My Haven Gardens

Haven, a safe enclosed place. In 1948 I first look out from my high blue and chrome pram in our back yard over a little golden privet hedge to the garden beyond, to the rough bark of giant old apple trees.

In May the following year, I wobble in my brown shoes and blue. gingham dress down the rough coal-ash path, while Mother pulls out the thick washing rope line between the solid oak posts to hang up clean smelling washing. I am safe. I sway from side to side away from Mother, a trained horticulturalist, to the hawthorn hedge barrier eighty feet away. When I trip and come back crying, Mother takes me inside and dabs my knee with Dettol. A small hurt is over in next to no time.

Picture us: we are at the edge of the orchard section. I raise my head. At the summit of the Bramley, the blackbird has landed with tail as brake and now he’s chortling.  But if I go backwards on my hands and knees down two sandstone steps, there’s adventure: a cobbled path round a rockery, backed by an old school bench in the shelter of a privet hedge. Here’s an old yellow-brown sink mini-pond my favourite flower: a three-petalled, purple ‘Moses-in-the-bulrushes’, and the damp-smelling curly brown fronds of a fern.

Move on two years, and my resourceful father, who leaves this sanctuary on daily walks, brings back a tricycle ‘from the tip’, ‘does it up’, adjusting the metal brakes and painting the mudguards yellow. Now I go carefully down with the calliper brake on and pedal hard up the crazy paving path on Grandpa’s side.

I owe this haven to Grandpa C, a machine tool worker.  In 1905, aged twenty-five, he built a pair of houses in this Leicestershire coal-mining village, and had scrimp to buy two extra plots because the Irish labourers (‘navvies’, my cousin called them) went a few inches over the building line.

On Saturday evenings Grandpa wheels the dried, sometimes smelly, dead flower ‘rubbish’ from the wire bins at the municipal cemetery next door, Daddy does it on Sundays, and I am given the task of stamping with my black wellies on the newest section of Mother’s compost heap. Havens need maintaining. And I am an apprentice. ‘Mother Nature needs compost. Without healthy soil you won’t have healthy growth’, Mother explains.

In the afternoons when Daddy’s at work in the weaving mill across the road, Mother and I go down the path to the solid, slate-roofed coalhouses, and get our own-sized spades out. Round the back is one of the spare plots, taken up by Grandpa’s raspberries, gooseberries and some smaller edible apples. But under an arch hidden by sweet peas and old English roses is Mother’s own haven, her small flower garden. We push our spades into the crumbly ground with our left feet and bend to remove a couple of thistles from the fluffy green asparagus with its tiny yellow blooms. (Later at grammar school the Games Teacher will discover that I have the strongest foot in the year group and I will become goal-keeper for the hockey year team and then the School First 11).

Mother lets me plan my own patch when I’m six or seven. I can’t draw too well: I’m a writer – always writing about flowers. In my Chelsea Drawing Book, I write the names in boxes in each corner of the page in inch-tall handwriting, exotic ones such as love-lies-bleeding and achillea-the-pearl.  And Latin and Greek ones; with cosmos and statice, already I am learning Latin.

At school I write about the sanctuary,

‘When I grow up, I want to be a teacher. Or work on a nursery. I will grow…’ The list fills the page. I am reprimanded for writing a list, instead of a story.

The sanctuary is busy with possibilities. At ten I have found footholds to climb the giant Bramley and I jump ten feet down onto the soft soil by the fern. I will go on to climb Snowdon and Helvellyn, and later, the knife-sharp Mt. Ishizuchi in Japan.

On Saturdays I prune the long line of single pink roses straining against their wires all of forty feet on Grandpa’s side. Mother and I keep pet pullets to eat slugs and fertilise the soil with their droppings.

When autumn comes and the apple tree canopy loses it leaves, the round of life is always clear. Death is natural. Of course, violence occasionally creeps into this haven, like the night we came back late from a school trip by train to Windsor Castle, forgot to drop the shutter of the hen shed, and Mother Blackie took her eight chicks with feathers just on their wings still out into her wire pen. The hawthorn hedge was breached by a stoat who killed seven of Blackie’s eight chicks, but this is not enough to ruin the overall sense of protection and continuity in the developing child.

Naturally, I must leave the sanctuary to go to university. In Oxford it’s by a river, further west and there are many exotic species in the Botanic Gardens. Then it’s the Ivory Coast, where my garden is made of laterite rock with four inches of red earth, but bougainvilleas can be got from the municipal nursery. The London, where I grow tomatoes in my future husband’s flat.

But at thirty I covet a house in Bedford for the possibilities of its eighty-foot walled garden and I become a proper haven creator.  A French window leads out to a concrete apron and a rockery slope with three steps. What fruit trees can I plant against those six-foot high brick walls? It’s going to be hard work: the place has been set with grass except for an old cooking apple-tree. And a forsythia.

What delight when, next spring, daffodils and snowdrops pierce the ground under the apple tree: my father secretly planted them while I was at work in the autumn just after I moved in. Before long, I’ve dug out part of a herbaceous border on the south-facing side, but the soil is as stony as that of the Parable of the Sower. Undeterred, on the other side I’m having a winter-flowering cherry and a magnolia. I cycle to a nursery four miles away one Sunday afternoon, but am sold a single April-flowering cherry, more of which later.

Expert Mother transports delphiniums, red-hot pokers and purple poppies by bus and train.  I hire a car to visit her and we buy the first apple cordons: James Greave, because it’s early, Cox my favourite, and Golden Delicious (it’s late, and it’s future husband’s favourite). Mother warns that Coxes are not very strong,  I need potassium sulphate and loads of compost, and that cherry-trees create deserts. There’s no cemetery to provide dead flowers, nor car to fetch leaf mould from the scant woods of the vicinity.

