Thursday, 13 October 2016

Three days' hard labour

I returned from Devon four days ago, and of course had to unload the caravan and get on with three weeks' washing. (Which has been done - it's become three weeks' ironing!) But although pretty tired from the journey home, there was no rest because I had arranged with Kevin next door to join him in three days' labouring in my back garden.

He wanted access to 'his' fence, so that he could remove a panel and paint the rear side of a large new shed (I'd call it a garden chalet) that he had erected for his wife Jackie. But a mass of shrubbery and undergrowth was in the way. I was going to help him clear that, and I had hired a skip for the purpose, to be placed on my front drive.

I got home from Devon to find that Kevin and Jackie had in fact jumped the gun and cleared the ground necessary for the required fence access, and the painting had been done. But Kevin was still going to give me enough labour to make a big impact on my back garden, with a pint of beer his only reward. It would be truly a Grand Garden Clearance - at least to the extent of completely filling the skip. The skip had cost £186 to hire - so we wanted to get full value from it!

Regular readers will know that I inherited my house from my parents in 2009. All their adult lives, Mum and Dad had been keen and knowledgeable gardeners, and had constantly bought new plants - colourful flowers that needed a lot of nurturing, and a large variety of shrubs that needed plenty of pruning. They liked a well-planted back garden with big impact, a feast for the eyes. And while they were in good health and had the energy, it was a garden to behold with pride.

But of course it was a high-maintenance garden, and when I stepped into their shoes I wasn't able to throw the same time at it. I wasn't a natural gardener anyway. I kept the lawns professionally mowed, which was 80% of the garden's look, but the flowery and shrub-heavy borders gradually suffered. Bit by bit the garden grew plainer and less colourful, and frankly unkempt in places, for I planted nothing new, and did not do enough to keep it as neat and attractive as Mum and Dad would have wished. One reason was all the caravanning I did during the growing season; another was my much more active social life, and all my other interests.

Three years into the Lucy Inheritance, in 2012, and the back garden was still a very nice place to be. There were a couple of very dominant large rhododendron bushes with bright flowers. They made a stunning display, even if they shaded the garden somewhat:

But as you can see, the other side of the garden was already beginning to look a bit scruffy. By the spring of 2014, I had cut the rhododendrons right back. They had grown into giants and were starting to invade the lawn.

The back garden still looked OK, but it wasn't a patch on what Mum and Dad had made of it. I used to think that if they ever came back they would be disparaging about my meagre efforts at gardening. But I had plenty of other fish to fry, and did not possess the temperament to get really involved and creative. I liked it as a private space though. And when I did put in some work, I felt good. But I wasn't naturally green-fingered, and I was beginning to see that in the long term the garden would have to become a lot more maintenance-free than it then was. That meant more lawn, and a very simplified planting scheme, not the fussy one I'd inherited. Something on the lines of a Japanese Garden perhaps...

Two more years on, in the summer of 2016, and the lawn was as good as ever, but each side of the garden was now much more overgrown than ever before.

Plant was strangling plant. Crunch time had come. I was therefore not at all unhappy when Kevin made his offer of labour, to kick-start a great clearance (and a general redesign). But the window of opportunity was small. That's why there was no day of rest for me, coming back from holiday. I had to get my gardening togs on and set to. I was yawning with fatigue before even starting, but the air was cool and bracing, and this picture, taken early on Day 1 of the Grand Garden Clearance, shows me looking chipper:

Kevin was already at work, even though at that stage the skip hadn't turned up. He had a variety of powered devices to speed up our task and make it easier. A chain saw; a hedge trimmer; and a shredder to chew branches up into little bits, so that we could pack the skip to bursting point. This is the shredder, bottom left, with Kevin working away top right:

The 'four yard' skip from Rabbit seemed cavernous when empty.

We soon changed that. Digging and raking around, Kevin found all kinds of garden rubbish that could go in. I let him do the heavy work; I devoted myself to shredding all morning, and taking load after load to the skip. My goodness, my new wheelbarrow proved to be a major asset! My new high-quality yellow leather gardening gloves and gauntlets also. And my posh green wellington boots - bought last year and hitherto used only when caravanning on wet grass - finally did a proper job of work. I'm very pleased to say that all these purchases performed really well.

