Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Chip's Garden

I've just been potting up seeds of several varieties of heritage sweet pea. It's not a big job, but a symbolic one, marking the end of the solstitial hibernation and the beginning of the garden year, and giving me a reason to look forward rather than back. Sweet peas are important, too. Terry Pizzey, Chip's neighbour when she first moved to Bristol in 1987, taught her the cordon method, and, although we long since abandoned that as a little too much like hard work and formality – despite the wonderful results – we always grew sweet peas, always for the fragrance, but after he died in 1997, also in memory of him. He provided Chip with the first benign father figure she ever had.

Chip with her first crop of cordon sweet peas, Mangotsfield 1988
I was never even nominally in charge of a garden until Chip and I took on our first house together, in Oldland Common on the outskirts of Bristol, but Chip was an old hand, complete with dirt under the nails. Her mother and her mother's mother had taught her that for Marriott women, happiness came with their heads in a bed and arses in the air. Her keenness drew me in, particularly once I realised the joy of pond-making and wildlife gardening, and, although I can never quite shake off the feeling that I'm something of an imposter, sustained by flukes, gardening has become an important creative outlet for me over the last few years. It also became a place to heal myself with the simple peasant pleasures of plunging my hands into the soil, of delving and lifting and cutting and shaping, of wrestling with tap roots and conversing with worms.

The first thing we did in the front garden at Oldland was to put in a curved path and crowd in the cottage garden planting

Because Chip suffered from ME for the last 25 years or so of her life, I did most of the grunt work – and hence the design, which was always done on the fly – but she continued to set the agenda and strategy, to choose (most of) the plants and do the sowing and pricking out and potting on and other delicate and essentially sedentary tasks, and now I'm going to have to be head gardener for the first time in my life. And, of course, as I made the current garden entirely for Chip and in her image, I'm going to have to find a new way to share it, as there's no point in creating something for an audience of me, which is why I'm starting this blog.

We made a total of three gardens together; the one in Oldland took 15 years, and the next, in a village on the Somerset Levels where we were constrained by landlords from really letting rip, five years. I'm sure to return to them later. We moved to this house in Devon in August 2010.  In part because I had already had experience in landscaping for wildlife, but also because I felt there was a real imperative to get the place up together (we were in our sixties and considered this a last shot at making a garden together), I immediately set about transforming what was essentially a grassy slope that wrapped itself around the side and back of the house, and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in creating a place ahum with insects and betwittered by birds, where Chip and I, between bouts of gardeners' twitch, lolled and blissed away every halfway sunny day of her last two summners.

The garden just before we moved in in 2010, from the north-west corner
from a similar angle in July 2011

and in May 2012
And now the challenge, 'aided' by the enthusiastic diggery of my Jack Russell, is to keep the momentum going and bring it to maturity.