Friends have come to visit, bringing with them – among gastronomic delights and cheery banter – some nourishing garden talk. I especially enjoy their chatter, not least because they live on the other side of the country and work a garden so very different from our own. Both were or, rather, are engineers, and having tasted the joys of retirement now nd themselves, in part-time capacities, back on two separate payrolls.
The principal difference between our gardens is size. We struggle with eight rural acres; Colin and Elaine triumph on a village plot measuring 80ft by 40ft – by my dodgy arithmetic, a tad less than a tenth of one acre, or about one-and-a- half tennis courts. We and they have both worked our respective land for 25 years.
Then there’s climate. We’re in a river valley on the border between England and Wales at an altitude of around 500ft, while they are on Cambridgeshire’s highest point at 300ft. We are irrigated by some 32 inches of rain annually; they by 24. Our soil is acidic clay over gravel; theirs is clay with glacial erratics over chalk. It’s acid vs lime, enabling us, for example, to enjoy blue hydrangeas, while they must put up with pink and red ones.
That said, both gardens are structured formally (partly designed by my partner Simon) and we share – the above conditions notwithstanding – a similar range of plants, both herbaceous and woody, enhanced by frequent swaps.
I think it was a former Rothschild who so memorably quipped that ‘no garden, however small, should contain less than two acres of rough woodland’! (My exclamation mark.)
Sir, I beg to differ. In their tenth-of- an-acre plot, Colin and Elaine have their woodland, comprising three glorious, white-stemmed Himalayan silver birches and several compact shade-loving shrubs over bluebells and cyclamen. Our ve acres of woodland – size matters – houses some 1,200 trees and shrubs, and an assortment of thuggish perennials but, sadly, fewer bluebells.
Colin is muscle (lawns, hedges, digging and building); Elaine is aesthetics (plant acquisition and placing, nurture and pruning). Our labours are similarly divided, although my input is currently somewhat restricted by a temporary disability – thus a hefty amount of my ‘responsibilities’ have been hived o to already overworked Simon. (Talking of hives, C and E keep a skep of bees, while Simon carries an EpiPen wherever he goes, being acutely allergic to insect stings.)
While we each relish the beauty of bark and foliage, we also ensure there’s something in flower in every month of the year, relying in winter on hellebores, snowdrops, aconites and witch-hazels, and far too many plants to mention during the other three seasons.
Colin and Elaine grow a wider range of fruit and veg than we do. Our pride and joy is an orchard of some 30 di erent,
Jolly folly: the ‘pamplemousserie’ unrestricted apple varieties. They have nine heavily pruned top-fruit trees, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and redcurrants, assigning such other culinaries as potatoes, peas, beans, artichokes, beetroot, carrots and onions to an allotment a mile away.
Our garden boasts some dozen follies, including a dovecote, belvedere, shing ‘temple’ and one glorious original greenhouse with vines possibly planted more than a hundred years ago. In this last respect, we are trumped by Colin’s newly-built ‘pamplemousserie’. Although lacking a grapefruit tree, it sports a g, a lemon, a blood orange and an olive, which last year gave them a jarful, currently sitting in brine on a pantry shelf.
Already we’re negotiating our next batch of plant swaps, thereby safeguarding our rarities, sharing plants that wouldn’t normally come our way.