I’m not too sure what a first glance at our garden would be like. To me, it’s years of light neglect that has somehow settled into a faded haven for slugs, bugs, and the things that like to munch on them. Letting go of the need for neatness allowed us to welcome in a growing number of cohabitants – nesting in gaps in the roof tiles, scurrying through hidden paths in unmown grass, hanging from spider webs between the plethora of spiky teasels that have self-sown this year.
The gravel ‘drive’ is couch grass, mostly. The lawn is unmown and long grass gently sways in the breeze under birch and willow. A rambling rose, perpetually angry at the world and anyone who dares walk near it is left to climb into the sky near the pond. Occasionally we’ll attempt to trim it, but it always fights back and usually wins, leaving us to retreat and tend our lacerated hands with tubes of germolene.
Four large trees live in the garden, and we exist underneath them, in a little green world of dappled shade. They drop catkins and sap onto our heads, and in turn we pat their trunks , occasionally turn the hosepipe on them, and tell them everything is going to be ok. They’ve raised blue tits, magpies, and dozens of sparrows. Wood pigeons roost and take great delight in pooping on anything and everything below.
We’re located on the side of a valley, with no part of the house facing south. This means that half the house gets morning sun, half gets evening sun, and some gets no direct sun whatsoever. In the winter, we’re mostly in shade as the sun struggles over the valley top, rolls along a little, and falls back down behind the hillside at around 3pm. The winters are long and grey. In the summer, the trees provide a cool, shady area to potter about in, whilst the other half of the house bakes in direct sun and the drying wind that is channelled down the valley most days.
I’ve spent years stressing about the encroaching grass, especially on the driveway, but recently am seeing it for a new habitat – the area is boggy, and after watching Nick Bailey on Gardener’s World suggesting planting irises in between long grass, I think I’ve come to a nice conclusion. I have a chronic illness so energy is in very short supply, which is why the garden has somewhat overtaken me over the years – it can be overwhelming, especially when I see people pottering about for hours, pulling up weeds, replanting and dividing – that’s mostly unachievable for me.
At first it was a challenge learning to live within those limits, to sit with it and notice the positives of having a wild garden. But of course, the more overgrown it became, the more wildlife came to join us within these stone walls. It’s changed the way I look at gardens entirely.
I think there’s a pressure to have a traditionally ‘beautiful’ garden, or at least an organised one. I admit I still get frustrated a little, but then I sit out with a cup of tea, on a bit of wall or stone, and just watch and listen to the buzz of life around me, and that feeling of comparison fades away. Frogs plopping into the pond, or raising their heads above the water covered in duckweed. Wasps scraping away at the beanpoles. Badgers bumbling through at night, the hedgehog snuffling around at dusk. The absolute rampant display of dandelions in spring, accompanied by just as many bees. Although I’m almost obscured by couch grass, it’s what supports the life that belongs here.
I think of this little piece of land and the phases it has been through. Old aerial photos of wartime veg beds, extending out into the fields beyond. A small road that ended in the garden (and that we uncovered when trying to build the veg patch – the plan changed rapidly to a raised bed!). The rocks and earth beneath, the water running through, deep below the surface. All we can do is exist lightly upon its surface, with our quirky human views of ownership. It’s a blink of an eye, our time in this place. We just try and make a good home for whatever else is here alongside us.
As what we would usually class as weeds amble slowly into the garden and make themselves at home, I’ve been looking them up and seeing how to make use of them. Viewing them this way reminds me that it is such a treat that they’ve chosen to spend a little time putting down roots in the same earth. I’ve made rosebay willow herb tea, bramble leaf beer and dandelion jam, whilst learning of the healing properties of plantain, clover and cleavers. I’ve held my nose bubbling nettle leaves into fertiliser, and woven reeds into Brigid’s crosses for Imbolc. After a while, weeds become abundance. Even the angry rose bush donates petals for tea and hips for syrup, albeit grudgingly.
These long June days are my favourite time of year. Time where the garden is rampant, spilling leaf over leaf in an exuberance that is unmatched. The more I take time to exist, quietly, alongside these plants and grasses and trees, the more I’m pulled headlong into that joyous energy that abounds. That relentless stretching growth, fuelled by the sun almost directly overhead. It’s a different feeling to spring, or summer proper, where flower heads are blooming then setting seed, veg is ripening, and everything seems to breathe out in readiness for autumn. June is the golden time for this rambling cottage garden – and rambling it most definitely is!
