Starting Again In A New Garden

Where the hell have I been? That’s the question. Wherefore the pub shed? The wankery of brussel sprouts? And what happened to my garden?

I wrote the following post a while back. A year ago, in fact. Just as escalating building work, a farcical amount of scaffolding, and the small matter of having a baby stopped me from getting into the garden altogether. But another spring rolls on round, the tiny maniac is asleep, and my laptop is finally open. Shall we try this again?              

The garden is mocking me. I stand in the only shaft of light to have made it through the tangle of silver birch, willow and holly overhead. A chiffchaff calls. A breeze rustles the 6ft wall of nettles surrounding me, and I experience a moment of… total and utter despair. Bloody nature. It’s gone feral. Our new garden is beyond overgrown. Heart of Darkness. Manderlay. The Lost Gardens of Heligan. They have nothing on this sub tropical nemesis I now call home. (Albeit on a slightly more suburban scale.)

How has this happened? How have we ended up here, instead of the 2-bed London basement flat we called home?

All I can say is, life has a dubious sense of humour.

A little while ago everything went tits up. Tim’s business reached its end… and so did I. Bloody advertising. The travel and the hours and the politics and the pressure and the scramble for awards and recognition and ‘success’ – the utter brutal nonsense of it all – finally took its toll. I burnt out. Lie-on-the-floor-in-a-ball burnout. It isn’t pretty. We are both flattened and lost and in the wrong place.

So we do the grown up thing: we run away, arms flailing. Sell the flat. Cut our ties. Throw everything into the air and land here, in this untamed garden by the sea. We are both bruised. Battle worn and homesick. But not defeated. On the contrary. There is healing to be found here.

I break concrete with a sledgehammer. Saw great trunks of holly. Rip ivy and bindweed from the ground with my hands. I hack and I tear and I cut away. Find light and fight like hell to let it in.

I feel better than I have in months. We both do. Because under the mess, beneath the neglect, amidst the tangle and confusion and disarray lie hidden treasures. An apple tree, leaning, half strangled with ivy and in need of attention, but a lovely old apple tree with life in it yet. Lilac. Rambling rose. Long forgotten alpine strawberries. A currant of some description. Periwinkle, passion fruit, and copper beech; white weigela, euphorbia, enormous mock castors, verbena and montbretia. A rosemary bush. Bluebells and three-cornered leeks. Everything needs saving. Everything needs sun. Everything needs a second chance.

I disappear into nature. To the quiet and the rain and the small everyday battle of my will against the garden’s. As I write, there is a layer of soil beneath my fingernails that no amount of nail varnish can hide. I have torn open my thumb on a rose, and am sporting the type of dodgy quiff that can only be achieved by sweating profusely beneath the peak of a trucker cap. But do I care? Not one bit, it turns out.

For a long time I lived in a world of immediate results. This garden will take time. Far more than I’m comfortable with or used to. There is so much to do. So much to plan and dig and plant. But there is also a cuckoo calling in the woods behind me.

Perhaps I will sit and listen a while.

Saying Goodbye To A Garden

It was scrappy. It was miniscule. It had wonky fences, a dodgy shady end, and you could only get to it by walking through the bedroom. But it was ours, and we loved it.

34a St Stephens Ave, Shepherds Bush, London. A pint-sized basement flat sandwiched between the fabric shops of Goldhawk Road on one side, andUxbridge Road’s Arabian food markets on the other. On summer days the neighbourhood’s open windows would play 90s R&B and 60s reggae. In the winter you could hear church bells.

I wrote my first book here. Hit my gardening and cooking stride. We hosted birthdays, Halloweens, celebration dinners and pop-round-for-Sunday-lunches. Grew vegetables, fruit and flowers. And in our last summer, brought our lunatic terrorist of a puppy home to rip up my carefully planted borders and violate the rhubarb.

In short, it was a happy place. A sanctuary from hard jobs and a city that didn’t always feel like home. Not that it looked like that when we bought it.

I took these pictures on the day we moved in, shown here in black and white to really ram home the post-apocalyptic communist state vibe we found it in. A barren shale-strewn garden with only an old Golden Wonder crisp packet to jolly up proceedings. To our eyes, it was Eden itself. Or at least it would be, once we’d spruced it up a bit.

If there’s one thing I learnt during our 4 years at St Stephens, it is just how dramatically you can transform an unpromising space without the slightest bit of prior experience.

What we lacked in budget we made up for in lateral thinking, begging, borrowing, outright stealing and bribing friends to help. Raised beds built from second hand scaffold planks. Knackered fences disguised with rambling rose, jasmine and honeysuckle. Mistakes laughed at and started again.

Despite its size, we somehow created a kitchen garden right in the middle of Shepherds Bush. Beans, potatoes, yellow courgettes, ringed beetroot, and summer-sweet strawberries. In learning to grow I learnt to cook with the seasons.

St Stephens was never meant to be a permanent home, but I foolishly thought that I wouldn’t miss it when we left. As is so often the case, I was wrong. At a point where life is about to take off in a new direction, the memory of that garden has floored me. Things planted and tended and still growing without us.

We are weeks away from moving into a new home. In Dorset. A house by the sea with an unhinged overgrown jungle of a garden to tame and make our own. It is, in part, why I’m starting this blog. A new life. A new garden. A new career. But as I look at these colourful photos, I find myself looking back. Out through the hideous UPVC back door we always wanted to replace and could never afford, and into our first garden, when Lettuce was still a tiny puppy, and Tim was… Well, Tim. Taunting her with a Fab lolly.

If you happen to be reading this, I have just one more thing to say before I go: if you’re lucky enough to have one, love your scrappy little garden. It is indelibly tied to who you are, your life now, your personal history, and when you look back at it, you will miss it more than you thought possible.