Growing up as a teenager, my abiding memory of my step-father Philip was him sitting on his Atco mower, virtually every weekend in the summer, both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, mowing, his pipe clenched between his teeth and a white hat to prevent sunburn. There was a great deal of lawn at Orchards, a white house in Balcombe just 30 minutes north of here (see PC 58 Going Home) and it required a great deal of time and effort to look stunning. A huge labour of love if ever there was one but I vowed never to find myself in a similar situation!
My own first house was a Victorian cottage in Fleet, Hampshire. The garden was no gem; my only contribution was collecting lots of stone from a quarry on the road to Gloucester which I formed into a rockery. My green fingers didn’t stretch too far and, after a couple of years, it still looked like a pile of stones dropped by some alien. It might have looked better if I had fashioned a little sign: “Alas! Here Lies Poor Fido.”
I became more creative when I moved into a lower-ground flat near Clapham Common, London in 1987. There was no garden in the traditional sense but I ‘owned’ the extremely narrow space between the enormous house and a very tall wall, over which lay the Cavendish Road Police Station. The previous occupant had planted a couple of shrubs and left a dilapidated rotten old shed; the owner of the large rear garden had right of access. Sunlight was at a premium given the shade produced by the towering brickwork and on a good day it only got about four hours.
The first and only time I have built a wall!!
Lacking the money to get someone else, I built a six foot wall of old brick at the rear. Every evening I came back from work and mixed some mortar and cement, and laid a course or two; it often rained! A proper bricklayer would have taken a day; I took ages but it’s still standing 40 years later! I completed the space with some raised flower beds, laid a brick floor and built a pergola that soon became covered in Passion Flower, whose fruits were delicious.
The new pergola with Passion Flower plants.
I love the sound of running water so created a cascade down some steps that led from a blocked-in door; at the bottom was a little pond with a pump. What I hadn’t factored in was the amount of evaporation the flow over nine steps would create. On a hot day I needed to have a hose constantly topping up the pond!!
The outside privy reduced to rubble
My Victorian terrace house in Bramfield Road, Battersea, had a 16ft x 16ft south facing space. When I bought it, the outside privy a previous owner had used as a space for their washing machine was still standing and, in another corner, stood a leaky world war two air-raid shelter, built of reinforced concrete and engineering bricks.
Having demolished both structures, I created a pond for Wanda, and planted a vigorous climbing Clematis Apple Blossum against the back wall. Along a side wall some embedded Tracheospermum Jasminoides, once established, produced lovely small white flowers with a heavenly scent.
Conversion complete! Our Amber House rear patio with steps up to the communal grass (Oct 2012)
The west-facing garden of Amber House is ‘communal’ – ie owned by the freeholder (Southern Housing Group (SHG)) but available for use by the twelve apartment owners. It didn’t take me long to realise that the wind off the sea carries a lot of salt and plants which would normally have thrived, shrivel and die. We have a little patio space so started with pots on the steps and, at the same time, planted some Tracheospermum Jasminoides and some Apple Blossom Clematis alongside the fence. The Clematis lasted10 months before giving up!
Our lease is covered in ‘catch-all’ clauses, including ‘no gardening’!! Hoping the landlord wouldn’t object. I tried my luck, putting in some roses, a hydrangea, planting a row of lavender and a broom which has gorgeous yellow flowers in the spring. The deafening silence from the landlord encouraged me to be bolder with this garden evolution, for next door in an exact mirror image, Gilmour House’s garden remains, to this day, a bare stretch of grass. For the first three years a contractor cut the grass – often with a strimmer! Then the chap took most of a little Ceanothus shrub off! Strimmed to an inch of its life, it needed A&E! I took the bottom off a plastic pot and placed it over the stub and packed some compost around it, a sort of temporary ICU! Eventually it got big enough to move and now is a well-established shrub.
Beginning to take shape (2014)
In discussions with the landlord’s estate manager I suggested I could mow the lawn myself. “No you can’t, because the lawn is owned by us and you would not be covered by our insurance!” Then he had a brilliant idea; I could become a ‘volunteer’ for SHG – so I went through the endless form-filling required, completed a risk-assessment and, having had suitable training to use a mower, with the appropriate protective clothing, we have ditched the contractor and I do it. Yes! I know, why would I volunteer to mow the lawn after my teenage memories of Philip?
Reasonably confident now that the landlord will no longer object, I have added some trellis in one corner for a honeysuckle and another for roses at the far end. It’s rare for the other occupants of Amber House to use the garden as the sea is a mere two hundred metres away and most people head that way; however I have put up a little bench for those who wish to sit.
A passion flower bloomed and then died and the climbing hydrangea over the Bicycle shed struggles. I have come to appreciate that grey leafed plants and grasses do well in this marine environment. The latest evolution of the Amber House garden was to install three vertical mirrors partly covered in hessian.
Philip would have been amused.
Richard 8th January 2021
PS If Dave the electrician comes back to me (?) I hope to have a few garden lights by the end of this month.