The field which existed prior to the construction of this housing estate in 1960 was said by some to be used for grazing. That would have been quite an impressive sight, as apart from being very damp (as evidenced by the continued presence of juncus-type, marshland plants popping up in today’s gardens), the land is on quite a steep slope. The incline could have been a challenge for cattle and probably unhealthily wet and too boggy for sheep. The natural shale-type bed rock (over which a spring still flows in winter), is covered by a stone and gravel strewn, claggy mud soil. The poor-quality land is often leached by heavy rain and does not nurture sustainable quantities of cultivated plants. Unless considerable manure and composting is built into the regime, such plants will not thrive here.
Indigenous plants found here are those which can withstand a wide range of conditions including, torrential rains, high, drying or bitterly cold winds, scorching sun and salt laden air. The first owners of this house were obviously interested in garden cultivation as they made the best they could of the south facing, irregularly shaped, multi-cambered site. They would have discovered that despite being only one mile (as the crow flies), from the coast of Cardigan Bay, the lower part of the garden (screened by surrounding houses from low winter sunshine), is also prone to becoming a frost pocket especially when heavy, cold sea mists rolled down from the hill above.
A boundary of vicious blackthorn separates the lowest part of the garden of this (probably unwelcome), ‘ticky-tacky’ 1960s estate house, from its more substantial 1920s, individually designed neighbour. This boundary is not present in other gardens, which raises the question as to whether the unfriendly hedge was deliberately planted to deter any communication between the two neighbours. A rough pathway was introduced between the prickly hedge and the new planting in the lower garden. The path helped to prevent brambles and thorn from quickly penetrating the cultivated garden area.
The original owners appear to have sourced plants from specialist nurseries (possibly form Bodnant Gardens), as bodnantseii labels were found on some of the elderly plants. When purchased in 2009, the lowest area of land on the south side of the plot, included established shrubs: a large glossy, pink flowering camelia; four small azalea; a pieris; a withered fuchsia; some leggy hebes; a large poorly shaped box; patches of spotted laurel; clumps of tatty forsythia; a straggly rhododendron (possibly a megeratum bodnantesii), with magnificent, crimson, velvet blooms; and an ageing lilac. There were also two rotting cherry trees which were possibly self-seeded through bird visits (Jays most likely), from the woods behind the house. Naturalised ferns thrived in the cool, damp, sheltered parts of the garden whilst marjoram took over all available gaps in sun baked, broken walls and walkways – the originals not having been repaired over the years of wear and tear. Amidst the busy shrubs sat a decidedly ropy lawn.
A neighbour said that the lower garden had been designed as a sunken garden. The presence of a dressed stone edged platform (deteriorating and rather dangerous), above the little lawn of the lower garden, confirmed this. The established plants mentioned above, encircled the lawn, this might have been a pleasant seating area at one time, but had become a favoured toilet space for visiting cats and dogs and in summer, monstrously, mean red ants would arrive, ready to bite any living thing which dared to enter their territory. Taking the age of the plants into account, the vendor from whom we purchased the house did not appear to be a plants person and had simply employed an odd job man to hack back encroaching brambles and thorn on the margins, weed, mow the lawned areas and to generally keep shrubs in check. The garden did not appear to be loved.
The original front garden had a triangle of lawn with a border of delightful bulbs which bloomed in the Spring and Autumn. Much effort was made to try to salvage as many of these as possible. Unfortunately, the builder’s promise of completing the house refurbishment in six months, was not fulfilled. After three years, many of the ‘saved’ plants had perished as they had become inaccessible during the years of turmoil. Eight years following the building work, it has been fascinating to see how an insipid pink hesperantha has managed to survive the carnage and is once more flowering happily, brightening up gloomy Autumn skies.
Patches of uneven paved areas were dotted around the back and sides of the garden, these together with different ground levels made the garden unsafe for anyone who might be unsteady on their feet and were indeed the cause of two falls which necessitated hospital visits. It was decided to landscape the garden to improve access and safety in 2013. Between 2013 and 2017 three contractors surveyed, costed and promised to turn up to tackle the task. Their lack of commitment and communication was disheartening. Following an appallingly wet autumn, winter and early spring work was again delayed, however the new contractor Aled kept his word and rolled his heavy-duty soil movers in as soon as the ground was sufficiently stable in the spring of 2018.
In the weeks prior to the arrival of the diggers, shrubs and fruit bushes were heaved out of the soggy ground and placed into pots and bags, before being stacked tightly together on the only small area which was not to be churned. This was the site of a small patio which had been constructed during the house refurbishment. The request had been for a secure boundary to be established at the back of the garden (the previous owner having allowed fences to fall, leaving an drop of two meters into the garden below at one point), whilst levelling the ground and providing a gentle sloped access down into the house level. Unfortunately, the patio (now tilting due to visits by a curious mole), had been positioned 25cm higher than the main top garden and this together with the gradient of the incline from the house level to the upper garden become a challenge to ageing joints. These together with rotting fence supports and posts were expensive disappointments.
It was to address previous errors and to create an accessible, manageable and sustainable garden that it had been decided to completely raze the original landscape. This would allow for the creation of an upper and lower garden, with the house level situated between them, all levels being accessible by gentle slopes. There would be areas for growing fruit and vegetables, play spaces for a growing grandson, calm areas for contemplation and plants which would be selected for their propensity to attract pollinating insects year-round. It was to be a huge personal and financial undertaking, but the importance of the garden as a space ‘to be’ was recognised.
Following the wetness of the previous two seasons, the spring and summer of 2018 brought scorching sun, drying winds and no rain. These were not ideal conditions in which to attempt to bring the garden back to life, but such a special place deserved special attention. The garden, the perfect practice workspace for my research.