New Beginnings

A Potted History 

I’ve designed and planted numerous gardens for a variety of clients over the years. Slick, contemporary gardens, blowsy cottage gardens, practical, family gardens, the list goes on. But for myself, just four gardens. My first, when I was six, was a tiny corner of my parents’ garden, behind their 1970s rockery. One autumn, I planted a pretty, pink rhododendron, underplanted with crocus and daffodils. My excitement and anticipation after a long, hard winter finally passed and melted into a watery spring, was palpable. I rushed excitedly to the end of the garden each and every morning waiting for the pencil thin crocus blooms to pierce the frozen soil. And then it happened. A bright, cloudless, blue skied morning in late February saw the glorious blooms finally emerge and sparkle, jewel-like against the flat, cold soil. In my child-like excitement I made small umbrellas for the fairies I believed lived underneath the rhododendron from cocktail sticks with patterned, paper cake cases speared atop. 
My second, proper, garden was a small garden at the rear of our end of terraced property in Christchurch, Dorset. Largely laid to lawn with narrow flower borders either side it was a simple garden. Schoolboy errors were made here as I learnt the basics of gardening. Most notably, trying to understand the importance and benefits of feeding plants, I took to sprinkling blood, fish and bone over a selection of small heathers and shrubs, ahead of a forecasted day of rainfall. On cue, the heavens opened, showering the blood, fish and bone over the unsuspecting plants. A mere three days later, with a selection of sorry looking, singed, brown plants drooping forlornly in the border, I phoned the local garden centre for advice on what they thought might have happened. It seemed the application of blood, fish and bone would have been better placed on the soil, rather than on top of the poor plants. A stupid, costly and never to be repeated mistake!

My third and fourth gardens (my current front and back gardens), have been a real labour of love. The front, bright, open and sunny and on general view to our neighbours and passers by. The back, in contrast, a private, compact, woodland garden. 

The front garden was easily designed and planted. A small rectangular lawn (which gets smaller with each passing year) and borders crammed with grasses, heleniums, rudbeckias, dahlias, phlox, asters and much (too much) more. Being almost completely perennial, and with our warm, wet, south coast winters, the hoare frost-ridden plant skeletons so often exalted across the gardening media, just don’t happen; instead a soggy mush if the plants aren’t cut to ground level in late October. As such, from November to March, the front garden is razed to the ground. From March onwards, without fail, it’s emerges Phoenix-like from the ashes, burgeoning spectacularly from June onwards. 

The back garden comprises a small circular lawn, surrounded with generous borders laying quietly under the leafy shade of two magnificent oak trees. Or at least it did until June 2017 when one of them was felled, having been deemed unsafe just three days earlier. Gardening in shade, dry shade in some areas, has provided me with the steepest of learning curves. Our free-draining, acidic, sandy soil has pushed my knowledge of plants and plant husbandry to the brink. And yet I will be eternally grateful for that. After years of trial and error, I have made a garden of which I am so proud. Colour and interest year-round, structure, textural interest and an oasis of calm. A mix of small trees and shrubs including a variety of Acers, Cornus kousa ‘China Girl’, Camellias, Skimmia and box balls provide the garden its backbone. Softened and coloured with a palette of beautiful ferns, grasses and perennials. A host of Hellebores offer late winter to early spring colour alongside drifts of snowdrops, miniature daffodils and dwarf Iris. As spring passes inexorably into summer, roses, geraniums, lilies, clematis, phlox and astilbes take centre stage. A tapestry of greens, dark green, light green, olive and many, many more interwoven with the burgundy foliage of Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’ and Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ provide a secluded and hushed woodland backdrop. And then, as September rolls lazily into October, a final hurrah as tired leaves shimmer in the autumn sun. Burnished golds, sizzling scarlet, amber and butter yellow. Leaves flutter aimlessly on the tired winds, bedecking the borders with drifts of autumnal hues. And then, finally, in mid-December the garden slumbers. 

And now, we’re walking away from these gardens, after twenty glorious years. Walking away with sadness, but with each footstep, anticipation and excitement building and gradually replacing the loss as a new garden, larger than ours, and a new house beckon. 

Author: Mike the Gardener

Freelance gardening writer, consultant and designer. Mike Palmer is a passionate and professional plantsman, offering services in garden writing, consultancy and garden design. Mike is also available for garden and plant related talks and presentations. Mike has been a professional horticulturalist for over fifteen years.

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