As with so many gardens, this space was once uncultivated and as wild as the surrounding hills. When humans moved into the area they began to turn some of the land over to agriculture. The garden which has become the workspace was once a field.
The field existed prior to the construction of the 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 would 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.
In sheltered pockets, gorse blooms on the hill above the garden throughout most of the year. Cardigan Bay is close by.
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. Some woodland plants live happily in nooks and crannies around the garden, they often outlive those brought in by well meaning horticulturalists.
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.
At a quick glance, the image below taken from the back of the original house (lifted and saved from a sketch program), makes the lawned area behind the house look comparatively level and benign. It is deceptive. Extending the house made the differing gradients and cambers more obvious. They could only be appreciated by walking over the uneven surfaces and access was unsafe for those poor balance or with damaged or ageing joints.
Perimeter boundaries also required attention.
In the above image, the innocuous little sprig in the middle is the voracious blackthorn. Beneath the surface it sends out suckers across the pathway on its never ending march into the garden. The blackthorn is an important shrub which can attracts certain wildlife and the autumnal berries can be used to make sloe gin. In a country hedgerow it serves its purpose well but in a garden it can be highly dangerous, particularly when children are present. The thorns become solid, ebony spines around 5cm in length and through painful, personal experience it can be confirmed that it is possible for one year old growths to be so strong that they can puncture through the sole of a walking boot. Once punctured, the unfortunate recipient needs to visit the local hospital for immediate treatment to avoid sepsis. No amount of sloe gin can make up for such an event.
The blackthorn hedge 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 type of boundary is not present between other gardens, which raises the question as to whether the unfriendly hedge was deliberately planted to deter any communication between the two new neighbours. A rough pathway was established between the dangerous, prickly hedge and the new planting in the lower garden. The path helped to prevent the voracious brambles and thorn from quickly penetrating the cultivated garden area.
Below, are two views of the pathway between the blackthorn hedge and the introduced cultivated shrubs. Left: during early work. Right: some months later when a little more order, ease of access and safety consciousness is becoming apparent.
The original owners appear to have sourced plants from specialist nurseries (possibly form Bodnant Gardens), as bodnantseii labels were found on several 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 ropey lawn.
A neighbour had said that the lower garden had originally been designed as a sunken garden. The presence of a (deteriorating and rather dangerous), dressed stone edged platform above the little lawn of the lower garden together with stone edged paths, appeared to confirm this. The established plants mentioned above, encircled the lawn, this might have been a pleasant seating area at one time, but due to steep, uneven and broken stone access it had become a favoured toilet space for visiting cats and dogs. 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 having simply employed an odd job person 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 inspire it felt chopped into shape.
The upper part of the garden was originally going to be left for another time, however it was recognised that this would be a false economy as access up the slope was becoming more of an issue. Raised beds were also rotting and required replacing and brambles were finding their way into food growing beds. The garden would be quite acceptable for able bodied persons, but greater accessibility was an important requirement.
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 resulting in several weeks of walking only being possible with the aid of crutches. It was decided to landscape the whole 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 there were many attempts to measure out sections to work out gradients. The markers can barely be seen here in the upper garden, where poles and pieces of string were spaced out with every care taken (much to the bemusement of the contractors), to avoid damaging the rampant nasturtiums.
The rough overgrown ground created quite a challenge as did the accumulated wood which would have been so useful to once capable hands.
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 area which was not to be over turned. This was the small patio in the upper garden, which had been constructed during the house refurbishment. Unfortunately, this area (now tilting due to visits by a curious mole), had been erroneously erected 25cm higher than the main garden level. This together with the gradient of the incline from the house level gradually became a challenge to ageing joints. These problems together with rotting fence supports, posts and raised beds installed a few years earlier, were expensive disappointments.
Plant ‘saving’ had started back in 2016 when the first contractor had promised to take on the garden project. Somehow several plants miraculously clung on from this period in their makeshift containers.
Following the seemingly never ending rain of the winter of 2017 came three seasons, spring, summer and early autumn of intense sun and drought. It was considered that not only would all of the already containerised plants die, but that the likelihood of survival for those about to be gouged out was poor. Few photographs exist of this period as time was of the essence and physical assistance was in short supply.
Machinery and materials arrived in the Spring of 2018. These were hardly optimum (or even satisfactory), conditions for the razing of a garden and starting up again, but for this confused little landscape it was a case of Hobson’s choice.
One miracle survival was the camelia which was not transferred into a pot. None was large enough as the shrub was three metres tall and despite having been severely trimmed back during the previous season, almost as wide. The plant and its root-ball were diggerred out and carried a distance of three metres, where it was carefully placed into an enormous hole and bedded in. careful water management, root and leaf protection was managed throughout the summer and into the autumn. Although the plant lost leaves and some vigour, it battled on through the winter.
The camelia is on the far left, the uprooted shrub is a box affected by box blight.
It was as an attempt to address previous errors and to create an accessible, manageable and sustainable garden that it had been decided to completely raze what amounted to pretty much all of the original garden areas. This would allow for the creation of an upper and lower garden, with the house level situated between them, both levels being accessible by gentler slopes than those in place. There would be areas for growing fruit and vegetables, play spaces for a growing grandson, calm areas for contemplation and plants would be selected for their propensity to attract pollinating insects year-round and native flowers could weave their way back into the garden. This was to be a garden for the future. It would be a huge personal and financial undertaking, but the importance of the garden as a family garden, a natural space, a workspace and a place simply ‘to be’, might at last be realised.