When I was about 8 or 9, I was given a book called ‘Gardening for Children’ – it was not a book for children, but about how to design gardens with children in mind.
This included ideas about plants that were child-friendly (non-poisonous, non-prickly, and so on), how to lay out gardens in a way that was safe but still inviting for children – ponds fenced off, but space for children to play in private away from grown-up eyes – and themes for gardening inspired by children’s literature (including a rose garden for Alice in Wonderland with space to host a Mad Hatter’s tea party and a vegetable garden for Peter Rabbit).
Best of all, the book had aerial plans covering all potential garden layouts (as per my current obsession with floorplans on Rightmove, back then I loved a good aerial plan) – everything from a narrow town garden which lends itself to being divided into a series of garden ‘rooms’ to the unknown potential of American ‘backyards’ where the garden extended not only in front and behind the house, but all the way round.
I loved this book and must have read it cover to cover hundreds of times. It had plenty of potential for daydreaming – treehouses or secret gardens hidden behind hedges where I could hide away, or my own private lawn surrounded by flowerbeds where I could have picnics, and mysterious things called ‘water features’ – but was also full of practical lists of plants recommended for their colour, scent and general child-friendliness.
I may not have had a secret walled garden to myself, but I did have a patch of soil at the end of my parents’ vegetable bed, which was big enough for a teeny tiny patio, and the flowers I planted then are still some of my favourites now – columbine (aquilegia), London Pride (saxifrage), forget-me-nots (myosotis) and Lady’s Mantle (alchemilla).
I fell in love at that age with old-fashioned cottage garden flowers and herbs, and promised myself that when I had my own garden I would fill it to the brim with as many flowers as I could cram in (growing useful things like vegetables has never been my strong point) – and above all, there would be roses. Lots and lots of roses.
It was a long time before I had a garden of my own, but when it finally happened, the best you could say is that I had a blank canvas to start with.
When I first viewed the house, the one thing in the garden I noticed was the rose bush – the only thing growing there that wasn’t a weed – and it helped me overlook the cracked concrete slabs and the ugly roof of a derelict building beyond the fence (not to mention all the rubbish that was piled up there).
As unpromising as it looked, I thought to myself: this garden could be filled with flowers. It might be too small for a lawn, or a water feature, or anything very glamorous, but you could get a LOT of flowers in here. So, I bought the house…and that was the beginning of my real life as a gardener.