Wendy Woolfson

The Garden

When we moved into our house almost five years ago now, the garden was empty with the ground covered only in stones as far as the eye could see to the overgrown hedge at the far end. The entire garden had been overlaid in tarpaulin and that, in turn, had been shrouded in stones. It was sad really, as I was told the previous owners had been gardeners but the husband had died and his wife, who was the one who did most of the tending to the garden, became too old to care for it on her own, and in the end had decided to have it concealed for low maintenance.

However, it was exactly what we were looking for. A blank slate to create and design a garden and make it our own. We moved in at the end of autumn and six months later the Covid pandemic happened, so clearing the stones and lifting the tarpaulin became our springtime family project as we were all at home with plenty of time and little to do. The weather was non-stop sunshine that year which made it easier and more fun. We had no spare money to spend on the garden so we needed to be creative and clever with what we were going to do with it, and most importantly, we had to decide what we were going to do with all those stones.

First, we started by clearing all the stones from the centre section of the garden in order to make a lawn space so the boys would have somewhere to play but we needed to find a place to put all those tons of stones, and there really were tons of them! In the end we decided to rake them to the right-hand side of the garden next to the wall where there appeared to be nothing but a three-foot-wide strip of concrete almost the whole length of that wall. We couldn’t be bothered trying to dig the concrete up to make a proper flower border along that wall, which would have been an epic job, so instead I decided that we could use the stones we were raking up, piled on top of the concrete alongside the wall with some earth over them to create an alpine type of environment. Besides, the alternative was just too costly; we’d have to get a JCB and a truck and it would involve all sorts of hassle and expense. This way, we could do it ourselves, it would take time and be hard, physical work but cost nothing. So that’s what we did, over the weeks, we raked and piled all those stones, literally tons of them, over to that side of the garden and I hoped my idea was going to work out!

Once all the stones were in place I put a post out on Facebook asking for turf and earth from anyone to cover the top of the stones to give me something to plant in. I found a friend fairly nearby who was digging her garden up and I felt like I’d won the lottery as she was getting rid of a whole ton of turf. I did about three trips to hers and managed to get enough turf to cover all the stones the length of the wall, fantastic! The next step was to see what mother nature would bring. I decided that side of the garden would be the ‘wild side’ and would grow whatever nature provided but with a little help and shaping from me as well; I could buy some alpine plants that would thrive in there. The border on the other side of the lawn we were creating would be the cultivated side, and I’d buy some shrubs and flowers in to create a more structural looking side with flowers of my choosing but I was still interested to see what might pop up on its own from seeds the birds would drop and what might previously have been planted there by the former owners. It turned out there were dozens of bluebell bulbs on that side and wild poppies as well, it was wonderful to see them come up and I hoped they would self-seed and spread across the garden, which of course they did.

One of my neighbours gave me a miniature holly tree which she had in a pot in her garden and no longer wanted, so I planted that in the ground and it began flourishing, growing little red berries in the winter, and lovely tiny, shiny, spiky holly leaves, it looks beautiful. Then one of my brothers bought me a purple Acer and a friend gave me an apple tree, so already my cultivated border was off to a great start!

There was one other thing that had randomly grown in the garden, it was a birch tree that had self-seeded in an abandoned pot. It looked like it was just a year or two old, a thin, straggly twig of a tree with a few skinny branches and tiny, fluttering leaves. In one of the gardens next door, there was an old looking silver birch tree, easily eighty years old or more and I figured this little one must have come from that tree, it’s little child. I couldn’t discard it, it felt wrong, so I decided to do something with it and plant it somewhere in the garden. In the end, I put it at the front of the lawn, I thought it would make a nice welcoming tree into the garden. I love birch trees, they’re so beautiful the way their bark peels and the stripes of their trunks and colours. You can tap them for their sap and make tea or gather the resin for tinctures. I adore the tiny leaves and the sound they make as the wind blows through them. It’s a soft, whimsical sound that whispers to you that summer is here now. There are many fairy stories surrounding the birch tree and I especially love the ones about the entrance at the bottom of the tree leading to fairyland. If you look at the base of any semi mature birch tree you’ll see there is a little hollow there, an archway and if you’re sitting there at just the right time you may find yourself drawn into another land where time has a different meaning and strange things can happen because that is a fairy door. Now my birch tree is about six or seven years old I can see its door has started to form so who knows what might happen and what elementals are coming into my garden now.

Maybe it was serendipitous that we moved in at that time, and I found the sapling birch tree because just this year our neighbours had to cut their old birch tree down. It was so sad that day, I almost cried as we watched it being removed by the tree surgeons. All trees have a limited life span and I guess this one was no different. There must have been something wrong with it for them to take it down, maybe it was starting to rot inside, and they had noticed it was swaying just a bit too much in the recent strong winds. The week after it came down we had a really big storm with huge winds coming in from the south so maybe it was just as well it was taken down. It would have done a lot of damage if it had fallen. It was just awful watching it come down but knowing we had it’s offspring growing in our garden somehow made it slightly better knowing it’s legacy would carry on.

Having a garden has taught me a lot about patience as I’ve waited from one year to the next to see what will grow and what will not. What has self-seeded and what has not, and how long it takes for certain plants and shrubs to grow. I’m no expert, and I’m learning as I go along so it’s a steep learning curve but one I’m really enjoying. It’s therapeutic to pull weeds and plant new things, to weave the willow arbour and watch the bees and butterflies as they flit around the different flowers, noticing which ones they favour. The garden teaches me to draw breath and remember that everything happens all in good time.