The Gardening Bible

My earliest memory of the garden was when I was still in my sister’s hand-me-down dungarees. I recall sitting in the wheelbarrow watching my father planting asparagus. The fact that I was sitting on a mixture of farmyard manure and compost did not seem to worry me in the least. Even at such an early age I enjoyed being close to nature, and was fascinated by the plants and insects around me.

I remember that I relished being pushed up and down the garden in the wheelbarrow at great speed and, needless to say, occasionally landing up in the rose bed! But this sort of adventure did not prevent me from loving the garden or indeed rose beds. I would wander round the garden with crushed rose petals between my palms, inhaling their glorious fragrance and marvelling at the silky texture of their petals.

‘What are you doing?’ my mother would ask.

‘Eating the smell,’ I would say, and very lovely it was too. To this day roses remain my favourite flower.

The thought of those crushed rose petals almost puree in my hands brings back memories of days when a border overgrown with weeds did not worry me. Stress was a word I had never heard and a sensation I had never experienced, and no one was ever late due to a traffic jam.

My love of the garden didn’t end at adolescence or diminish in my twenties, although once I was earning my own living I was too busy to spend much time gardening.

As it transpired, the garden was so easy to manage that I sometimes spend less than one hour in ten weeks on caring for it, yet it still looks interesting and presentable all year round. In fact, there is a photograph of the garden after I have neglected it for two years.

The pleasure this walled haven in London has afforded me has added a very special dimension to my life. Inhaling the scent of the lime trees or night-scented stocks after returning home from work in the theatre; watching the wrens, robins, thrushes and jays from the kitchen window while doing the washing up; eating outside on a summer’s day; sitting and writing in the garden; or just the therapeutic benefits of half an hour passed watering the plants, weeding or dead-heading the climbing roses, have enriched and improved the quality of my life beyond all measure.

So encouraged was I by this easily maintained small London garden that I decided to convert a two acre field around our cottage on the Surrey/Hampshire border into a low maintenance wild garden, and an old school friend, landscape architect and landscape scientist, and now technical consultant to design the garden for me and very brilliantly he did it too.

I had mistakenly imagined that converting the garden would be easier and less expensive than enlarging the house. It was certainly more enjoyable, but I had not taken into consideration that two acres is a very large area to convert from scratch. After the contractors had laid two herring-bone brick terraces, boundary fences had been erected, wells built, trellises constructed, and earth-moving machines had worked for ten days reshaping the land, the cost of the garden conversion to date exceeded the estimate for the proposed and not-to-be-built extension to the house!

So in the interest of economy I decided to finish the garden myself. Shifting hundreds of wheelbarrows full of top soil and spreading lorry-loads of cow manure and mushroom compost became everyday tasks. With the help of my son and nephew, I planted ninety trees and thousands of shrubs and daffodils.

It is only the constructing and establishing of a low-maintenance garden that is the hard part; from then on it becomes easier and easier. Knowing I would have such a large area to maintain, getting it right at this stage was all important.

By the time the garden was completed, I had spent roughly six hundred hours on my knees and made four thousand holes for planting. In order to have the beds completely weed-free, I had battled with yard upon yard of ground elder, pulled up hundreds of shoots of bracken and dug out root after root of stinging nettles. My life had been spent ankle deep in mud and I felt as though calcified seaweed and bonemeal were almost coming out of my ears.

Added to which I pulled what seemed like every muscle in my arms, suffered from painfully stiff joints and strained my back, working for hours in the cold and rain. My hands were so rough that I was ashamed to show them and they felt like a nail brush to anyone shaking my hand. Yet none of these complaints seemed important: I was as happy and as proud as if I had built the whole of Rome myself.

Gardens at Anne Hathaway's house, Stratford-up...

Gardens at Anne Hathaway’s house, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Taken in 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I woke each morning I felt the excitement of a child at Christmas and rushed to the window to look out on the result of my endeavours. Each night I went to bed dreaming of the plants still waiting to be planted or transplanted to make my low-mantenance haven complete. The rose-eating deers, the rabbits who confined their nocturnal diet to my shrubs, and the ongoing battle with the weeds were not able to extinguish my happiness. The joy was total.

When finally the garden was finished, the house of course remained too small, so alas we had to move, to a farmhouse with six acres of high-maintenance garden. I left behind my garden labour of love for someone else to enjoy its low maintenance.

Happily all gardening improvements do not need to be quite so back-breaking, ambitious or large. The progress made in the art of trouble-free gardening has been enormous. No longer is it a problem if people are too busy to spend much time caring for a garden, as careful planning, clever planting and the right plant combinations can produce a fair-sized garden that virtually takes care of itself. So the days of longing to have a garden yet worrying it would be impossible to find time to take care of it are past.

A great many gardens, such as the magnificent old kitchen gardens, are extremely labour-intensive. Lots of carpet bedding is also a tremendous example of what love and labour can do, but hopeless for busy people, unless they are lucky enough to have a gardener or three.

Not so long ago, an extremely well-known garden expert announced to me, ‘I loathe low-maintenance gardens, they are so boring and so predictable – never exciting or beautiful.’

I disagree, they don’t have to be predictable or boring and they certainly can be beautiful. As a point of interest the expert in question’s garden looked abandoned, probably as there wasn’t enough labour around to be intensive!

My two-acre conversion was as low-maintenance as can be: a weekly mow on the main lawn, biannual cut of the long grass in the wild section and pruning of roses once a year. As I have said, my much smaller London garden can be neglected for months on end and still look good.

It is odd that I, who was and is happy to garden eight hours at a stretch, should find low-maintenance gardening so interesting. Now, disease-resistant plants, evergreens that need minimum pruning, ground cover to keep out the weeds, plants that divide, all hold a place in my heart. The amazingly rare plant that flowers for a day, has to go in and out of the greenhouse and needs constant attention is not for me (or for most of us). I read recently about a survey which showed that only 24% of people in Britain enjoy gardening, while 42% find it a chore or worse.

The discovery that a full-time career and a garden can be enjoyed and go hand in hand was a turning point in my life. 

So, anxious to show others how simple it is to have both, I have developed this website. Here you will find everything you need to assist with the development of your garden, whatever its size!

I hope you enjoy!

Davina Pinkham

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