Although I’m a forager through and through, two things have slowed my enthusiasm for rustling through the hedgerows of late. Since the moorland fires on Rivington last summer, I’ve felt deeply that nature needs time to rest and recover, so I’ve stopped foraging for a while. Added to this, a few years ago we moved to a house with a garden which has gradually become a stronger focus.
I say garden in its loosest sense, I think concrete jungle would be more fitting. It was already a difficult plot, especially at the back which was largely a grassed slope with a dangerous bit of decking to the right (kindly installed by the previous owners possibly in a bid to kill us as the entire structure was resting on a few bits of 2 by 2). This was finished off by the entire lower level smothered in thick 70s concrete and a massive metal shed (actually larger than our spare room), as well as some fairly hideous concrete steps which were about as safe as the decking.
A couple of people have said ‘you’ll never do anything with that lot, you should pave it over’, which is what most of my neighbours have done. This looks fine but I wanted a garden. The first time we viewed the house, among the ugliness of the back garden I noticed an old Victoria Plum tree. It was Autumn and most of the fruits had dropped and rotted on the ground. But one fruit clung to a lower branch and I secretly pocketed it and took it home.
I don’t know what made me do such an odd thing, but it felt as if this shrivelled plum in my pocket connected me to the land and subsequently to the house. We didn’t think our offer would be accepted but, amazingly, it was and as the weeks flew by, we dared not get too excited in case the sale fell through. Even when we got the keys it still didn’t sink in that we had done it, we were finally in.
It was mid-December when we arrived and for the first few months trying to make the inside liveable was all-consuming. When Spring sprang, we began to tackle the garden. The front garden seemed the easiest option; it was flat and large, but half the shrubs were dead or dying. We started by pulling shrubs out with great enthusiasm, with such gusto in fact that we pulled half the front garden wall down, too.
Next, we dug through the border between our lawn and next door and immediately figured out why all the shrubs there had died. Underneath the topsoil was a sunken dry-stone wall to the depth of about two feet. It was hard work, but we knew nothing would grow if we didn’t remove it. To encourage wildlife, I chose native shrubs hawthorn, holly and hansa roses for the replacement border plants. My pride and joy were the blackthorn and crab apple bushes which would supply us with useful fruit as well as privacy.
Then we addressed the top two tiers of our back garden which was backbreaking work. We removed about a foot of soil from the top tier taking out giant clumps of clay as we went. Adding bags of gravel to improve drainage, we also bought a truck load of manure which was dumped on our drive to the amazement of the neighbours. If we wanted plants to thrive, we knew had to add mountains of manure to the poor soil. At the same time, I rebuilt low dry-stone style walls at the bottom of the top tier, removed the grass and changed the angle of the bed to a gentler slope.
As we dug through the beds, we found massive chunks of stone and the occasional breeze block. I sowed wildflower seeds and strawberries on the angled beds and raspberry and blackcurrant bushes on the top level. We also planted three elder trees, a bay and some hazels which I had grown from wild hazelnuts, the idea being that trees would drink some of the excess water coming down from the gardens and hills behind us.
Thanks to all our hard work, the first Summer we had fruit and flowers in abundance and all kinds of wildlife began to appear. My dream of a proper garden seemed within reach, we had frogs visiting from next door’s pond, bees, birds and butterflies. Unfortunately, we were equally blessed with a plague of slugs and aphids. From the beginning I was determined not to use chemicals on my land – I was hoping to eat some of our produce and use other plants as medicine so shop-bought weed killer and bug spray would never be an option.
I started to look at natural answers to these age-old gardening problems. I have covered the slug issue, but aphids proved just as persistent and destructive.
As the drainage had been improved on the top tier, the second level was becoming more waterlogged. I solved this by cutting beds into the lawn and planting a rose bush which I knew would become large and thirsty. This became an immediate home for aphids, or little green b***ards as I like to call them. Determined not to resort to chemical pesticides, I researched more natural approaches. Firstly, I squished some of the little swines with my fingers, not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I love my roses. I read that aphids dislike plants from the allium family, like chives, so I planted a few around the affected bush. Next, I tried soap suds made from ordinary washing-up liquid. This certainly killed a lot of them but still the problem persisted.
Finally, I tried rhubarb leaf. This is poisonous to humans too, so make sure you wear rubber gloves and keep animals and kiddlings away from the treated plants until after the next heavy rainfall. Cut up a few rhubarb leaves in a bucket, pour over at least three kettles full of boiling water and leave to stew. The next day, add more boiling water until the solution is warm, then pop it in an old spray bottle and spray onto the affected areas of the plant. This works on black and green aphids. So far it has done the trick, but it must be regularly repeated to keep on top of the problem.
Thankfully, I had planted rhubarb on the shadier side of the second tier in my newly-cut beds. But as drainage improved on the second level, the water seeped into the lower level of the garden and we had a little river running over the ugly concrete every time it rained. Plus, as the upper levels sprang into life the lower level looked even more dismal. We removed a small section of concrete creating an L-shaped bed and grew plants, but the unwanted water feature continued to flow over the concrete after every downpour.
As much as I would have loved to cover all this with a perfectly paved patio, it became obvious that could never work. I looked at other options and decided the left side, which was better drained, could accommodate a large flower bed and some lawn. On the right in the damp shady area, I would have to create a type of patio which could possibly cure the drainage issue once and for all.
It took two days to shift the concrete which was 30cm deep in places but once removed the area was raked flat. In the lawn section, I dug to a spade deep and removed lumps of clay and rock to aid drainage. We covered the whole area with sharp sand adding topsoil then turf. On the patio side, we added gravel and I am currently halfway through bedding large pieces of stone in the gravel. Almost all these bedded stones are pieces dug up from the garden. Once laid, I plan to grow plants like fleabane, creeping thyme and forget-me-nots in the gravel to drink any excess water and to secure the stones with their roots.
It might work, it might not, but either way I have tried to work with nature and the natural lay of the land rather than against it. I recently bought a copy of Gardening Nature’s Way: The Secrets of Creating an Organic Garden by Thelma Barlow, thinking I wouldn’t mind having a go at this organic gardener lark. It was only when I got to the very last page that it dawned on me – I already am one.