It’s the day before solstice, the shortest night. As the breeze floats through the grasses and the branches, I watch the robin pipping angrily at the woodpigeons that have dared to take over the shallow plant tray used as a birdbath. Dunnocks flit along the ground under the fir tree, skirting the variety of grasses there, the result of bird seed spillages over the years. It feels very much like it’s a space for all of us, no matter whether we have wings, arms, roots or many pairs of legs. We all just co-exist, in this little piece of land, no matter what we are. And that, I think, is the best feeling of all.
It’s March now, somewhat unbelievably. 2022 seems to have sped by so quickly, January and February feel so distant, like I missed them somehow. It’s been a quiet time, hiding from the news, watching and waiting and trying to make some sense of it all, and all that has happened in the last few years.
Against this backdrop of big, unsettling thoughts, I can notice our little garden and the changes that emerge. The light still returns, the shoots still emerge, the world still spins on and on. And in that there is comfort, for me at least.
Equinox is approaching, finally that tip into the lighter half of the year. Impatient, I see pictures from those further South, of bulbs flowering and finishing before ours are even above the soil. I know, though, that soon the leaves will bud and the insects will return. The early signs of spring are showing – slowly now, but I can’t wait for that heady rush when the season tumbles into life, changing day by day, with vibrance and energy and that riot of life.
Life in the pond
In the pond, leaves are growing and ripples start to twitch the surface, evidence of movement in the mud underneath. Yesterday, a frog popped its head above the surface for a few seconds, caught in a sunbeam. I felt a rush of relief that they have survived the winter. I check my Biotime diary – this time in 2020 there was spawn in the pond. Things are a little later this year, for sure.
The pond is overgrown, roots and duckweed all tangled together in clumps. Leaves from the holly tree above have fallen in copious amounts over winter. Now the frogs are up and about, I will wait for a warm day to clear it out and tidy up a little, before spawning. I usually find a few grumpy frogs still hiding in the mud at the bottom.
Along with the mud, they spend a few moments in a bucket, before mud, plus frogs, are tipped back in. It’s good to keep a nice layer at the bottom for them to hide in, and to keep a good dose of microbes there. The pond has established over a few years now, with clear water and healthy plants. I don’t want to clear all of that away, just give the inhabitants a little more room to move.
Every year I put a few handfuls of barley straw in a bit of chicken wire. As the straw rots it keeps the water clear (through some magic of science!) and provides a place for snails, larvae and the occasional frog to hide in.
Bulbs and birds
On Christmas Eve we planted bulbs in the lawn – crocuses and tulips – and they are pushing up through the moss now. At one side the crocuses are flowering, nestled underneath the Birch, tiny happy colours hinting at what’s to come. The snowdrops have finished for the year and daffodils are waiting for that perfect time to pop into bloom – not just yet, they say.
I feel that a little myself. That waiting, through the winter. It’s not time for action, just yet. Nurture those seeds planted, physically and mentally, in this world and in others. I always feel a disconnect with the whole ‘new year’ push. In the dead of winter, it is time to reflect, to hibernate a little. I used to push against this, but falling back into the rhythm of the seasons over the years has helped me to go with the tide some more. It’s ok to slow, to wait out the dark. We are still animals, part of that huge, glorious interconnected web. We still feel the pull of the earth.
Back in the garden, the birds are busy singing for mates, gathering twigs, filling up on seed before the still-cold nights. The hedgehog has happily returned, wandering past our wildlife camera in the dead of night, snuffling for nourishment after waking from a long sleep. It’s a noticeable shift – something has changed. That rising anticipation for warmer days and the sumptuous joy of those long, light nights. I know soon that the bees will return – I miss their background hum during winter.
We’ve planted our first seeds in a propagator – it’s our first year of having one and wow! The difference! In a few days, shoots were exploding with life. I’ll write a post about the propagator in the future. It’s brilliant so far. I worry for the potting on and transferring of those small plants to outdoor life, but it will happen as it will – I’m sure we will manage.
As the light returns, I feel myself starting to wake a little more with the longer days. Planting, moving, creativity.
A few sparks signalling a shift in me, too.
