It was all supposed to be so easy. We moved out of That London in 2004, ready to take on aspects of a new life. Clare was taking on a new job out in the throbbing everpulsating heart of Oxford’s Science Belt, I would begin the life of a Thames Valley Commuter. More importantly for the purposes of this piece, we were seriously upgrading our garden.
Our old place in Walthamstow was a typical two up two down end of terrace, snug, compact, with a garden that would blush with pride at being called postage-stamp sized. There was room for a couple of pots and an overenthusiastic gunnera. And us, if we sat close together and didn’t breathe too hard.
By comparison, the new place had a hundred and thirty feet to play with. There was a fish pond. There was a water feature. There was a vine-strewn pergola. There was another pond, which we found when we started getting the goddamn vine off the goddamn pergola.
And then there was the copse end. Backing onto a stand of trees owned by the local school, the last fifty feet had been used by the previous owner as the engine of a small market gardening enterprise. There was a ramshackle outbuilding, a greenhouse, and four big brick raised beds.
I looked at this bit, called bagsy on it, and began to plot my new life as a kitchen gardener. There was enough space to grow just about everything vegetable we could ever need, and the infrastructure was already there! It would be so simple. I started buying seeds, sets and bulbs and began to plant.
I was ahead of the curve when it came to the grow-your-own boom that is taking over gardening shows and magazines. I was growing spuds, knotting garlic and harvesting fresh salads a good few years before it became fashionable.
And I remain ahead of that curve now. While everyone else is building, I’ve spent the past few weeks tearing everything down. The greenhouse and outbuilding have gone. All but one of the beds has been torn up, and turf will soon be laid over where they once stood.
I’m starting again. And this time I’m doing it right.
It was fine for the first year or so. I started gently, opening up one bed at a time, planting the veg that I knew I would eat. Spuds, carrots, onions. Root crops that didn’t need much care or attention. The weather was good, the harvest was deeply satisfying. On several occasions, I was cooking and serving meals which had been 80% sourced from the beds.
I started to get ambitious, and that, Readership, is where the wheel started to come off the wheelbarrow. I opened up all four beds, and was growing a veritable cornucopia of veggie goodness. Sweetcorn, courgettes, tomatoes and chilis. Radish, cucumber, salads by the bowlful. And we started to come across a couple of problems.
First of all, as I commute to and from work in London, I spend twelve hours a day away from the house. I was getting less and less time to tend the plots, and increasingly, less inclination to do so. Weeds began to sneak into the beds, and I had to spend an increasing chunk of my weekends battling the nettles and bindweed. Weeding is no fun, and I began to resent, rather than enjoy the time I was spending at the copse end. It was tiring work, and as I began to put it off more and more, the unwelcome visitors began to take a firm grip. I was getting stung to bits and worn out every time I took a trip down the garden – a trip I was becoming increasingly disinclined to take.
Secondly, I was the victim of my own ambition. I had planted up enough food to feed a decent size vegetarian village, and was simply growing far more than we could eat. Even with donations to interested parties, a lot of what I grew bolted or rotted in the ground before it could get eaten. This, in addition to a couple of lousy summers, meant that I gradually stopped even going up past the garage to see what carnage was being wrought.
The results were pretty obvious. The copse end became a weed-clogged, gloomy nightmare. It was used as a location for the Sick Puppy film “The Gourmand”, and it suited perfectly. My bit of the garden had mutated from a landscape of hope and sustenance to the setting for a horror film.
(2:28 for the true horror).
Things had to change, and this year has been the year to do it. We came to the conclusion that things weren’t working, and for a very good reason. We were trying to adapt what was in place to our needs, rather than letting our needs dictate the shape of the grounds.
Also, we had known when we moved in that the sun ended up drenching the copse end in the afternoon. It was the perfect place to unwind after work with a beer, and being confronted with under-tended veg beds was not the nicest of views.
Also, I’m a workshy knob who’s not really that into gardening in the first place. There, I said it. I love the idea of gardening, planting stuff, eating the results. It’s all that tedious mucking around with dirt and spades in the middle that I can’t get to grips with. Yes, yes, I know, if you’re an organised gardener you can get your chores down to twenty minutes a day but even that small amount seems like a noisome intrusion into my plonked-in-front-of-a-laptop time.
Or, if I can just be slightly less tough on myself for a sec, the only spare time I get to fart around with hoes and sticks and watering cans are weekends, time that I kind of like to spend with my lovely wife not bloody working, thank you.
We have spent our free time this spring on clearance duties. The copse end has been restored to a tabula rasa, and this time we’re defining what goes onto it. We have, as the sainted Ellen Ripley would urge, nuked the site from orbit. I have made acquaintance with a sledgehammer. Anyone aware of my co-ordination issues should be cringing at that thought, but thus far I, and everyone within swinging range, remain surprisingly undamaged.
We have cut down three trees, including the scary eucalyptus that was blocking the sun, while looming towards the house at a thirty-degree angle. That took one long Saturday, a day tainted with the distinct fear that at one point the bugger was going to land in next door’s garden, on top of their greenhouse. It didn’t, but it was a close call.
We mused about remaking the outhouse into a summerhouse, before giving into the inevitable, realising it was half-rotten and rendering it down to firewood. We have had a lot of bonfires this year, each one a waypoint, a signal flare, an exorcism.
And there are bonuses. I have a shed now. I have a proper, honest to goodness shed. I have a firepit. A proper, marshmallow-burning firepit. We have turf to lay, a summerhouse to raise, lights to place. And then, Readership, we will have a piece of land that we can be proud to call our own.
Coming up: Rob seems to think he can give advice about gardening, despite all the evidence to the contrary he’s just given.