Nothing but tree and weeds
There was no back garden when we moved here in 2002 – just a scrubby hillside with a rickety wire fence and a massive, gloomy Cyprus. This gigantic tree dominated the garden, shading most of it and turning the soil to dusty sand. The view of the Moray Firth was blocked. Even the couch grass struggled.
We moved in late November 2002 and I don’t recall making it to the bottom of the garden until Easter – by which time the grass was knee high. I had already bought some plants to put in – some holly trees to start a hedge. I think I thought I would just cut the grass and pop them in and that would be that. Poor deluded fool!
I soon realised I needed some kit: spade, fork, industrial strimmer, flame thrower, compost, lots of books…. A gardener was born. Fully armed, I started to dig out borders – encountering rocks, ground elder and goodness knows what else along the way. I think I managed about 2 metres a day at first. It started to dawn on me that this planting a garden thing might take a while.
It also became increasingly obvious that the tree had to go. Not only was it a depressing monster, it was leaching every nutrient and drop of water out of the soil. Nothing could survive in its shadow and it was not at all appropriate for a garden setting. Highland Council agreed and gave us permission to remove it.
In February 2004 the tree surgeons came. They removed the tree and we chose to keep the bark chips and wood, saving ourselves a few hundred pounds. So, aside from the fact that parts of the garden were now 6 feet deep in wood chips and we had a log supply to shift that lasted for two years, it was this moment that the garden really began.
As you see in the bottom left photo above, once the tree was down, the garden suddenly had the bare bones of a shape (and a bench from which to admire it – at least in my imagination).
Defining the borders
Just two plants clung to life in that original garden and both remain to this day. Rightly or not, they both influenced the shape and position of the borders. The first, an old Bramley apple tree, has now found its way back to vigorous fruiting – despite being riddled with canker. I am very fond of this tree and it has provided many an apple crumble. The other survivor is a scrappy little mystery tree, pretty unattractive which still remains today for no other reason than the birds like it and it has a nice clematis running through it. A less sentimental gardener (or less busy one) would have had it replaced by a white birch or decorative rowan by now.
The garden is overlooked by the patio and upstairs windows, so it was important to me that the garden looked right when viewed from above. I have a chair where I drink my tea and (wistfully of course) look out, so the symmetry needed to make sense from that angle.
I do think I achieved that – the shapes look right to they eye. But I made the novice gardeners mistake of making my borders to lean and mean. I also created myself a world of pain my planting right up to by neighbour’s Leylandii hedge. The hedge planting I’ll just have to live with. When they remember to cut it it is bearable and it makes a good shelter belt and home for wildlife.
But the mean skinny borders can and must be fixed. As the pre steps and centre beds photo of 2008 shows, there is too much grass and the narrow borders mean the whole garden can be viewed at once.
This year the grass to plants ratio will be changing for good – and not just because cutting the grass on a steep slope is hideous. When I planted the borders up I didn’t really appreciate how things would fill out and grow up. They got crowded in no time and now some things struggle to thrive.
Also, with long dreary winters it was very important to me that the garden looked good in winter, with a nice structure and plenty of evergreen plants, winter flowerers and attractive bark. I have been pleased with the way that has worked, but I want more. Less grass, more plants!!
A garden of many habitats
One of the wonders and challenges of the garden is the diversity of habitats in such a relatively small space.
Not only does the garden slope, but it tilts. Not only that but whereas in summer the garden gets full sun all morning, then again in late afternoon, in winter the sun barely gets over the horizon.
As you look down the garden, the top left area is dry, relatively warm and very free draining. The soil is poor and sandy. Yet the bottom right is moist, shady and rich – damp loving woodland flowers thrive.
There is dry shade, moist shade and dappled shade. There is nothing that could be called true full sun, but the south facing borders below next doors hedge come close to it. Then there are the three raised bed and an area under the patio wall that is sheltered, but with poor soil – herbs thrive there.
With the exception of real full sun loving plants, I can generally find the right spot for most plants – but there is competition for the prime sunny spots. (Including me and my deckchair).
All the more reason to enlarge the borders and lose some more grass!