We’ve lived in our cottage for a decade this year. When we moved in our garden was clipped and manicured and mown, and we promptly set about doing absolutely nothing to keep it like that. As we learned more about the decimation of wildlife by the overuse of pesticides and the loss of habitat (Dave Goulson’s ‘The Garden Jungle‘ is a great read about this), we made a conscious choice to stop fighting to keep things ‘perfect’, and in a way, created our own kind of perfect.
The garden has really started to relax into itself once more. Clover began to grow through the gravel driveway. Couch grass is taking over. The lawn grows wild, mown maybe twice a year. About three years ago, we noticed the insect population was flourishing – more ladybirds, moths, beetles, flying things and crawling things were returning.
Frogs croak away to each other in the pond. Wasps lived in the attic for a year and we left them to it (although slightly regrettable, as we are still finding bits of them in the water tank). The next year, and every year since, tree bumblebees have lived in the other side. Bats flit around in summer and mice live in the garden walls.
It’s been amazing and rewarding to see nature coming back. We haven’t used a pesticide for years now, and seeing the return of insects, followed by bigger animals – hedgehogs, foxes, badgers, a cheeky squirrel – is one of the best feelings. We have an ongoing large housing development being built right next to the garden, and although it has been silent since the start of lockdown, building will recommence imminently. I worry for the animals that have made their homes in the abandoned site -shrews, voles, the badgers, even a herd of deer – so want to make our little patch of land as wildlife-friendly as possible.
A lot of people would call our garden a mess. There are piles of stones and logs, leaves everywhere, grasses left long through the winter, mining bees nesting in mud. However, wandering round with a brew in my hand, I’d say it’s more ‘interesting’. There’s always something to look at, even now in January.
However, we do want to make some changes this year. The couch grass is running rampant, and we have a pile for the skip that has been home to some spiders for the last few years – but the bags of rubble and old pipework really need to disappear. I’m also excited to grow more flowers, sort out a shady area, and maximise the sunny spots. This bit by the shed has become a dumping ground for the remnant of all the house DIY we have been doing.
Believe it or not, under the grass is a gravel driveway! This area gets really boggy since the new building behind us has stripped all the natural drainage away from the field. The plan is to plant ferns, foxgloves, hostas and other shady plants as this area only gets sun in June around midsummer. We will probably re-gravel the driveway due to the poor drainage.
I love all the piles of logs we have dotted around. Something definitely lives in here, but I didn’t want to disturb whatever it is! We’ve heard it snuffling a few times. Maybe it’s the hedgehog?
A thin strip of ‘field’ we have adjoins houses in front, and still has our hastily erected fence, consisting of a few bits of wood and some straggly hornbeams. This means there is hardly any privacy, and I don’t like going in that part of the garden. We will re-fence this and open it up to the rest of the garden, increasing space.
The veg patch has been okay for the last few years but not overly productive. We dug up the existing crazy paving, however we discovered an old road underneath which meant we had to make it into a raised bed. We’ve been filling it with compost for the last few years and this year we’re going to increase the height, too.
We made the edges from old sleepers we found hanging round the garden (there were lots of exciting things left when we moved in). We’ve found that there are a few things that grow well, mainly potatoes and field beans, but the amount of slugs and super-snails means a lot gets eaten. You name it, we’ve tried it. Copper, fluff, garlic spray… Last year we had beer traps, which seemed the most effective thing so far…
Here you can see where the couch grass is really taking over. Everywhere! It’s fine but means other plants can’t really get started. Next to the veg patch is self-sown marjoram which the bees absolutely love, so we’ll keep those there (plus it’s useful for cooking). I half-heartedly started putting cardboard down for the weeds but gave up after two bits, so excuse those! I’ll finish it off soon I’m sure!
This part of the garden is very windy and exposed as we’re on the side of a valley, plus in the summer it’s sunny, getting heat and light from mid morning right through to sunset. Self-seeded borage grows at the edge or the raised bed which keeps the wind off a little, and feeds the bees! There is both blue and white borage, no idea where it came from, but it is welcome, if a little thuggish.
Our plan is to have a nice area for sitting out that’s more private, as the houses in front look straight into the garden. We would also like to have even more insect-friendly flowers and a better veg-growing season! We’re going to plant more of the things we know will grow, and maybe try some containers. Any tips appreciated, especially friendly slug-busting tips! Even the hedgehog and frogs can’t keep them at bay.
So this is the beginning of the garden project plans for this year – I will update regularly as we plod along, tidying up whilst making room for wildlife to thrive, and hopefully growing some flowers and food, too.