Tale of a Shrub

I have big plans for our garden next year! (Adopts megalomaniac pose, arms aloft, boldly gazing at the horizon). I’m going to pick it up by the scruff of the neck and give it a good old talking to.

Actually, no, I’m going to do no such thing – a big garden makeover is just not on the cards, but I do have a couple of slightly more achievable goals I’m working towards: I want to tidy up the shrubbery, and create a children’s play area.

The shrubbery has always been a bit of a conundrum to me – on the one hand, we need to keep a bit of privacy and screen off the view of some ugly garages, but on the other, we have an awful lot of garden space devoted to a tangled mess of trees and shrubs which are, for the most part, not really my taste.

So, what will stay and what will go?

Working left to right (looking from the house), the first thing I’d give the chop to is a ceanothus. It is already being choked to death by ivy, so I’ve cut out loads of dead branches over the years and it’s now in a rather sorry state. It does have nice blue flowers in spring, but it’s also very gnarled and spiky and just not my thing.

However, we do need to keep it for screening off the uglies, so I contented myself with chopping off a low overhanging branch which had been driving me mad. Doing the job myself was really satisfying, too – I haven’t wielded a saw in years. 

Next to the unloved ceanothus is a viburnum of some kind – that can stay. Nice dark green glossy foliage, evergreen so it provides privacy all year round, pretty cream pompom flowers. My only gripe is that it’s not one of the scented varieties.

Next to the viburnum is a rowan, which I have no complaint with. It’s my favourite tree by far, beloved for its beautiful orange berries and its place in folklore. It stays!

In the middle of the shrubbery, we have a horrid variegated laurel which I hate and would like to rip out altogether, and various unidentified shrubs and sprawling trees. There’s something that shoots up everywhere which I think is a dogwood, and something that might be hazel. I’ve hacked back quite a lot of this but I don’t quite know what to put in its place, is the problem…we’ll come back to that one.

At the far right hand side is the real ‘problem area’. There was a mahonia, a plant I really can’t love, sprouting everywhere, the ubiquitous buddleia, and a huge tree stump covered in ivy. 

This entire corner of the bed I cut right back to the ground (bar the big tree stump) over a couple of intense gardening sessions – the pile in the foreground is only about half of what I cut down in total!

This was all removed by the excellent Green Go Waste, an environmentally conscious waste clearance company who I can highly recommend. Now remains the question of what goes in place of all this tangled shrubby mess I am so glad to be rid of?

The right hand corner has a gap where the mahonia and buddleia were and is an obvious place to put a larger tree, to help screen us better from a couple of the houses that we back onto. The tree we all like most is the silver birch, with its pale bark and golden yellow leaves providing a nice contrast to all the dark evergreens – but at the same time, it’s an opportunity to plant a fruit tree and actually grow something useful. 

Cooking apples would be my preference – pies and crumbles all autumn and winter without having to pay for apples, sounds good to me. But I think aesthetically silver birch will win the day – next step is actually to buy and plant the tree, and I have no clue how to do this, I’ve never planted anything as big as a tree and I’d hate to get it wrong. Job for next year, anyway, she says, deferring having to make an actual decision yet.

There is also a large patch of bare earth in front of the old tree stump and it’s here I’d like to create a play area for children. I freely admit here to being heavily influenced by Sally’s Secret, by Shirley Hughes – I loved playing in dens and Wendy houses as a child, and in the story, Sally makes a perfect den in the shrubbery at the bottom of her garden.

So I want to make space for a den, but I want children to be able to make it their own. A fancy playhouse is not on the cards, but we do want to make a safe surface underfoot – bark chippings or Astro turf, perhaps. Certainly with a layer of matting to keep the weeds down.

Then we need something to give it the feel of a den, to make it feel a bit enclosed. The obvious choice would be a willow structure, which I’d love to have, but the space is tight and I’m not sure it would quite work. 

The finishing touch will be something to use as play furniture – chopped off logs for stools and tables, of course, and maybe a low stretch of fence to make the play area feel distinct from the rest. The other half of the bed, underneath the rowan and viburnum, is my rather haphazard but pleasing shady ‘woodland garden’ where I’ve planted ferns, foxgloves, lungwort, etc – I want to keep this area well planted and hopefully not trampled too much by children. 

There is also the matter of my compost bin which sits, Dalek-style, under the ceanothus – I’d like to screen it from view a bit, but I’m not sure how. I should have positioned it further back behind the shrubs but it’s far too heavy to move now! Another thing to fix one day.

That’s the goal for 2016, as far as the garden is concerned – plant a tree, and make a play area. We’ll see how it goes – and I’ll update, if either thing actually happens…


Four Seasons in Morden Hall Park

There’s been a bit of a blogging hiatus – every time this happens, I feel I have to justify it beyond simply ‘life got busy’, but this time there was an amusing excuse, involving a mobile phone dropped by a 3 year old whilst taking a photo on the meridian line at Greenwich. 

At least I can irritate her for years to come by reminding her ‘and then you dropped mummy’s phone on the meridian…’.

Luckily the phone was repaired within a couple of weeks, but various ideas for blogs I’ve been nurturing slipped by the wayside in that time, and I’ve got a bit behind schedule.

A place I’ve been wanting to write about is a favourite park of ours, Morden Hall Park. It’s a bit further afield than our local parks, but it has several exciting things that set it apart from the rest, and make it worth the trip – a really good adventure playground for climbing and scrambling, the river Wandle running right through the park with a mill-race, and a bridge so popular it has been rated one of the best Pooh-sticks bridges in the country, a rose garden, great paths for scooting, a National Trust cafe and a garden centre. Something for all the family, there…(well, provided you like gardens and cake).

What I particularly love about it, though, besides how child friendly and accessible it is, is an otherworldly quality that I don’t quite get in any of our other favourite parks.

We’ve seen it in all four seasons this year – it has been fascinating to see how it changes over the year.

It is still a very urban space – you can hear traffic humming most of the of the time, and pylons march across one edge of the site, and yet as you meander along the river, it feels utterly peaceful.

We visited in late winter, hoping to see snowdrops, and I noticed for the first time that what I thought was the far bank of the river was actually an island, with a statue in the middle – I immediately thought of ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn‘, and the mystery of it all was very pleasing. How did the statue get there? I don’t know, and it’s quite nice to not know.

Then we went back when spring was in full bloom, and I photographed this glorious display of wild flowers up against one of the old mill buildings – not there by accident, planted on purpose I’m sure, but still appealingly sprawling and wild, and a lacy white cloud of cow parsley by the river.

At the height of summer, the rose garden was tranquil (though I’m not sure how I managed to take a photo of it without any people there – it was actually full of picnickers and children paddling in the little stream), and the river in full Wind in the Willows mode. 

I left the big girl being entertained by (or with?) her dad in the adventure playground and had a little quiet walk along the river with the buggy, in total peace and silence a few paces away from where all the kids were charging around – I am convinced if I watch long enough there, I will see a kingfisher one day. It feels exactly the sort of place a kingfisher *should* be.

Then we came back in early autumn – not quite late enough for full autumnal colour, but everything was just beginning to turn, and it was lovely then, too.

Finally (in a rather back to front way), here is another of the views I love – the entrance to the park is through an unobtrusive archway in a brick wall, with roses climbing romantically over the door, a real Secret Garden feel, but no sense when you slip through this small archway of the large park lying beyond. 

I love that it reveals itself slowly, little by little, like a series of rooms opening up beyond that little door – and we haven’t finished exploring the whole place yet.

A place full of surprises and delights, and I hope we’ll be back to enjoy it for all seasons next year, too.