Is there anything more quintessentially English than a cottage garden border? I can see it in my mind’s eye: the dancing delphiniums, fancy foxgloves and graceful grasses, all wafting round a perfectly manicured lawn while the tinkling of ice cubes in gin & tonics provides the perfect auditory backdrop.

Well, forget all that. As I have learned the hard way this month, creating a garden border (or two) is really hard work. There were no G&Ts waiting for me after a day toiling with a spade and trowel. No, my reward was an unforgiving soil whose secrets revealed rocks, glass, stones, and shards of slate. It took me an hour to dig a hole for a hydrangea and, in the few moments when I went to fetch said plant, my cat congratulated himself on a new place to poo and duly did his business.

Nevertheless, I carried on. Ever since I bought this house in Lancashire a year and a half ago, I have dreamed of a garden bursting with colour, wildlife-friendly plants, and native species which suggest long summer days spent idly turning the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel with occasional trips to the rose bushes for a languid spot of deadheading.

As with so many things in life, dreams do not mirror reality. Life is challenging and so, as I’m discovering, are gardens, at least those in their infancy. After yet another day in my garden with very little to show for it, I bit the bullet and hired a gardener. I may be determined but the combination of an ankle made of metal after an accident a year ago and soil primarily comprised of stubborn stone and it was time to admit defeat.

And so into my life came Matthew Milburn, a local chap from Ramsbottom who, as I later learned, used to build props and puppets for Cosgrove Hall, the studio behind many children’s classics including Danger Mouse, The Wind in the Willows, and Count Duckula. His extensive C.V. means that the hard landscaping in my small plot has been shaped by a man who worked on Postman Pat, Tim Burton films, and Bob the Builder. Can he fix it? Yes, Matthew can!

It wasn’t long before my unkempt and unloved lawn was transformed into two wavy borders with a meandering grass path up the middle. I admit that, with my can of red aerosol, I thoroughly enjoyed mimicking national treasure Charlie Dimmock by delineating the edges of my new borders on the lacklustre lawn.

Once Matthew had worked his magic (and nearly put his back out), it was my turn. I duly raked in soil conditioner, compost and homemade mulch (I watch Monty Don, I, um, sort of know what I’m doing) and started laying out the pots on the virgin ground ahead of their final positions.

Maybe it’s because I spent much of my life living in apartments with no outside space to call my own, or perhaps it’s because the only garden I’ve had previously was a yard where pots were pretty much my only option, but I am inordinately excited about putting stuff in the ground. The idea that I can plant something, nurture it, and watch it grow for years and years, knowing that it will be there long after I’m gone, is deeply satisfying. As Audrey Hepburn so beautifully put it: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul


This article first appeared in Catena magazine