One of the greatest joys of being a gardener is the possession of an endless capacity for excitement. In the same way that George V no doubt felt his spirits rise at the acquisition of a new postage stamp, so it is that a gardener can feel a rush of adrenaline at the acquisition of a new plant or, better still, a new garden. Having had a second home-a flat-on the Isle of Wight for about 15 years now, the expansion of our family with three grandchildren has meant that we’ve finally moved up a rung and purchased a house. With a garden.
I have, in my life, been the owner (or tenant, when I was living with my parents) of just five gardens this will be the sixth. I don’t envisage taking on any more and so this sloping seaside plot has about it a magical quality, not least because it will offer me a chance to grow plants that, further north in my adopted county of Hampshire (and certainly in my native West Yorkshire), have little hope of surviving.
But not for us the sheltered southern coast of our magical island. No, we are on the north coast, gazing out across the Solent-far enough up the slope to avoid inundation by even the strongest waves, but with a drive that runs directly down to the sea. It’s the sort of situation that childhood dreams are made of and, indeed, the garden I make here over the next few years will have to be able to cope with small children as well as bracing sea air and a gardener who will do his best not to be upset when a small body tumbles into a clump of treasured perennials.
The first few years in any garden are a matter of trial and error and much knowledge can be gleaned from observing neighbouring gardens and finding out what grows well in them. There are a few existing gems that I shall treasure-three mimosa trees (Acacia dealbata) that turned into clouds of golden powder puffs in February, a handful of statuesque cabbage or Torbay palms (Cordyline australis) and a handsome and well-clipped hedge of Griselinia littoralis, a glossy, bright-green evergreen that is fabled for doing well by the sea.
I plan to add more cabbage palms, which, it seems to me, look rather more at home on our shores than the very exotic-looking Chusan palm, Trachycarpus fortunei. Bamboos I plan to add for sheltering and screening purposes-shelter is by far the most important thing in a seaside garden and the first thing to be attended to. Phyllostachys aureosulcata f. aureocaulis is a favourite, with its amber canes, and is less oppressive than Phyllostachys nigra, the black bamboo, whose sooty stems disappear into the shadows.
Grasses will be planted in drifts: they will look appropriate by the sea-dune-like-and will have the ability to resist a wayward football kicked by so-far unskilled grandsons. Of course, there is one thing that’s more important than anything else when it comes to making any new garden and that’s the soil. Drainage work revealed an abundance of sticky pink clay. My heart sank. And yet the trees and shrubs that pepper the garden already are growing well and clearly regard the subsoil as providing ample moisture, if not nourishment. But this will not be a garden that I regularly dig or manure; only on a veg patch is annual cultivation and enrichment necessary.
I plan that my grasses and bamboos-and the majestic echiums that I’ve been overwintering in my Hampshire green-house-will be surrounded by a mulch of pebbles and cobbles, as if the garden has risen up out of the sea like some botanical version of Atlantis. Ah, such grandiose ideas! But much more exciting, to me, than collecting postage stamps.
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