Having a good-sized garden of my own for the first time has been something of an adventure. In the seven to eight months since we moved in, I have been in turns delighted, excited, terrified, bewildered and frustrated by the responsibility and opportunity of this patch of land we call our garden.
There is the knowledge that the last person to truly manage, tend and love this garden, who died ten years ago, had cared for it for four decades. Also the knowledge of the huge impact that the way we maintain our gardens can have on local wildlife. And then the possibilities of growing more of the food we eat (and the dyestuff I colour wool with!), with all the attendant hard work and need for problem-solving.
The first big job was to mulch the big patch of unidentified growth (seemed comfrey-like to us) with cardboard, then build raised beds out of reclaimed scaffolding, and fill them with soil and compost. These cost us an eye-watering sum of money and made growing your own feel more like an indulgently expensive hobby than a Good Life-esque step towards self-sufficiency.
I decided to try and grow brassicas and legumes this year, along with one courgette plant. I’m growing tomatoes, herbs and salad leaves in the small container beds we brought with us from our rented house. It has been a lot of work (watering, repotting, taking in and outdoors for hardening off, more repotting, planting out, weeding, manual pest removal…) for not much recompense in terms of food. Of the brassica seeds I planted indoors early in the spring, just two Brussels sprouts, one cauliflower, two cabbage, two kale and one broccoli have made it this far. The legumes, courgettes and tomatoes have been easier and they look more impressive. The mange-tout and petit-pois peas I’ve harvested so far have been delicious, though only contributed to two meals as yet! The pinched-out tops of broad beans, steamed, are a yummy treat you can’t buy in the supermarket. Fingers crossed for the tomatoes and courgette. But really the pay-off isn’t the amount of food you get, but the miraculous sense of ‘I grew this!’: intimate involvement in the whole process from seed to plate within the boundaries of my own home.
We recently got some new residents to the garden, who have been contributing much more by way of rent for the space they occupy than the brassica plants! In total, two or three eggs a day. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat are ex-battery hens rescued from slaughter by the charity Homes for Hens.
They are delightful girls who live in a run that Harry built them himself; he also extended the lawn for them to graze after shifting a huge amount of gravel and planting grass seed. Harry is the one who does the huge one-off jobs: I’m the one who does the daily, hen-like pottering about, doing a bit of this and a bit of that.
Most of my pottering about the garden jobs involve dealing with weeds (some of which now get fed to the hens!) When we first started planning what we would grow, I read a lot about the importance of weeding and got rather paranoid that the presence of any unwanted growth a few metres away would somehow destroy all our crops. Since the death of the previous owner-gardener, the family had remodelled the garden to make it easy to manage for his widow – hence all the gravel, along with azalea bushes and other groundcover plants, all kept in check by layers of black woven plastic laying beneath woodchips. But this was ageing and fraying, with lots of dandelions and Welsh poppy growing through it, willowherb and sticky willie growing on top of it. So over a couple of months I pulled it all up, to reveal the hidden problem of huge amounts of that perennial rhizomatic beast, ground elder. I adopted something of a scorched earth policy to the ground elder (and other pesky perennial creeping buttercup), but was disappointed to read that the only way to get rid of it properly is to cover the ground for up to a year. I wanted to plant wildflower seeds now! I decided to ignore the doom-laden advice and plant those my meadowsweet, cornflower, poppy, ox-eye daisy, sweet violet and red campion seeds anyway. I also risked it with some perennials in a patch of ground that didn’t have any ground elder.
By this time I was also enjoying the spring bulbs that were coming up, some ‘wild’ and others those that had lain dormant beneath the soil, black plastic and woodchip for all those years.
The similarity between the properly wild bluebells that were growing in the nearby woods, and the bluebell-esque, but clearly cultivated, flowers growing in my garden got me thinking about the permeable borders between wildness and cultivation. This came to the fore when I noticed that the chives I had planted in a container in our last home in the suburbs were starting to flower. Across the fence out the back of the garden, I could see chive flowers growing just a few metres away in the adjacent wetland.
I also realised with a grim smile that the red stalked, green-leaved plants starting to rise up in abundance out the back belonged to meadowsweet, which I had planted within the borders of my garden but had failed to germinate. (Seeing how it spread, this was probably for the best). I was strangely fascinated by this mirroring of the wild growth outside in the garden growth within. I thought more about my garden as cultivated ground that borders this wild land, a border maintained by a small stream and flourishing growth as well as the fence.
The sense of the wetland as wilderness intensified with the seemingly-sudden increase in vegetation as the spring progressed, the noise from the resident and visiting birds because more voluminous, and we had more and more visits from deer.
It made me rethink my approach to the wild growth within the borders of our garden. Before having a garden of my own, I liked weeds’ abundant growth in places where they shouldn’t be, and made the most of it in foraging for natural dyeing. I felt differently when these unwanted wild plants were growing in my own garden instead of the plants I wanted to grow there, and started to find myself becoming someone who was more satisfied by the sight of bare soil than a carpet of green. But with the onset of summer I have mellowed once more, delighting in the buttercups, clover, self-heal, forget-me-nots, and daisies that dot the lawn. I have taken to picking ground elder leaves and feeding them to the hens rather than trying to eradicate it, and removing willowherb where it is taking over and threatening the biodiversity, not pulling it up completely (which would be pretty much impossible). I’ve been enjoying nibbling on bittercress and steamed young hogweed shoots ‘foraged’ from my own garden, as well as the peas and rocket I have deliberately grown. I will try to approach gardening as managing and negotiating with the species that grow here, for the benefit of bees, bugs and birds as well as ourselves. Which does mean sometimes uprooting some weeds (like willowherb) to allow other ‘weeds’ (like primrose and forget-me-not) to grow, alongside the other flowers I have planted myself.
I have been dyeing with ‘weeds’ again, both from outside the borders of my garden and within. A bucket’s worth of rosebay willowherb that I had weeded gave surprising results on an iron mordant: black/grey! The gold colour is with an alum mordant.
I have also been using wild plants gathered from nearby–such as sweet cicely, meadowsweet, pineapple weed, and beech leaves–to get yellows then greens (by modifying with iron or overdyeing with woad).
I want the greens for felting inspired by the wild flowers of my garden.
I’ve also been doing some more felting on tweed inspired by the winged co-inhabitants.
My particular favourite being the incredibly loud and jolly songthrush who comes to regale us every evening.