If I’m honest, I’m glad it happens now rather than during late spring and summer as was originally announced. With all our windows facing the same way there is no escaping the view of planks, poles, builders and decorators at work anyway. But as the aspect is South, more than anything I dreaded the heat, increased by netting around the scaffolding and not being able to open windows for most of the time. Anything above 27 degree Celsius and I start switching off. And from a gardener’s point of view, of course, the prospect of missing out on spring and/ or summer was devastating. So I breathed a sigh of relief when the schedule was changed.
Having avoided the worst, right now of course it feels different. Chilly nights and crisp mornings in September followed by mild days have turned the Virginia creeper into a truly spectacular blaze of red and orange. Most years it tends to stick to yellow with flecks and streaks of red only, due to its very sheltered position. The ornamental sages, many from cuttings that this year have come of age and grown into strong plants, flower their hearts out: red, cornflower blue, deep purple, neon pink. Michaelmas daisies, toad lilies and Japanese anemones add to this, as do nerines, pelargoniums (still going strong), fuchsias and a whole host of others. It’s an orgy of colours. Yet little of it is visible from the windows.
Moreover, when I squeeze through the door (the scaffolding only allows it to open for a small gap) almost the only choice I have is to water the plants or stand and admire. There’s no room for anything else right now. Every square inch is occupied by pots, safe a narrow path to access them all for watering. So is the garden table where otherwise I would love to sit and work on fine days: on top, there are all the pots usually homed on the windowsills, underneath I stuffed empty pots and bags of compost (I don’t have a shed) so I can’t even pull out a chair.
We were told we had to vacate the first three metres of the garden in order for the scaffolding to be erected. This more or less meant moving half the garden into the other half. As on this side most of these were pots on pebbles and slabs it sort of worked. But there was one victim: the Pohutukawa.
By this September, not only had the Pohutukawa grown so much it reached the second floor, it also covered almost the entire kitchen window. The decorators needed access. So we got a saw out and I hacked back the tree to a more or less leafless stump. I'll spare you the details of my emotions, suffice to say I felt like a murderer and - I kid you not - blubbered like a child whilst sawing off branch after branch. I don't easily cry.
But it wasn't enough. I still needed to shift the pot. This probably meant the death sentence. For the roots had made the most of their freedom and - as I was to discover - had turned an area of about four square metres into something like felt: pebbles woven together by fine roots. The main root growing out of the hole at the bottom of the pot was almost as thick as my wrist. Giving in to fate - or rather: the builders' order - I cut it off at the pot's base. I don't know whether my Pohutukawa will survive this butchering. It's still there and I keep it on the dry side. Perhaps there is hope, though I'm not overly optimistic.
After that, though, I flatly refused to move the other Metrosideros nearby. That one I have grown myself from a seed the size of an eyelash, gathered in a friend's garden in New Zealand almost twenty years ago. It would have been too much to bear. So I got the foreman in, explained and pleaded with him, under shameless use of my own eyelashes. He appears a bit like a slightly grumpy old uncle, but he had enough of a heart or sympathy to not insist: I just had to tie the branches tight to a scaffolding pole to keep them out of the way. While I usually refer to it as a Pohutukawa, too, in reality it probably is a Southern Rata (Metrosideros umbellata), another New Zealand endemic. Its branches - at least with my plant in a pot - are more pliable so the tying up tight proved no problem.
One thing that has been thrown into even sharper focus by having to move the pots closer still is that my garden lacks design. Sure, the hard landscaping is there: a strip of gravel, then three steps up to a patio or terrace surrounded on three sides by a narrow strip of open soil. It was thus laid out when the building was first converted into flats. Other than that, though, the almost empty canvas I found when moving in has been turned into a painter's palette rather than a painting.
For a long long time I have toyed with the idea of re-training in garden design. In fact, when first out of school after A-levels and a horticultural apprenticeship, I applied for a landscape design diploma course at uni. It was coincidence rather than – ahem – design, that I ended up doing something entirely different. Still, the idea never left me.
Very slowly and reluctantly over the years, however, I have come to the realization that this is not for me: I don’t think I’d ever make a really good designer. Why? Well, design is about restrain – at least this is how I’d describe it for this purpose. I on the other hand love plants. For the sake of plants. Apart from the fact that I probably wouldn’t come up with very ingenious solutions to tricky sites (hard landscaping isn’t something my mind thinks creatively about), I’d ruin any design by cramming in far too many plants or at least far too varied a planting.
It’s the same indoors. While I long for and sigh at the sight of elegant, even minimalist interiors, I could not for the life of me manage to keep a place like that. Within hours of me moving in, bits and bobs would start to gather on the clean shelves and surfaces – shells, pebbles, ceramics… I just can’t help it.
Outdoors, faced with one of the truly elegant designs that only come about by having a restrained palette of plants (but those in greater numbers), I’d sit and admire – and would feel excessively bored. Someone told me garden designer Jinny Blom advises that if you have a list of say 20 plant species for a design to cut it back to seven. I love Jinny’s gardens. It’s just not for me.
I love to fuss and care, experiment and try, mollycoddle and despair – all for the sake of it. For nostalgic reasons, for the individual specimen. Otherwise I’d never bother with frangipani as it’s just not likely to ever thrive with me. I wouldn’t have small pots everywhere, with seedlings and cuttings that I often took for no other reason than try and see whether I can make the seed germinate and grow. One or two of a kind, the rest given away, mine is a hodgepodge rather than a design. I love the actual nurturing, the propagating, the raising of plants. A fellow gardener once said I should open a nursery. Maybe I should. Visiting my plot, no-one ever suggested I should design gardens…
Perhaps I will eventually get bored with this mishmash. Perhaps I’m still at this “beginners’ stage” where you want to have and grow everything. Perhaps I too eventually will arrive at – and, more importantly, adhere to – the wisdom that you simply have to find out, by trial and error, which plants are happiest in your garden and then grow lots of these. In theory I know this, of course. I just don’t want to accept and bow to it yet.
So, until then, I continue experimenting and hoarding and will enjoy the pathetic two stalks of blooms where there should be a big drift of this species to make any impact. And when the builders have left in the afternoon, I’ll go outside and feast on the colours and smells in my little garden and try to bottle them into my mind for the grey winter days to come.