After lunch I took over the loppers, and by late afternoon all of Kevin's fence was cleared. I said I would keep it that way now. Kevin pointed out how the true width of my back garden had been revealed. It did indeed seem a bigger place. I speculated that with the clearing work still only half-complete, our efforts might already have added £5,000 to the asking price of my home, if I were putting it on the market. A decently-large back garden, safe for young children to play in, but in any event a sizeable private family area, was now a winning selling-point, and much sought after. You wouldn't get a garden this size with new builds, whatever you paid.

By the end of the afternoon I had shredded a small mountain of twig and branch loppings. I felt physically very tired, but surprisingly, there were no aches. Nevertheless, I think I already look somewhat wilted in this midday shot of myself reflected in my lounge window:

But I felt up for more exercise. Next day, similar togs - all black this time:

A night's rest had done me a power of good. We were now carefully trimming the shrubs to be retained, and addressing the jungle on the other side of the garden. Here's Kevin shaping a tall bush.

There came a point when there was nothing else for him to do. The plants still needing attention were all small. Secateurs and the wheelbarrow would be all I'd need. Actually, it was going to be a slow and careful task: I had to cut my way through a mass of trailing brambles. I managed half of it before the end of Day 2. The skip was now well-filled. Kevin got into it, and trampled it all down so that I could squeeze even more in next day.

Day 3, and the weather was still holding. It had been cool but dry throughout so far, and often quite sunny. Ideal weather for the task. It would be nice to get most of the work done before any rain fell. Donning a brown top this time, I spent all of Day 3 tackling the rest of the brambles. I really hate anything with spikes or barbs on it, and blessed those gauntlets. Gosh it was such a tangle! But patient, careful cutting made the whole lot yield. By the time I quit there were still roots to dig out of the ground, but every last bramble stem was gone.

I was left with several things still to deal with while I had the skip, such as the patch of unwanted plants next to the old and rickety greenhouse; but they could now wait a day or two. In November I planned to hire a rotavator, but not to use personally - Kevin said he'd wield the thing for me, and use it to break up the soil on both sides of the garden, so that it could be smoothed for grassing. (I suspect that he secretly welcomed the opportunity to play with yet another powered machine!) I hadn't yet decided whether to seed the soil, or turf it. I'd probably try seeding it: the result didn't have to look like a bowling green straight away. It merely had to be mowable by the early summer of 2017. Kevin said he would also use a winch to pull out several stumps and thick roots. That'll be fun!

By the end of Day 3 the garden was looking somewhat simplified - bare and open, even - but there were still splashes of autumn colour down at the bottom, because the untouched rockery was ablaze with yellow, and the leaves of the creeper that had invaded the hedge had turned bright red. One or two old roses were showing their heads too.

On the whole, it was all starting to look well-sorted, and (at last) low-maintenance. Jackie expressed high approval. I now intended to be out there pretty well daily until the very cold weather arrived. There was in fact a frost on the morning that the skip was delivered. We wondered whether the winter would be a hard one.

Kevin discovered a garden ornament of Mum and Dad's  - a fox - in the undergrowth. I'll be painting him up. I think he dates from the 1980s, when Mum and Dad were living in Liphook in Hampshire.

I personally found two small toy balls that Toby and Charlotte's little children (my next-door neighbours on the other side) must have thrown over. They'll be delighted to have them back.


  1. Forgot about your gardening plans, wondered what you were up to...

    Well done! My neighbours, both science professors, can fill a larger skip with a few branches! Makes me ill to see, they never cut anything up, fill it with air and send it on it's way!

  2. There's a lot to be said for having a major blitz on a garden every few years, especially with a friendly neighbour to do all the really hard stuff.

    I, as you well know, am married to a gardener - but not the open spaces and colourful borders for her. She spends hours and hours growing courgettes, mangetout, beans, beetroot, leeks, raspberries.... and I happily lend a hand at eating them.


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford