Me & My Garden

Posted 2011/02/18 00:17

Here is a list of questions I recently completed for local paper - The Westmorland Gazette - 'Me and My Garden' feature. As it was ruthlessly edited for publication here's the full text:

DESCRIBE THE GARDEN The cultivated areas run to about 5 acres but this includes a steep Wildflower Meadow of about 3 acres, which includes a small oak and bluebell wood and a stream. At the top of the meadow is our new orchard and also my polytunnel. The other areas are: The Farmhouse Garden - closest to Lawson Park's artist residency base, this area is the most mature in the garden and is filled chiefly with seed-raised herbaceous plants planted in a dense tapestry of rich colour and texture. There are grasses and architectural phormiums to anchor the design in winter. We also use local native plants in unexpected ways here - e.g soft rush (juncus effusus) is planted formally here, and this year we've underplanted these with alliums. Bog Garden - this sits around a natural stream and is close by our warden's house. It's planted with Iris 'Holden Clough' and many Asiatic primula, to a yellow colour scheme that reminds me of the gorse that once filled the gorge before we cleared it out. Woodland Garden - an informal sloped area with a wooden walkway set amidst large clumps of grass underplanting young trees and shrubs The SW-facing raised bed Kitchen Garden is 5 years old and we have a large soft fruit cage bed and herb and comfrey beds here too, as well as hens and bees. Paddies - a SW- facing terraced field of about 2 acres for larger scale and experimental food crops. Its name comes from the fact that it was laid out by a group of Japanese rice farmers with whom Grizedale Arts did a cultural exchange project in 2006/7.

HOW/WHEN DID YOU GET INTO GARDENING? Like many children, I had a square metre of mud in my family garden in Largs (Ayrshire) from when I was a toddler. But It was really when at about 9 or 10 years old I casually planted a seed from a Golden Delicious apple I was eating in the garden, and it germinated, that I got hooked. As far as I know the resulting apple tree is still in the garden - it certainly was when my parent sold up! . As a teenager I redesigned and replanted the front garden at the same house, and I notice it's still as I left it over 20 years on! Another childhood memory is when my dad was helping run a community festival (the Viking Festival!) and they cleared out an empty local shop to use as a base. He gave me a big old box of very diverse seeds from there and for some reason I decided to sow them. It was thrilling to see them grow on and to this day I'm a very keen seed-grower.


WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE FEATURE AND WHY? Probably the bit I work the least on - the Wildflower Meadow! We just mow some paths in it really but it's always a delight to walk through it with the cats hunting behind you and clouds of butterflies wafting up. Looking closely at its surface has inspired much of my planting elsewhere in the garden - it contains alchemilla mollis, sanguisorba, meadowsweet and knautia all together for example. On a good year we get a nice crop of cep mushrooms in the woodland area too. I so rarely ever sit down in the garden, but the one place I can happily lie and nap is the meadow as I can relax in the knowledge that Mother Nature is head gardener here!

HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU SPEND IN YOUR GARDEN? It varies massively according to season - in some winter months perhaps as little as a few hours in a month - just enough to tidy up a little en route to the compost heap. I'm very committed to using labour-saving techniques like mulching. May is incredibly busy but exciting here - plants surge up overnight and I spend a full week mulching and staking the main borders. After that many areas of our garden are surprisingly low maintenance though, as it's full of big, brazen plants that knit together very fast, and I've been careful to keep lawns and edges to a minimum. Vegetable growing is undeniably high-maintenance and in summer our Kitchen Garden this takes myself and my partner Adam an hour or so each day to maintain. But as we're foodies we have no complaints and we like to have plenty to feed our visitors. We're also lucky enough to have volunteers and visiting artists periodically to help - this is especially important when we're harvesting or tacking new ground clearance.

WHY DO YOU ENJOY GARDENING? I enjoy a challenge - and starting from scratch with acres of fellside at 200m altitude certainly has been that! A number of locals - when I first moved here - told me not to bother even trying to start a garden as the deer and the weather would see to it. I'm very contrary, and I thought 'I'll show them!' I also wanted to see if a more contemporary garden - different from the usual Lake District lawns and rhododendrons - could work with such an old historic building such as Lawson Park, so to have this scale and scope as a designer has been a privilege. I'm still learning and experimenting, and would hate to have a static garden where I couldn't keep playing with plants. On a personal level, the activity can be reflective and therapeutic when work gets tough.

WHAT INSPIRES YOU? Mountain landscapes the world over, but especially in Japan where I have travelled and saw many of my most successful plants growing in the wild. I'm also interested in the history of gardening and am inspired by experimental gardeners like Marjory Fish and of course Christopher Lloyd. Many gardens feed me with ideas - I even keep a blog about some of them -

HAVE YOU SUFFERED ANY CATASTOPHES IN YOUR GARDEN? We have no deer fencing, and as we're bang in the middle of Grizedale Forest we are occasionally affected by deer grazing or breaking trees and shrubs. The worse attack ever was one day after our first National Garden Scheme Open Day though, so at least the deer have manners! I've learned from bitter experience that summer gales can flatten our vast 'prairie' style border plants, so I make attractive rustic stakes and 'cages' in May for them to grow through - by July they've disappeared under the leaves but are working their magic beneath - like the boning in a Versace dress! Rodents can also do a lot of damage but our cats help on that front.

ANY FUTURE PLANS FOR YOUR GARDEN? This winter we've started planting -at long last - an orchard of selected fruit varieties from Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. It will take 2 years to plant and then we'll wait and see which country wins! We'd love to make a pond upstream from our bog garden, if we can summon the resources to do so. I'm also planning to acquire some ducks this year, as the slugs in my Kitchen Garden are big enough to get a saddle on!

DO YOU HAVE ANY TOP GARDENING TIPS? Mulch is a crucial labour saver (suppressing most weeds), and creates soil where there is none - after 9 years of annual mulching, what was a barren, rocky hillside is now our very fertile Farmhouse Garden at Lawson Park. I use composted green waste from the Council, bark, bracken or mushroom compost. Propagate your own plants - having many specimens of the same plant instead of few changes your garden design for the better as you can plant in swathes and experiment without fearing losses so much. Lavish attention on soil preparation - especially before planting hedges or trees. We have one hedge that has grown well over 2 metres high in 5 years due to a trench generously fed with well-rotted manure and being kept weed-free for at least 3 years. Remember to sow small amounts of some of the hardier vegetables in July and August for autumn and winter use - even at our altitude of 200m we can have spinach, chard, turnips, winter purslane and cabbage for picking through to March or so. Leaf beet is an extraordinarily hardy green if sown mid-late summer. Don't overfeed the young plants and we also find that firming well and minimising thinning also helps see them through.