Greening the Whites

For the last month, I have been a bit in love with my garden. It is uncomplicated, it shows results in a fairly short timeframe, and it doesn’t induce guilt when I ignore it for a few days. Perfect.

When we first moved in, just over two years ago, the beauty and productivity of the garden was not a priority as I was seven months pregnant, which is lucky, because the garden was hideous. Beyond the strange pink patio, two thirds of it was covered in concrete, and where the concrete was not, there were only perennial weeds as the whole garden was blighted by the canopy of two trees. The trees were handsome in their own right, but massively too big, and they blocked out light and sucked up water from all the gardens around. The previous owner had left the dismembered limbs of another gargantuan tree at the back. On a bitterly cold day (it snowed that March) I observed uselessly as Toby cleared the rotten logs, with my enormous bump unable to do much more than be ready to scream if there was something nasty in the woodpile. We drove to Lewisham dump where the attendants barked ‘no pregnant women out of cars at the dump!’ and I slid, relieved but guilty, back to my warm seat while Toby cleared our lives of the slimy, fragmenting things in the icy rain and slicing wind. I cried on the way back. I missed our small modern flat in Waterloo, felt lonely in our new house with its vile garden, in the suburbs with their isolated and freezing streets, and was fed up of being pregnant. I take a while to put down roots.

The two positive things we did do were break up the concrete and start a compost heap. I don’t remember talking about buying the compost bin, we just went shopping on one of those strange, hazy, stressed-out just-moved-house-and-about-to-have-a-baby days and came back with a compost bin. Toby came home after work, went out with the lumphammer and bashed the concrete to bits, swearing sometimes when he discovered that under the concrete, was – more concrete. His parents descended on us like freakishly strong garden clearance fairies and got rid of the concrete, again, I don’t remember how. When She-who-is now-the-Ten-Ton-Toddler was two months old we sorted out some tree surgeons, of whom the least said the better. I hid from them with my newborn and left my mum to sort it out. We kept the nicest, curliest willow branches for supports for other plants, but for several months, looked only occasionally at the hill of earth and leaf mould in the back and let the perennial weeds take over while we freaked out about caring for a soft small bundle of human beauty which never slept.  But we did start to fill up our compost bin. After a few months my mother pointed out that we had accidentally grown butternut squashes from some seeds which had fallen out on the way to the compost heap – you could see the big leaves tracking the path to the back of the garden where the compost heap stood. Unfortunately we’d paid too little attention and the slugs got some and the rest were too late in the season to fruit fully. Still, it was encouraging. Even after years under concrete, our London clay soil could grow butternut squash plants. And we had flower beds, courtesy of my in-laws, who had lifted up the slabs around the edges of the border and planted annuals. We had a place to sit in the summer evenings when Toby came home and took the wee baby reverently in his arms while I sat back revelling in the fact that for the first time in twelve hours I wasn’t holding her and had free use of both arms. One of Ten-Ton-Toddler’s grandmothers, or possibly both, had planted some courgettes, which grew so prolifically that Toby was still announcing well into the next year that he never wanted to see a courgette again. The courgette issue was compounded by the fact that we kept forgetting to pick them until they were marrows, and then in our sleep deprived state the only thing we could think of doing with them was to stuff them with stilton. There are only so many times in a week that you can eat marrow and stilton without passing into a sort of twilight zone of blue cheese devils and green man nightmares. My mother gave us a peach tree for my birthday, and put irises to bake their corms in the sunniest corner. The whitewashed back of the house could, in the sun, appear quite Italianate. We didn’t have a garden, but we did have a space to sit.

