HOBBIES is a word that has such a pleasurable and contented ring about it - hobbies, something that you enjoy doing and adds to the quality of your life. Perhaps like me, you envisaged retirement as a time to at last indulge yourself with all the hobbies and interests which had to be pushed into the background during the hectic years of working and looking after the family, only to discover that retirement is just as hectic and that it is still a job to fit in hobbies.
I was surprised to read that the most popular hobby/pastime in the UK is fishing. I do not know how they arrived at this conclusion, but I cannot agree with it. I can't think of one friend or acquaintance that goes fishing, BUT every one of my friends is a keen GARDENER. I have just returned from a Bank Holiday visit to a large garden centre, and it resembled the local supermarket on a Saturday morning. It was heaving with people, with queues at all five checkouts; so I would definitely say that during spring and early summer, gardening is the No. 1 hobby/interest/pastime.
There is something special about an English country garden. I can understand why it has developed into a multi-million-pound business - songs have been written about it and over the past few years there has been a deluge of TV programmes, and I am one of the addicted millions. In fact, when I am away from home for any length of time, the only thing I miss (apart from the family, of course) is my garden. Sometimes when sitting on a hot crowded foreign beach I think nostalgically of the simple pleasure of relaxing on my cool green lawn with a book and the silence broken only by the sound of trickling water from the pond accompanied by the singing of the birds. . . and all this taken for granted and, furthermore, not costing a penny.
Now that I have conjured up this simple but blissful picture, how can we achieve a beautiful relaxing garden whilst keeping backache and aching joints to a minimum?
First of all, have a plan in your mind of your completed garden and the purpose of it. My personal plan is along the lines of a country garden; a curving lawn with plants and colourful blooms spilling over the edges, giving a soft natural effect as nature intended. I love the sound of water in the garden, so I built a small rustic pond in the corner with a waterfall emerging from behind an old tree and with plants covering the sides of the waterfall. On the plus side if you bring water into the garden, you will also bring the frogs, and frogs mean less slugs.
Every garden should have a focal point whether it be a pleasing view, statue, archway covered in blossom, water feature, etc. - a focal point which makes you happy and is in tune with your mind. Also, of course, necessary seating in order to enjoy the chosen focal point/s and, just as important, seating where you can sit and enjoy the last rays of the sun with a glass of wine in your hand, and, often overlooked, seating in a shady spot. At the moment, an old cherry tree provides enough shade to cover our large dining table, but I'm hoping (with a meaningful nod in my husband's direction) that a pergola will magically appear in the near future. It will probably appear quicker if I conjure up in his mind a picture of himself relaxing under the pergola enjoying the glass of wine etc, etc. Now, if your garden is blessed by an old knarled husband (sorry, my mind is wandering again, I mean old knarled tree) - perhaps an old apple tree, don't be tempted to chop it down, but aim to incorporate it into the garden by making a focal point out of it. Perhaps by building a circular seat around it or allowing climbing blossom to drape over it. It's things like this, which money and garden designers can't buy, which give a garden character and individuality.
So, we'll assume that you are aiming for a relaxing and peaceful space, where you can read a book, enjoy a glass of wine, and let the rest of the world go by. Now, if your aim is to have a garden where a couple of boisterous dogs can play and the grandchildren can play football, then forget the romantic country garden. The colourful blooms will not be spilling over the green lawn, they will probably be crushed into a sea of mud where the beloved lawn used to be.
Now with the shortage and high price of building land, the majority of houses built over the past 30 or 40 years have small back gardens, and mine is no exception. Also, like similar gardens, it is a rectangle enclosed on three sides by a fence. At first glance, it doesn't now appear to be a rectangle, as my first effort was to change the boring shape by introducing curves, a corner seating area partly shaded by Japanese Maples, another larger family-orientated seating area, and a covered archway backed by a mirror, so that it gives an optical illusion of the gravel path continuing into another area. Solar lights placed along the edge of the path add to this reflection. It's cheating I know, and I don't normally like artificial additions to a natural garden, but it certainly adds interest and a feeling of space to a small garden. (A serious word of warning here. The effect of the mirror behind an archway is so realistic and inviting, that small children could easily harm themselves by attempting to run through the arch)
Now, if during the summer months I am unable to see any fence or soil, then I know that I have achieved my aim - a fence which appears to be no longer there - it is completely covered with shrubs and climbing plants, and a garden covered with country-garden flowers combined with ground covering plants and foliage. In other words a garden with the emphasis on pleasure and less on work.
