Creating a suburban sanctuary
How I finally made a garden of my own
The Telegraph, 9 May 2020
It is never too late to create your first garden. I didn’t even discover gardening until my thirties, then on the cusp of forty, I made the radical decision to try and make a living at it. But all through my training and volunteering, and finally landing my dream job as a kitchen gardener in a prestigious public garden, I felt at a distinct disadvantage. You see, I’d never had a garden of my own.
Ok, so this is slightly disingenuous, because for 10 years my wife and I shared an allotment with two close friends in Brighton, and to all intents and purposes this became our garden. And it was a wonderful training ground. But it always felt that we were mere custodians, that we were somehow passing through and could never put any real roots down. And for me at least, that mattered. Perhaps rather too much.
We had lived in Brighton for nearly 20 years, but a house and garden here had always been beyond our budget. So, four years ago we decided to join the migration westwards to the relatively affordable Worthing. We saw lots of terraced Victorian houses with postage stamp gardens. All were too small or too dark or the wrong aspect. So, eventually we swore off our prejudices about suburbia and started looking at bungalows. And what we noticed, immediately, was how big the plots were, especially the pre-war ones, but still nothing was ever quite right.
Until, we found ourselves outside a 1930s semi in the burbs. As we approached the porch, and paused at the doorbell, I counselled my wife to play it cool, insisted we shouldn’t overplay our hand. We had already missed out on a couple of real possibilities, because it was a sellers’ market, and estate agents could sense our desperation at ten paces.
Of course, as soon as I saw the garden – good size, decent aspect, total blank canvas – I lost all composure. I confessed to the seller – a delightful retired teacher – that the search was off, that this was the one. I waxed eloquent about her garden (which was her pride and joy, though in fact was just a well kempt lawn and a few shrubs). I told her that I was a gardener too, told her where I worked. She knew the garden, and fortunately for us, she loved it. We confidently put in an offer.
But Worthing was obviously on the up and the house went way above the asking price. We were outgunned and right out of luck it seemed. And then, just as we were on the verge of pulling out, the seller halted the bidding and told her agent that she wanted us to have it, because we were gardeners and we understood. This was something of a shock. In our experience, the buying and selling of property was a dog-eat-dog, affair. People just weren’t that nice. Maybe there really was something different about gardeners, something to do with our proximity to the soil; we were more grounded and had an earthier understanding of what really mattered…
Cut to six months later and we have moved in and I'm rotavating her lovely lawn in the January drizzle and digging out her shrubs, and for a terrible, terrible moment it looks like a First World War battlefield. Needless to say: I wasn’t feeling particularly special or earthy or in any way saintly about any of it.
They say that once you acquire a new garden you should leave it alone for a year to become acquainted with its habits, good and bad: noting where the sun rises, where it sets, where the frost pockets are, how the soil behaves, where the bulbs come up, where the noisy neighbours live. Which is all very well, but who’s got that kind of time? We got straight on it.
The first thing we did was scour the glossy gardening magazines for inspiration. And then, summoning the basic design principals I’d studied during my RHS course, we measured, and triangulated, and plotted, and came up with a design of sorts. I wanted circles. They would give the garden ‘good bones’ and would bring the edges into the centre, providing maximum space for plants, which was a good thing as we had acquired hundreds of them, from divisions and cuttings, from friends and colleagues over the years. With hindsight, we should have factored in somewhere to sit, but we were plant blind and had other priorities.
Next, after we had ploughed everything up and ripped everything out, we marked out the two large circles (which would eventually become lawns) with metal edging and covered everything else in landscape fabric to kill off the weeds and recalcitrant turf. It looked terrible. The erstwhile owner apparently paid a spontaneous visit to our next-door neighbours at this time and peered over the fence. Thank goodness neither of us was home to register the fallout.
The neighbours thought we were building two circular swimming pools. They obviously hadn’t seen our budget, which extended to the edging and about five tons of compost to improve the terrible clay soil (I lifted the entire planting area and ‘lawns’ by about 20 cm, in order to incorporate all the organic matter, and give the plants at least a fighting chance of getting their roots down). The bricks, for paths, we would salvage from skips. The greenhouse came from a generous neighbour.
Though I was a kitchen gardener and not a garden designer, I was excited at the challenge of really playing with plants. Once the beds were built, the soil prepared, and the lawns turfed, we carefully laid all our plants out, considering rhythm and repetition and colour and form as best we could. And in our delirium, forgetting all about heights and succession and season of interest and a host of other things.
The shrubs went in first for evergreen structure: viburnums and pittosporums and osmanthus and Euphorbia mellifera. We then arranged the herbaceous perennials in small drifts of threes and fives to create artful associations, all in a colour palette of blues and plums and purples and whites. We dotted grasses among them (molinias, miscanthus, calamagrostis). We sowed annuals and biennials to fill gaps. We planted bulbs. For birthdays and Christmases we bought each other trees: over the last couple of years, a Cornus kousa, two decidedly frou-frou Japanese cherries, two silver birches (Betula utilis var jacquemontii), a ‘Red Sentinel’ crab-apple. Over time they will give us much-needed height, and coveted shade because it turns out that suburbia is a sun trap; in a sea of bungalows there’s nothing tall enough for miles around to cast so much as a significant shadow.
And, of course, some of it has worked, and some of it hasn’t, and there is still lots more to do. I have certainly acquired a healthier respect for garden designers in the process. There is so much to think about, and calculate, and plan when you are building a garden from scratch, and, looking back, I can see that with a little more thinking, calculating and planning, and a little less gung-ho gardening, it might have all come together a little more smoothly.
In our zeal, we crammed way too much in and we have spent the last three years judiciously editing and chasing back and replanting and redesigning. But all gardens are a work in progress, they are mutable and evolve despite us, and that is part of their joy. I know I came late to the party, and I’ve been making up for lost time, but I am delighted to have finally embarked on the journey, to have crafted my own modest piece of horticultural heaven.
I hope that the previous owner decides to make another ad-hoc visit sometime soon and happens once more to lean over the fence. If she does, I like to think she’ll be pleased with what she finds this time, that she’ll feel vindicated in her act of green-fingered solidarity.
© 2021 Andrew Crowley
© 2021 Andrew Crowley
© 2021 Andrew Crowley
© 2021 Andrew Crowley
5 top tips when starting from scratch
get the soil right and most other things will look after themselves.
think about evergreen structure for year-round interest
choose plants that work hard for you: grasses that ‘die well’, flowers that bloom for ages (save money by begging, borrowing, dividing and taking cuttings)
plant trees wherever possible: for height, for wildlife, for shade
remember to include somewhere to sit
10 plants that have made the grade:
Geranium ‘Rozanne’ – this glorious blue cultivar is sterile, and just doesn’t know when to quit flowering
Thalictrum ‘Splendide’ – another sterile wonder: the epitome of refined elegance
Hylotelephium ‘Matrona’ – makes the perfect bedfellow for ornamental grasses, with its subtle maroon tones
Persicaria microcephela ‘Red Dragon’ – a vigorous foliage plant with large heart-shaped burgundy leaves
Pennisetum alopecuroides f. viridescens – one of the hardier fountain grasses; provides plenty of fireworks come autumn
Euphorbia mellifera – a fast-growing, honey-scented, seed-popping must-have
Digitalis purpurea ‘Excelsior Group’ – a garden isn’t really a garden without foxgloves
Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ – provides a shock of blue throughout the summer, a real workhorse
Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ – does exactly what it says on the tin: provides subtle, see-through movement
Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' – the large fruits cling on through autumn, winter and spring