The next year, when she-who-is now-the-Ten-Ton-Toddler was nearly one, we had another go at things. I got an amazing book called ‘How to Create an Eco-Garden’ by John Walker.  The book was perfect for us because it’s written for people with small urban gardens like ours, who like getting their hands dirty.  I started to track the sunlight round the garden throughout the day to understand better what to plant for sun and shade, although I was still far too hopeful about what would grow in shade and lots of flowers never opened. For three weekends we enlisted the support of Ten-Ton-Toddler’s Aunties and adoptive Aunties (thank you Jess, Reeb, Astrid, Annika) so that they entertained her while we furiously dug and levelled the post-tree surgery hill of earth, rolled it, and fed it, or in Annika’s case, picked up a shovel and laid the turf. My mother brought us lavender plants, and strawberries in pots.  Our friend Sue gave us tomato plants. We dressed the Ten-Ton-Toddler in a bee costume and put her on the new lawn to be photogenic and she burst into tears at the strange new environment and asked to be picked up.  My mother and mother-in-law planted bulbs in the front garden. I was back at work so although my physical strength was coming back, we had little time for much more. But the tomato plants were fantastic and at the end of summer, I picked dozens of green tomatoes that would never ripen any more and made chutney. Toby, I think, felt it was rather like the courgettes all over again and begged me repeatedly to give away more chutney. I think one lesson for me is that Toby would like more variety and fewer gluts in the garden.

This year, I have been working at home a lot and so I discovered a new love for the East-facing front garden, with its beautiful crocuses, irises and soon-to-open tulips and daffs, thanks to the thoughtful planting by Ten-Ton-Toddler’s grandmothers. I do emails there on sunny mornings with a mug of coffee in my hand and thank my lucky stars I’m working in my own front garden. And in the back garden, we moved the compost bin and got our first harvest of composted kitchen matter. I found a new potato in it. There are no lengths that nature will not go to, to grow. And there were worms. ‘We’ve got worms!’ I told Toby. ‘We’ve got worms!’ I told my new friends at the Field at New Cross Gate. It means that two years after the concrete left our lives, we now have a living soil. Today, Toby and Ten-Ton-Toddler watched a blackbird eat a worm. I’ve seen bees. We’ll get the fences fixed on the South-facing border and hopefully get some veg in there and some fruit canes, interplanted with marigolds for the bees. The peach tree is blossoming.  Ten-Ton-Toddler has her own gardening kit and enjoys helping with planting and watering. Even more to my joy, I have an excuse for my hoarding instincts and claim that I need to keep things because ‘they might be useful for the garden’ and can now also justify that as a ‘Circular Economy’ approach thanks to the Masters’ Course. Hopefully this autumn I’ll do some more of the things recommended by ‘Eco-Gardening’ like planting green manure, which will hopefully deal with the perennial weeds and improve the soil for crops next year.  Hopefully our garden so far has been a net positive for the environment – although two trees were lost, they were not right for the space and I hope our planting, insect hotel and commitment to growing food will help balance the carbon loss.  I’m fairly sure that our garden is already much more biodiverse.  Some of the ideas from ‘How to Create an Eco-Garden’ were too much for me right now.  I’d love to have the fish-free pond that John Walker recommends, but Ten-Ton-Toddler needs to be older.  Similarly, having a lawn is not really that eco, but is great for her to kick a ball around on.  And we did try to keep an area of long grass and wildflowers for the bees but something kept coming to crap in it overnight and I couldn’t risk Ten-Ton-Toddler tumbling into fox faeces so Toby mowed it flat.  But a garden is a work in progress and for me part of the value is taking things slowly, being prepared to wait a few years before the compost is made, before the trees can fruit, and before I learn the ways of our micro-climate enough to plant the right things.  The parameter that the garden must be child-safe will change over time as Ten-Ton-Toddler grows.  It’s been a happy project to which the whole family and many friends have contributed their time, strength, plants from their gardens and ideas over Facebook.

So in the spirit of giving something back to the world, I went with Toby and Ten-Ton-Toddler to pick litter at the library meadow-garden today. Ten-Ton-Toddler was in a supervisory capacity only, but I think we all agree that the shouting of encouragement and juice slurping from her turquoise wheeled throne made it all much more efficient. My secret agenda is that I’m hoping to inveigle my way into the affections of the people who manage the library garden, and if I build my credibility with litter-picking I might be allowed a go at some pruning in time, or perhaps even some planting. I’ve got the bug, as much as the garden has worms.

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