It may sound a bit twee, but my garden is my sanctuary. Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, overworked or overwrought, I open the back door, step outside and immediately feel better.
The mental health benefits of gardens and gardening have been well documented, although anyone who ends the day with soil under their fingernails doesn’t need a survey to understand that time spent outside combats stress. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that science agrees that gardens and plants are integral to our physical, mental and social wellbeing.
Audrey Hepburn said that “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”. Her words took on greater resonance during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when the future seemed bleak and our garden – if we were lucky enough to have one – marked the periphery of our world.
I moved house during the pandemic having spent months trying to buy the property of my dreams. The garden was the major selling point. But, last summer, just as I was embarking on my plans for the garden, I broke my ankle in three places and was housebound for four months. I watched from the window as my neighbours enjoyed the beautiful weather. All I could do was persuade my niece to take photos of the plants so I could see what was breaking through the soil, eager for life.
Needless to say, I am now itching to get out there and get started. I spent much of my confinement watching endless episodes of Garden Rescue and Gardeners’ World, in awe of Charlie Dimmock and her green-fingered genius while quietly envying Monty Don and his oasis at Longmeadow. As a result, I have notebooks filled with gardening ideas and a wish list of plants, shrubs and trees.
But how do you start a garden from scratch? As someone who used to live in London, I’ve since only had one, small patch of land to call my own and that was my back yard in Greater Manchester. Now, as I lurch towards my 48th birthday, I finally have a proper garden to call my own, with soil, borders and grass. It feels like I’ve hit the jackpot.
But – and this is a big but – I live in the North of England. Not only that, but my new house is located in the proper North, surrounded by hills, exposed slopes, wind corridors and winter weather that makes your eyes water and your bins take flight. Although I’ve only moved 15 minutes from my previous property, I’m now in Lancashire and the pretty views can mean a pretty ferocious climate.
There are bonuses to my new place, though. I call it a garden of four quarters, and with those segments come different weather conditions. Step out of the back door and you’re immediately in a courtyard garden, all Indian Stone and weathered traditional walls. This area is fairly sheltered so I’m quietly optimistic that I can grow some of my favourite summer flowers.
A stately stone staircase meanders up to the next level (the stairs are perfect for pots full of colour), emerging on to a long lawn which crawls upwards. Then there’s a rockery adjacent to an elevated patio area with views of undulating hills. There are days when I feel so lucky to live here that I have to pinch myself.
That said, I’ve had to jettison my plan for a pergola wrapped in clematis. As my new neighbours will testify, that is a pipe dream. Instead, when it comes to climbers, I’m having to do my homework. Perhaps a hardy jasmine?
There’s another problem. While there’s a glut of garden shows on TV and radio, very few tackle gardening north of the Watford Gap. There’s a wealth of information if you want to grow a delicate perennial on a sunny wall, but hardly any advice if you’re battling a vertiginous plot where your cast iron bench regularly topples over in the wind.
It’s an adventure, though. So far, I’ve bought peat-free compost, potting grit, perlite, a spade, a lawn-edger, and various seeds. I’ve even splashed out on a pressure washer. Monty Don would be proud.
This article first appeared in Catena magazine