Roses, in my garden at least, are now at their best. Over the last 10 years, I have created a slightly mad garden over about five acres. At its heart is a rose garden. It is the part of the garden I started first.
I followed the traditional advice. I neatly dug and stacked clods of turf and grass side to side and dug manure deep into our rich, heavy clay. If I were to do it again, I would do it all completely differently, but at the time the traditional advice seemed to be a good place to start.
These days, I pursue a low to no dig method of gardening. I have found the easiest way to make a new bed is to simply start a compost heap where you want one! Back then I was impatient and in a rush. It was backbreaking work but I was so excited to be starting a proper garden I didn’t notice all that.
I was also grieving the loss of my parents and found each spit of earth a sort of therapy. I found closure and healing as I physically and mentally wrestled with my garden. In some ways my approach to gardening hasn’t changed but in others ways, I now see, it has changed fundamentally.
Something that hasn’t changed is my approach to garden design. I have always thought about garden design upside down, at least as far as everyone else is concerned. Most people go to a new garden with a long list of asks, all the things they want from it. I have always attempted instead to ask, “What does the garden want?”
On the other hand the way in which I coax things from the garden has changed a huge amount. To begin with, once I knew what I wanted to do, I was in a terrible hurry and very keen on interventions including those that can be achieved quickly through the application of brute strength often with the wrong equipment. Now I have learnt to garden with more acceptance, and above all, more slowly.
If I ask the garden for something, I no longer dig and hack and push and heave until I have it. Instead, I whisper to the garden politely. I notify it of my plans and ask it kindly whether it is prepared to yield. I try to tickle the things I want from it with as little expenditure of effort as possible.
A practical example of this approach concerns a new hedge. Along one side of the avenue that runs throughout our garden is 100 metres or so of hawthorn hedge I planted eight years ago. Following the technical advice I removed the turf, dug in the whips, provided them with plastic protectors and watered them with the love and attention of a nursing mother.
Three years ago I decided I wanted another hedge running along the other side of the avenue. I now have an emergent hedge and I haven’t planted a single plant. I have done no more than mow along each of its sides at the end of each season for the last three years. A lovely little hedge of hawthorn, wild rose and blackthorn is coming along beautifully. In another three years or so it will look very hedge-like indeed and all from self-sown wildlings.
Despite a large population of muntjacs, hares and rabbits (not to mention badgers) I don’t bother with plastic guards because the emergent hedge is in the process of selecting itself and the attention of a passing rabbit is just one more part of that process. Best of all every single plant has proven itself to be perfectly adapted to the precise conditions of the part of the hedge it finds itself in by dint of simply being there. It already has form and I expect it to be a robustly healthy hedge when it reaches maturity.
There was one intervention I failed to make in the rose garden this year. There is a gate at the start of the avenue which must be shut in April to keep muntjacs off the rose buds. These little deer like nothing more than a fat juicy bud. I forgot to shut the gate this year, as I had in one previous year. It had the same disastrous consequences. Of the 40-odd rose bushes in the rose garden, every single bud within five feet of the ground has been neatly nibbled off!
It is a crisis as far as the rose garden is concerned, and I am hardly happy about it either, but it is the smallest blip in the long, slow history of our little corner of this little valley.
The fact that June is the month of roses has a symmetry with the traditional practice of holding weddings in June. I congratulate any reader who is about to get married. Perhaps gardens have something to teach us about marriage: initial impatience and hurry, it is to be hoped, yielding to happy acceptance.
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