Sunday, 24 May 2009

the 'SQ Story' - hands in the earth

my 'SQ' garden, taken this morning - explained below

Gardening is pure therapy; it may be hard work, and the weeds may take over, and frequently do, but I find that when I work outside in the fresh air my mind clears; I sleep better because of the exercise, and although only a little of what needs doing actually gets done, I invariably feel elated. I am totally absorbed in something physical; I don't think words, or plans, or chores or worries, or obligations -  just hands in the earth, the sun or rain on my face, the sound of birds, wind in the trees, the peace of it all. So although what follows should really be in my gardening blog, this post is more fundamental than that - and my blogs do tend to overlap anyway; like my life, there are no pigeon holes.

The weather has been perfect for gardening therapy; though four days ago it rained and I got very muddy and very wet; weeding and then planting out young vegetable plants that I had raised in the greenhouse. Heavy downpours and blustery showers in between. Our garden had been neglected over the three weeks we were preparing for Malvern, attending the actual show, and then producing the article that followed. In fact, our garden has been neglected on and off for years, and particularly the last five whilst we have been shed-creating and barn-rebuilding. We share the garden duties, sort of: Raymond mows the grass (considerable, but he does now use a ride-on mower since he fell off the barn roof and his legs are not what they once were); he tends the orchard, and the big vegetable plot which is his pride and joy though I help with the planting. He also has a 'long border' where he sows beautiful annual flowers; I maintain that for him because he says he can't tell which are potential flowers and which are weeds. I’m used to weeds!

my weeds are beautiful, but so invasive - in small doses they offer food for insects; this patch has become over-run with creeping buttercup, nettles and cow parsley (this is the next-but-one patch requiring attention)

It's up to me to create and look after the other half garden, and it's like painting the Forth Bridge - never-ending. I make mini-gardens and they are continually being recycled. It began in 1969 when we acquired this place: the acre was part-orchard and part semi-wilderness and the remains of the previous forty years of farm-rubbish. I reclaim a bit, move onto to another 'section' and before even that is finished, the wilderness takes over again. That has certainly been the pattern of the last five years, for you can't be stone- and concrete-heaving and gardening at the same time. Or at least, I can't.


All the areas of our garden have names (they are really gardens-within-gardens); and their purpose changes as the background screen of shrubs and trees grow. I have the 'salad garden' almost under control again, third re-incarnation. At the furthest point of the acre, it is also the sunniest and has the advantage of a neighbour's brick wall, against which we grow two fig trees. Once I grew salads and herbs there, after hacking back the nettles and weeds, and then someone further down the road blocked off an old land-drain that ran through our orchard and the water could not disperse; the salad garden became incredibly sticky, the soil cold and wet.

this was the 'salad-garden-to-be' back in the 1980s, before its first reclamation

.... and here it is reclaimed (for the first time) and in use as intended: rows of beetroot, spinach, marrows, carrots, lettuce, two runner-bean wigwams, young fig trees by the wall and a forest of blue borage to attract pollinating insects. (Raymond built me the lovely potting shed at the end of the garden, from 'wainy elm' purchased at auction for next to nothing

So gradually, from 2005 onwards, I have created a series of raised beds, having discovered 'square-foot' gardening. And so now  it is the 'SQ Garden'.

This is the first 'SQ' bed, in early 2005. You can see the strings dividing it into 'square feet' (or rather 18" squares). Cut-and-come-again lettuce would occupy just one square, whereas the broad (fava) beans I am about to plant would require two; it's modular, and much easier to maintain.

Raymond made me the beds from scrap timber, apart from two which were sent me to trial. Two of my little grandchildren (then aged six and four) were staying with us that summer and helped to clear the ground and then erect and plant them. 

2005, and Kate and Dominic help to clear the weed-infested former 'salad garden' (after its first incarntion, I used it as a plot to bring on plants I had raised from cuttings or seed - but the weeds still took over!)

2005 - Kate cuts back some invasive zebra grass

2005 - K & D attempt to dig the heavy clay where 'their' SQ beds are to go

2005 - their beds are in place; Dominic sweeps the path (the roses and figs can be seen behind the beds, and the little herb border, and rather a lot of nettles)

2005 - Dominic plants 'his' bed, having chosen seedlings raised in my greenhouse

2005 - Kate sows peas in her bed; she also chose climbing beans and strawberries

All through that summer, they visited frequently and checked progress on 'their' gardens.

late Summer 2005 - their plants are flourishing

2005, just after planting - let's sample lunch from grandma's beds!

I now have six 'SQ' beds and each is divided into sections; not square feet - mine are actually 18" (45cms). The beds are modular: three feet wide which means I can reach into the middle without stepping on the earth and varying in length, with slabs between, not cemented so the water can seep away back into the soil. Each bed is then divided into sections; so that I can grow vegetables and salads in succession. The 'SQ Garden' has its own micro-climate, warm and sheltered, which means produce is ready long before that in Raymond's veg plot. Yesterday we ate a salad lunch: mixed cut-and-come-again lettuce, with rocket 'Apollo', and the young deep red leaves of beet 'Bull's Blood' and chopped raw spinach 'Spokane' - deliciously creamy, plus a few crunchy pink radishes. Add some chopped chives and some home-made vinaigrette; we ate well.

Our garden has to be productive but I cannot exist without flowers as well, and so in the SQ garden, I grow climbing roses on the wall alongside the figs, and insect-attracting annuals: fiery orange calendula and heavenly blue-cornflowers, night-scented stock, medieval borage for bees, jewel nasturtiums and love-in-a-mist which is something of a theme plant for me for I first fell in love with it in my grandmother's garden on my hands and knees, weeding her magnificent Gertrude Jekyll (style) flower borders. My current summertime blog banner was taken in 1992 and shows just such a mix of flowers and vegetables; that space is no longer as it was then; the years move on. 

calendula and borage, in my potager in the early 1990s

The grandchildren’s two beds are this year sown with flowers, edible climbing purple-podded beans and black Tuscany kale seedlings. Today the space under the figs is to be filled with recycled containers in which I am trialing potatoes, carrots, lettuce, courgettes and trailing winter squash: I have an article to write on 'smallspace' gardening and need photos to accompany it. Yesterday, I edged the path by the rose and fig border with reclaimed bricks and the herb pots are now filled with scented culinary herbs. 

The last four days with my hands in the earth has been wonderful; without doubt, it has eased a difficult work situation that is presently troubling me. The ‘SQ Garden’ has materialised again, as I rough-planned it back in March, and we are able to enjoy the salads and vegetables that are now flourishing. Concerns have been pushed to the back of my mind, temporarily, and I move on to the next patch of ground that needs reclaiming. My hands are roughened from their continual plunge into the earth, but my heart is eased and quietened.

the rough plan I made in March of the 'SQ Garden' - 2009 version: the 'SQ Garden measures approximately 33ft x 13ft, plus the shed area (click on it for an enlarged version; it doesn't show the rose and fig border)


  1. Oh my gosh! Just look at the SIZE of those plants in your raised beds!! Mine are just tiddly, and the carrots haven't moved for weeks. How do you do it? Apart from living further south and not beset by NE winds straight up the garden!

    But at least my beans have come up. I'm good with beans. About the only thing!

  2. Oh my goodness Ann. I'm dreaming someday to have a garden like yours. Awesome but oh my a lot of work. Labor of love for sure. I'll e out in my garden today and will be thinking of you.

  3. This is wonderful and makes me itch to do the same thing. Our garden isn't in yet because we've just been too busy, but if we don't do it soon the season will go off with us way behind! