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A history of my garden


We have lived here for 41 years. Even if I say it quickly, I find it hard to believe. We moved from a small rented flat on Tyneside. OH and I both had demanding full-time jobs so it was fortuitous that almost at the same time my grandmother – a long-time, devoted (compulsive!) gardener – should have moved into a small rented flat without a garden. The deal was struck : she would take over our plot.

The house we had moved into had been owned by only two families since it was built in 1908, and the family we bought it from had acquired it before WW1.

This was not the view we then had from the bottom of the garden. These towering sycamores were not yet seedlings. The whole area was derelict, after the huge, cathedral-like engine shed which dominated “the triangle” – formed by the parting of the defunct Preston line and the Manchester line – was demolished a few years after we moved in. The area was covered with asphalt, broken bricks and bits of debris from the building. We could see right across to the far side, where the railway line to Manchester runs ; we could see the trains, and the boys, when little, enjoyed waving to them.

It was fascinating observing plant succession at close hand as the area gradually gave way to plants like willowherb and evening primrose, then to scrub and finally to birch trees which more or less covered it.

When we moved in, the garden was a plain rectangle – large lawn (knee-high, because the house had been empty for 6 months) with a narrow border on three sides. The previous owner had apparently enjoyed growing dahlias. They had never been lifted, because at that time the winters here had been almost entirely frost-free for years. Eventually, they disappeared – probably because frosty winters returned.

The soil was very sandy and poor. If you look on the geological map of the area, it is designated “blown sand”. Very little was planted apart from the few dahlias. Granny decided the important thing was to get something – anything – to grow, and gradually build up the soil. Every autumn, she would buy 20 bags of mushroom compost, which was tipped onto the pavement outside the house. We would then all work to transport it in wheelbarrows down the side of the house and into the back garden.

Gradually, the garden developed. Granny never did anything major without asking me first, but quite honestly, the garden was the least of my concerns – especially as she was taking care of it so well. I would see to watering in the evenings, if there were new plants or containers, and I also enjoyed escaping outside after work and doing a bit of weeding. Generally, though, if Granny suggested something, I said “Yes” and “It’s your garden really”.

When the children came along, things moved on. ( I was able to give up work while they were small, but they filled my time up, and the gardening bug didn’t get a look-in.) They adored “helping” her and we would all go out to nurseries together to buy summer bedding. The lawn began to suffer badly as it became a playground. We dug a sandpit at one side where the boys spent hours “digging to Australia”. Eventually, we had a large patio laid near the house (a wonderful barrier against muddy trails through the kitchen) and invested in a new turf lawn.

Granny with eldest (1976)

“Are we nearly there yet?” (1978)
This was our garden “soil”, 4 inches down.

Meanwhile, after many rumours and planning applications, the land over the wall had been acquired as a site for two schools. The area was cleared and covered with a layer of topsoil. Pleasingly, the planners left a border of the self-seeded birch trees all around the perimeter. The view of the railway line has long since disappeared. The “proper” wood across the site was retained and is now managed and used as a teaching resource and a wildlife area.

Granny experimented (not very successfully) with a vegetable patch. We had a few small potatoes and , strangely, a very poor harvest of turnips (turnips?) which I put in a stew. They were rather like large radishes. But she also planted a gooseberry bush, which still fruits marvellously, and has self-seeded to produce another productive bush. Another survivor is a John Downie crab apple, which has provided many a pound of jelly.

The plant which will always be a memorial to my wonderful grandmother, however, is the Cecile Brunner rose (there are actually three of them throughout the garden). It was her very favourite rose, with small perfectly-shaped pink buds which develop into small but surprisingly blowsy flowers. She had always planted one in every garden she had owned. My grandfather had worked in the City and daily wore one in his buttonhole when they were in flower. When she planted it here, very soon it started to send out very long shoots. She had never seen this before and enquired of the grower if these might be suckers. He told her they were “sports” and she should train them horizontally so that more flowering shoots would grow upwards from them. I now have a 12-foot-long hedge from one rose – I have to cut it back scrupulously and quite brutally otherwise it would be about 8 feet deep! Its disadvantages are that it is exceedingly vicious and only flowers once even if I do my best to remove all the spent blooms.

Cecile Brunner : an indomitable old lady (a bit like Granny, but she wasn’t as prickly, I’m glad to say!)

After Granny reluctantly “retired” from the garden, well into her 80s, it began to resemble that around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. I mowed the lawn and … that’s about it. Self-seeded hollies towered over the beds, ivy covered the walls, “wild flowers” ruled. I was becoming increasingly bogged-down at work and hardly noticed.

Then – light-bulb moment! – (well – year) I gave up full-time work and took a good long look out of the window. With the help of my sons and my daughter I started to tackle the holly and the ivy. I began to think about re-shaping the lawn, no longer resembling the new turf of 16 years ago, and got cracking. It was wonderful. I went to bed dreaming about it, and got up eager to tackle it. The garden and I recovered together. By the time I embarked on my second, part-time, career it had become my beloved hobby.

If I thought I didn’t know much about gardening, I found I was wrong. Granny (and her father before her) and Mum were all keen gardeners – as I am, and my brother and two sisters as well. I realised I had absorbed so much while growing up that I had a feel for, and an attitude to, gardening that stood me in good stead. Watching gardening programmes, I realised how many techniques I already understood – I just had to put them into practice.

Now when I walk round my garden I see all the changes I have made. It has a completely different shape, it has a large wild area at the bottom, where Granny had rose bushes and the attempted veg patch (there are still a Cecile Brunner and an Elizabeth of Glamis down there, much recovered since the school at the back cut the overhanging branches off the sycamores). Some things she planted are still there – among them a cotoneaster tree, a contorted willow we started off as a cutting in a milk bottle, a very large camellia she had grown in a pot which had never flowered. The ancestors of my snowdrops came up from Surrey with her in the 60s. The two Leylandii – not her best idea – were cut down a few years ago and now make a very satisfactory framework for the wisteria which she planted – 12 feet away. The lily of the valley are certainly thriving, marching through one of the beds. And – thankfully – I would have to dig a lot deeper these days to reach that sand!

The contorted willow has twice been reduced by half since we started it off in the old milk bottle.

Cotoneaster “John Waterer” continues to thrive and delights the bees.

The leylandii, cut down and crowned with the wisteria.

Alpine strawberries pop up all over the place – Granny planted them for the children.

And as I wander round, I fantasise about walking round with Granny, reminiscing and (I have to admit) showing off a little. I wonder if she’d be pleased? I think she would. Thank you, Granny.

And thank you for reading this. I feel very lucky to have a garden full of so many memories, and wanted to record some of them – before I forget!

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I loved reading this blog, so full of your memories which you've brought alive to us so well. It sounds like decades of love and care have made your lovely garden what it is today, thanks for all the photos too!

6 Jul, 2013


That was a lovely blog loved the photo of granny ! not many are called granny today it,s nana and nan etc but I am gran or granny to my 5 grandchildren , I always tell them if it,s good enough for the Queen and her mother it,s good enough for me lol , I hope mine will have good memories of me and my garden as they have all enjoyed helping me plant things over the year,s .

6 Jul, 2013


This was great - really "down to earth" so to speak. I wonder what the original owners at the beginning of the last century would think? The pic of the two children playing in the sand reminded me so much of my eldest and neighbour's child (the red head) at the same age. A nostalgia trip!

6 Jul, 2013


Lovely blog Mel and beautifully told...:>)

6 Jul, 2013


Thank you for sharing this with us Mel, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

7 Jul, 2013


Interesting blog and lovely memories and photos.

7 Jul, 2013


Thank you so much for the lovely comments. I very much enjoyed writing this.

My daughter insisted I should be "Granny" to her son, Kidsgran, despite the fact that all my children called my Granny "Dee". But he isn't talking yet - so who knows what I'll end up as? ;-)

It would be interesting to hear their views, Steragram. They might be surprised by the wild area, and the number of wildflowers I incorporate. They would certainly recognise the house, though. We have done nothing to alter the structure except replace the window frames and put in a French Window at the back.

Thanks, Louisa. I know from your blogs that you have had your garden for a long time. I think being able to remember the way a garden has developed over the years adds to the enjoyment of it. I feel Granny around so many times when I am gardening. (She always said she would return if she could! As you will gather, she was a very "hands-on" granny, and had a huge place in our lives so it is inevitable that she still inhabits a large part of our brains!)

7 Jul, 2013


It's nice to have a gardening grandmother. I had one also. Your garden has come a long way from those early days, and I'm pleased you have fond memories of it's progress :o)

7 Jul, 2013


Thank you, Hywel. It certainly has come a long way. It's good to look back and remember the journey!

7 Jul, 2013


Thank you for taking us with you. I got thoroughly absorbed in your story. Maybe a third career is on its way, as a writer.

8 Jul, 2013


Thanks Scotsgran! I am glad you enjoyed it.

8 Jul, 2013


What a great read. Granny would be very proud of what you have done. I'd guess that she's always looking over your shoulder with a nod of approval.

8 Jul, 2013


Thank you, Scottish - I certainly like to think so... I often hear her voice in my ear - "Try it! There's nothing to lose!"

8 Jul, 2013


That was so interesting, Mel, and lovely to see the photos of granny and of your boys. How lovely to be able to carry on her legacy. I'm sure she'd approve of what you've done. My Nana and Grandma were both keen gardeners and largely responsible for my love affair with plants. I can still hear my grandma's voice; 'Love - in - a -mist, or Nigella damascena'. Both sounded equally enchanting to me, and the plant was such a pretty thing - I was hooked! I remain to this day, equally enthralled by both the latin- and the common names for plants.

10 Jul, 2013


Thank you, Tuesdaybear. How much we owe to our grannies!

10 Jul, 2013


I've got my bags packed.
When can I move in? ;-)
Great blog!

18 Jul, 2013


Thanks, Mouldy! (There's no answer to that!!)

18 Jul, 2013


wonderful... happy times are spent in gardens..

and the history of your garden shows this to be true..

lovely most lovely..

from jane.

11 Aug, 2013


Thank you Jane. I had such a good time writing it.

11 Aug, 2013


yes prehaps rethinking it in the mined again bringing back those memories.. nice mined filler..

from jane..

11 Aug, 2013


Indeed. It also had me trawling through old photos which was lovely. And my sister was delighted (if a little sad) to see a photo of our beloved Granny. She was such a strong influence on us, so hands-on and very important in our lives. My sister is also a very keen gardener and always feels close to Granny in the garden.

13 Aug, 2013


my friend and i was talking about that today :) that if the people that matter around you are very loving and have a good caring attitude it can really install in family members a very good and healthy out look to life...

gardening is a very good influence the proof is in the pudding :):)

13 Aug, 2013


That is certainly very true ;-)

13 Aug, 2013


Too late...I'm in the treehouse.
What do you mean - "What treehouse?"
The one I've built. In one of your trees. Where else would a sane person build a treehouse?
Well, you didn't expect me to live on the damp ground, did you? Lol.

18 Aug, 2013


I am flattered, Mouldy! I hope you've brought some of your sunflowers with you.

(Hmmm...I think I'd better just go and check out those sycamores at the bottom of the garden.)

18 Aug, 2013


More fun to watch them whirling to the ground from up in the tree.
Sadly, I lost my tallest sunflower to the recent high winds.
Which reminds me...must do a mini-blog.

19 Aug, 2013


I have a sneaking regard for sycamores. Apparently, according to an old neighbour (when we first moved in, so sadly long departed) when the railway still ran at the bottom of the garden, railway workers came every year and removed any saplings, because - as we all know - leaves on the line cause problems! And now that there is no line, the trees can self-seed freely. We have four just over our back wall. They are huge - much higher than the house, and they cast their progeny across the garden with abandon. But they are rather beautiful and since, quite surprisingly, suitably armoured and harnessed persons appeared two years ago and cut all the branches which overhung the bottom of our garden, I enjoy them all the more. And I like the fact that while the top of the garden is hot and sunny, the bottom is shaded and ideal for the wild area which I have gradually nurtured. In a not-very-large garden, such a variety is to be cherished, I think.

19 Aug, 2013


Me, I'm a tree-hugger, having spent a few years doing forestry.
There's a serenity & majesty about mature trees & an energetic vibrancy about those growing, I find.

19 Aug, 2013


I quite agree. We are fortunate to live in a neighbourhood where there are a lot of trees. Any minor disadvantages caused by shade are more than compensated for by the sheer pleasure of having trees around. And so many lovely things grow in the shade. When we had a leylandii taken down a couple of years ago (which I do not regret) we had to buy a sunshade because it was near where we sit. I spent my teenage years in an area where there was a lot of Forestry Commission planting. In those days, it was all pines and the ground in the plantations was devoid of anything except pine needles, but even so, there was something about all those tall trees... and there was also plenty of mixed woodland. We need the trees.

19 Aug, 2013


I'll second that!
The neighbouring close has asked me to do something with their garden area.
It's grass with a weigela, rose & hydrangea, all planted by myself.
At the moment my intention is to create a partially shaded area, but it's finding the balance.
The tree/s (I haven't decided yet) can't be too tall or be too dense.
Blossoms? So many choices!
Ditto shade loving plants.
Maybe I'll leave it 'til next year. Lol.

20 Aug, 2013


I'm not surprised they've asked you, Mouldy. I bet they're green with envy.

You can spend the winter planning and deciding what to do. As you say - so many choices.

20 Aug, 2013


It's been an eye-opener, not just for the neighbours in my close, but for those in the other two closes, as well.
They've seen with their own eyes that a back court can be more than somewhere to hang out washing or empty your bins.
They've socialised with their neighbours, rather than just pass small-chat on the landing this summer long...barbeques, drinks, get togethers or just plain sunbathing.
Strangely, they have as much pride in the garden as I do.
The garden stands out, not so much as a sore thumb, more as an aspiration for the others, who've realised that paving slabs, concrete bin areas & strips of scabby grass don't cut it.
Who can blame them for wanting more than green & grey?
The local MSP has been having a nosey around, I'm told.
Probably wants her photo in the papers & will manage to get into the act somehow. Lol.
Ten dwellings in my close. Times three over three gardens.
A lot of work.
Keep me out of mischief for a few years. Lol.

20 Aug, 2013


Yes it will (well - it might!)

What an achievement, Mouldy. I am so glad to hear that the garden has proved to be a life-enhancing experience for the residents. There is so much land available for growing things, if people just look and see. And the more that grows, the better it is for everyone's well-being.

I expect you'll take it on! It's a lot of work, though - a close is a fair size. (Just think of all the insects that'll owe you, never mind the residents - I don't suppose it will stop them biting you..... the insects, that is!)

21 Aug, 2013


Strangely, I don't get bitten or stung.
The insects have more taste. Lol.
A few of my neighbours have phoned the housing association we belong to, in order to tell of the positive change the garden has brought about.
What more could I ask for? :-)

23 Aug, 2013


Good! These are the things we should all be pleased about. It's good to have your efforts recognised, and it's well deserved.

I'm glad you don't get bitten - I'm not as troubled by insects as I was when I was younger, thank goodness, although OH and I are just recovering after last week's massacre! We're off to Cromarty next week - I shall be packing plenty of insect repellent (although we haven't been much bothered there in the past).

Perhaps you'll get some funding for extra plants? Especially if you take on the neighbouring closes.

23 Aug, 2013

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