterest' image boards, sharing my joy of gardens and gardening. 
Truly a never-ending love-affair.

This post has been created as my entry for the new 
RHS Gardening Blog competition. 
A panel of judges will shortlist ten finalists, and the winner will be chosen by public vote.

P.S. Today (10.10.2013) I learned that out of 130 entrants, I have been selected as ONE OF TEN FINALISTS. It's now down to PUBLIC VOTE. If you've read this far and enjoyed my entry, PLEASE VOTE FOR ME. Click on the RHS Blogger Finalist Badge on the right, scroll down the page that pops up until you reach the list of finalist blogs (mine is quite a way down: 'Falling in Love') and press the 'VOTE FOR THIS BLOG' button. And thank you. xx


  1. ann, this was so lovingly written! i want to read more..... best wishes with the judges... i predict that your readers will be among those in the public vote... i love your writing..

    jeanne handley mclaughlin

  2. Ann, this story, your story, that of you, your husband, children, grand children all memories created amongst the wonderful backdrop of the house, garden & orchard over 55 years is truly wonderful. I have voted and hope sincerely that you win.

    David Marshall

  3. Congratulations and good luck. This is such a wonderful story, I'm glad I found it with only a day to spare!

  4. A truly enjoyable blog post, thank you for the beautiful words and photographs!

  5. Well done for being a finalist in the blogs comp Ann, well deserved!
    India x