So my tips for easy gardening -
1 Plant trees, shrubs and climbers around the edge of the garden about 12-18" away from fencing or boundary walls. For example, Cherry trees, evergreen shrubs - laurels, cotoneasters, camellias, lilacs, etc., buddleia to attract the butterflies, lavatera to supply masses of summer colour, and then the trees and shrubs to be interspersed with plenty of climbers, particularly a selection of clematis to ensure flowering at different times of the year. The clematis Montana is very good for rapid growth and quick coverage with a profusion of flowers in the springtime. Very good for hiding an old shed, or covering arches, pergolas, etc. In fact, it will swamp pretty well everything if left to its own devices. Another rapid and profuse climber is Virginia Creeper which needs to be kept in check but rewards you with beautiful red foliage in the Autumn. Another easy to grow climber is Solanum with good coverage and beautiful blue and yellow blooms. But, of course, a favourite of everyone is Wisteria. I prefer to see it climbing over a house. I have yet to see a house where beauty and value hasn't been added by the graceful cascading blue flowers. However, if it is grown over a fence or wall, then it is a lot easier to maintain and keep in check. A good climber for a north-facing fence is clematis Amandii. Not only is it evergreen (which is rare in a clematis) but the beautiful white flowers are a delight, nestling on the shiny green foliage. Of course, no fence or garden would be complete without the old favourite, honeysuckle. To be surrounded by the perfume of honeysuckle on a summer's evening is bliss, and for the perfume to drift in through the open bedroom window is more bliss. Now one very important point from a security angle. If there is any particular part of the fence or wall which provides easy access for a burglar, then not only add trellis to the top, but position the very prickly plants there, such as berberis, holly, or hawthorn with its needle-covered branches. These act as a useful burglar deterrent, as do gravel paths. It is very difficult to walk quietly on a gravel path.
2 Now in front of the taller shrubs and climbers, plant the medium-sized shrubs, such as hardy fuchsias, roses, ceonothus; perhaps interspersed with eg. hollyhocks, delphiniums, lupins, irises, lavenders, hydrangeas, day lilies, etc. I keep the middle-sized shrubs that require ericaceous soil and dappled shade eg azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, together in one area for convenience. Similarly, I keep all the rose bushes in one bed as they seem to do better in each other's company.
3 Next, plant ground cover plants eg the tough and colourful blue bell flower (campanula) which will carpet stony ground, lemon balm with its acid green and cream leaves, oxalis, saxifrage, aubretia, hardy geranium, lady's mantle, saxifrage, and Ajuga with its pink and white leaves, mounds of pinks, and as the name implies we must not forget the self-seeding forget-me-nots which always signal that spring has arrived. Whilst you are waiting for the ground cover plants to do their job, cover the spaces between the plants with a mulch, such as wood chippings, in order to suppress the weeds.
I have all the above plants in my garden and the result is mainly trouble-free gardening (apart from the slugs, of course). However, if you want to ensure an attractive trouble-free garden all the year round -
HERE IS THE BEST GARDENING TIP I CAN PASS ON TO YOU - PLANT ALL YOUR BULBS AND FLOWERING PLANTS IN THE SAME SIZE FLOWER POTS (I use approx. 7" dia. pots) AND SINK THEM COMPLETELY IN THE GROUND, COVERING UP THE RIMS WITH SOIL. THEN WHEN SAY THE DAFFODIL AND TULIP BULBS HAVE FINISHED FLOWERING AND THE LEAVES ARE TURNING YELLOW, JUST TAKE UP THE POTS AND PUT THEM OUT OF SIGHT (I keep mine behind the conifers and laurel bushes and bring them out the following year when they start to shoot) AND THEN YOU FILL THE SAME HOLES WITH THE POTTED SUMMER PLANTS SUCH AS GERANIUMS, ETC. AT THE END OF SUMMER, WHEN THE FIRST FROST THREATENS, IT IS QUITE A SIMPLE MATTER TO JUST LIFT OUT THE POTS AND PUT THEM UNDER COVER. I have been doing this for a couple of years now and it certainly makes light work of manoeuvring plants to desired positions.
I think now that I will manoeuvre myself to a desired position, ie relaxing on the garden lounger and enjoying the garden. Remember! that's what gardens are for - our enjoyments. So, enjoy your hobby/interest/pastime and reap the rewards.
PS Whilst we are on the subject of hobbies, I can't resist sharing this nostalgic, amusing story with you ... Can you remember as a school child the school inspector's visit? I attended a Church of England village school, so prior to the dreaded visit we were instructed to be engrossed in making 'baby Moses in the bullrushes' out of plasticine during his visit. On looking back, it's now the school inspector that I feel sorry for, as the poor man had to duly inspect and comment on the resulting 'babies'??
Every time I hear the word 'hobby' there springs to mind the following story, related some time back by a retired school inspector. The class he inspected had no doubt been well rehearsed and instructed to 'work hard and look interested'. During his round he noticed one small lad with a glum expression as he worked ferociously on a piece of wood. Hoping to give the small lad a word of encouragement, the school inspector asked 'and what are you doing, my lad? To which the lad dutifully replied "It's me 'obby sir, and I 'ates it".
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