I marry. Heather and roses, cultivated for my husband, last only seven years. Mother was right: the cherry eventually pushes out annoying moisture-hungry roots just under the grass to every garden wall. The delphiniums are eaten by the children’s pet rabbits. Even so, I have a healthy fan-trained peach and two apple cordons (the Cox diminished till it was gone) against that south-facing wall. There are song thrushes and great tits, blackbirds and a robin.

Occasional frogs flatten themselves to enter under the garage door and when our youngest child is nine, he spends a week digging through the shingle to make a sanctuary pond for these animals to spawn in. We buy a grey plastic shell at the garden centre and the fish fancier gives us five tadpoles. We purchase two separate pumps, one with a motor and one solar power and both die just after the guarantee expires. One of my students, a biologist, tells me that only plants, not a pump, are needed to oxygenate the water, and we start with spears of flag irises.

In due time, the garden becomes a place of enjoyment and discovery for our children; they too enjoy a safe and adventurous place to play: our ladder laid over the slope to the lawn as a mock climbing frame, a tyre swing in the Bramley apple tree, croquet and water fights. I set up a tent for them to sleep, in hot summers, another skill learned in that haven back with my father. And you will hear the smack of table tennis, a shuttle cock and cricket games.  They are not much interested in sowing runner beans or sunflowers. They will turn into what they are meant to be, not clones of a garden-keeper.

Occasionally I have mini-accidents in the sanctuary, as when, thirty-five years ago, pregnant with my daughter and picking Bramley apples, I fell, luckily only mildly bruised from tree to the soft ground. More recently I made a deep cut in my leg on the corner of the old aluminium of a cool frame donated by my mother. However, the garden provides thyme and rosemary for disinfection and Russian comfrey for bruised bones.

We transplant nettles to a corner of the garden, which doesn’t seem appropriate to most people, but for us they’re a source of healthy tea, and a component of our ladybird nursery; the long black and orange ladybird larvae progress from them to eat aphids on the fruit trees, before spinning their cocoons on the weeping birch. I rarely use poisons to kill creatures in this sanctuary and try to avoid poisonous plants like euphorbia, which is reputed to have caused the itching plague of Northamptonshire. Composting continues, including old cotton, woollen, viscose and bamboo shirts, tights and pants, and feathers from quilts.

I’m determined to expand the range of plants and I’ve gradually learned what will thrive in this hot dry place. The cherry must go, for its roots spread under the lawn and flower beds like long hooks to every wall, sending up triphids when it meets a barrier. It does create a desert, as my late mother warned. I purchase an Olea Europaea. The young bush nearly dies in a freak -10 frost in 2011, but sends shoots up, phoenix-like, three years later, and now, pruned by the haven-keeper so it has light in the middle, produces a few small bitter fruits.

‘But Mum’, says child No. 3, ‘There won’t be room to play football.’

‘But you’ve gone’, I retort.

Grape vine twigs brought by my mother-in-law in 1979 just before our marriage, have produced strong vines, which, with plenty of water and compost, ripen to a delicious sweetness against the hot brick wall.

‘But your grapes are tough,’ claims son No 1.

‘That was when I was looking after you.’

‘Last year I won top prize for them. I got a plate to keep for a year! I have time to juice them and drink the elixir in the winter.’

In early summer I sniff the microbes in the earth with the first big drops of a summer rainstorm. I’ll walk down the steps to savour this dampness and behold a parade of frogs, half-jumping, half-clambering out of their pond.

In clement weather, groups of visitors to the haven complete flower quizzes over refreshing tea on a recently constructed patio, while their children swing or play badminton.

Yet I have gone outside this garden for the last fifteen years to cultivate an allotment on light clay soil, where I can be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables: with ease I produce an abundance of potatoes, soft fruit, cabbages and French beans. This place turns out into a second sanctuary where, in widowhood, I can speak Italian, with other gardeners.

Back in the walled garden, April and May see the lawn carpeted with self-set primulas, pink bluebells and multi-coloured forget-me-nots. The south-facing border is pink and purple, fronted by aubrietia, under-planted tulips, and muscari, and pulmonium requiring almost no maintenance; backed by Iceland cactus, catmint, and Michaelmas daisies, and behind that against the wall the cordon apples and pears and lathyrus (permanent sweet peas). But there is a lot of work: there are rogue alkanets to dig up which I’d never met before I came to Bedford: ‘Don’t throw them away, put them in a plastic sack with some water and you’ll have compost full of minerals next year,’ is the advice of Garden Organic. And, increasingly, there are beastly maggot-producing codling moths to trap!

In the spring COVID 19, a time of restriction, I felt safe and absorbed in my two haven gardens. It was harder to write my memoir, but on the allotment I was mining invader field bindweed, and that sneaky spy, couch grass; planting peas, potatoes, a new asparagus bed and new fruit trees: a plum, a quince and a dwarf peach. With added seaweed powder, lots of cardboard from home deliveries – almost all no dig, it was a good year for all of those crops, a bad year for green beans and strawberries though – too dry. Gain some, lose some.

But much of the time, alone in my haven, I can rest and pray and choose to ignore the mobile phone ringing in the house. The sheer variety of shapes and colourings of Mother Nature’s petals never ceases to attract me and I’m learning a new skill: flower and bee photography with my iPhone.  The trick is to keep taking them: snap, snap, snap until the bees are not missed, and to delete the ones that captured the wrong moment. These photos delight church members and my seven-year-old granddaughter outside this haven.

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