The big day finally arrived and we opened our leafy urban garden to local visitors. It had been a while in the pondering and planning, but committing to opening up to raise money for local street trees turned out to be just the encouragement we needed to fix fence panels, spruce things up with a bit of paint, mend trellis, fill gaps in borders and put together a few late-spring pots for colour.
My daughter took charge of the cake area admirably. She’s in year 3, so working out the change for £1.50 from a £5 note flexed her maths muscle nicely. My partner was chief tea maker, and my job was to show people round and answer questions. And there were lots.
These are the ones I was asked most frequently:
Why do you put straw under your strawberries?
There are several reasons for this. First, straw acts as a mulch, discouraging weed seeds from germinating, trapping moisture in the soil and preventing it from drying out. It also keeps slugs and snails away pretty effectively – anything prickly or scratchy for them to crawl over is a good deterrent – and protects the strawberries from getting muddy and soil-splashed in heavy rain. Not that a bit of mud has ever stopped me eating a warm strawberry straight from the plant. Plus I think it looks smart too.
How much maintenance does your garden take?
The honest answer is surprisingly little. When I had my daughter nearly 8 years ago, I soon realised time was going to be in very short supply for a while. So I took a pragmatic approach and stopped doing things like digging up and storing dahlia tubers at the end of the summer, planting loads of pots with summer bedding each spring and trying out all kinds of different veg in my raised beds. I now stick to tried-and-tested varieties such as ‘Gardeners Delight’ tomatoes, ‘Blue Lake’ climbing beans and outdoor cucumbers. These all grow well with very little input from me. Amongst them I sow lettuces and radishes. And I rarely bother with winter veg. I also planted plenty of shrubs, including Lonicera nitida as a box alternative (thinking then of the possibility of box blight). I’m glad I did as these are now strong and healthy, while all around I’m seeing box hedges and topiary destroyed by box caterpillar. I have plenty of low-maintenance ferns and hardy geraniums in the shady parts of the garden, which pretty much take care of themselves. In sunny beds, my favourite fuss-free yet gorgeous customers are irises, wallflowers, nectaroscordum bulbs and more hardy geraniums.
How come your sweet peas look so amazing?
Time for a bit of a confession here. I’ve grown sweet peas from seed many times, sowing both in spring and in autumn, but they’re often munched by slugs or end up being feeble and spindly. This year I ordered seedlings of Noel Sutton, Anniversary and Mrs Collier from Ashridge Nurseries. They arrived in mid-April and I planted them straightaway with a bit of garden compost and some chicken pellets forked through the soil. I’ve been mindful to keep them well watered and Noel Sutton has been in flower since the second week of May!
How have you made your garden look so big?
Many visitors to our garden live in similar Victorian terraced houses, so they were surprised that my plot looked so much bigger than theirs or others they’d seen that day. The truth is, it isn’t. It’s about 5m x 30m, so long and narrow. But there are ways of making a skinny town garden look more rounded and most of them appear to be counter-intuitive.
First – and very importantly – I’ve painted the fences a dark forest green, a canny trick that makes them recede, thus making the garden seem bigger.
Then I’ve planted large shrubs and trees. Don’t be afraid to think big in a small garden. There are loads of trees that are suitable. Think silver birches, mountain ash, Japanese maples and crab apples. And when a garden has height, that third dimension adds so much space. Another reason my garden looks surprisingly spacious is that I’ve divided it into three different areas, each hidden by the next. So from the lawn, you have to duck between a large choisya and under the canopy of an acer to reach the second part of the garden, a gravel area with raised veg beds. From there, large lonicera balls and a pear tree hide a circular patio, surrounded by shrubs and perennial planting slightly higher up. Each area is a little journey of discovery.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer