My love affair with gardens
In her new column, Sarah Langton-Lockton reveals how a patch of wasteland blossomed into her own private Eden
This is the first of my new gardening columns. Not that I’m exactly new to The Lady – many of you have been following, for two years or so, in Plotlines, the ebb and flow of life on my allotment.
My garden quite often crept into the column and I also strayed from the plot from time to time into topics that preoccupy me, such as the paving over of gardens. There were, in addition, people to talk to, books to review and gardens and allotments to visit. As columns do, Plotlines developed a personality all its own, becoming a conversation between friends in which I shared with readers the triumphs and torments that are the common lot of gardeners and the exquisite joys, such as involving grandchildren, gently sowing the seed of what one hopes will be a lifelong passion for gardening.
Readers responded generously with their own ideas and advice. Please keep on doing this – tell me about your own garden, share your successes and failures, likes and prejudices, suggest gardens to visit and subjects to cover.
But to set the ball rolling, I am going to tell you about the garden that made me a gardener… It wasn’t the succession of beautiful gardens created by my mother (still gardening in her 90s), or the plots on which, as a child, I grew a few straggly carrots, that drew me into gardening. The garden that got me going was a long, narrow plot behind a dilapidated Victorian villa in East London that I acquired in the late 1970s.
Once the builders had made the house watertight and supplied it with heating and basic mod cons, the 80ft garden – or, more correctly, patch of wasteland – became my consuming and glorious obsession.
At this denuded stage, the garden contained one ailing rose, a half-burnt small laburnum and a magnificent Blenheim Orange apple tree. I joined the Royal Horticultural Society and sent off a sample of soil to be analysed. This soil, came the reply, is ‘inert’, ie, not a growing medium.
But I wasn’t about to give up. I found some tireless Irishmen who dug and levelled the site, removing lots of bits of rusty iron and a tidal wave of rubbish that obliterated half of the end wall. Lacking the funds to import vast quantities of topsoil, I set about improving the soil with whatever I could lay my hands on, mostly horse manure from the stables of the rag and bone men who still drove their ponies and carts round the east London streets.
I spent a great deal of time reading gardening books and catalogues and visiting gardens. I discovered, as all gardeners do, that one learns by doing, listening and watching, and that the more one looks, the more there is to see and understand.
I created borders and curving beds, dividing the garden with a pergola. On this I grew the magnificent climbing rose, Mme Grégoire Staechelin (also known as ‘Spanish Beauty’). This voluptuous rose flowers once, in June, its huge, semi-double, deep pink blooms drenched in scent. The endless brick walls invited more climbers: Pink Perpétue, Mme Caroline Testout (climbing), both pink, the graceful climbing form of the well-known floribunda, Iceberg, and my favourite climbing rose, Sombreuil, with its flat, quartered creamy white flowers that have a delicate tea scent – an ‘Old Rose’ of delicacy and charm.
Trees and shrubs were planted and huge, arching modern shrub roses – Nevada, Frühlingsgold and Frühlingsmorgen. In the spaces in between were lavender and catmint and irises and all the cottage garden flowers familiar from childhood. These were constantly on the move as I learnt how and where to plant.
The great Beth Chatto’s mantra is ‘right plant, right place’. For many a novice gardener, ‘wrong plant, wrong place’ is how we learn.
Roses available from David Austin: www.davidaustinroses.com
My Chelsea favourites
Every year, at the Chelsea Flower Show, there are plants that seem to feature in nearly every show garden. This year, delicate, naturalistic plantings were the order of the day. These popped up everywhere…
Libertia grandiflora Sword-like foliage and arching flower stems with elegant white flowers; hails from New Zealand and likes a rich, fertile, moist soil.
Anthriscus silvestris ‘Ravenswing’ Dark-stemmed form of our native cow parsley, its white lacy umbrels are heavenly in a wild garden or meadow.
Orlaya grandiflora White laceflower, a gorgeous hardy annual, available as plug plants.
Geranium phaeum The dusky cranesbill has small maroon flowers held erect above deeply-lobed leaves; good ground cover and suppresses weeds.
All from Crocus: www.crocus.co.uk
Plant of the week
Choisya x dewitteana ‘Aztec Gold’ (above) Mexican orange blossom, bred by Hillier and available from Hillier nurseries. It flowers twice in spring/summer, and in autumn, producing white almond-scented flowers. Likes well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. Height: 4ft; spread: 4ft. £11.99, www.hillier.co.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931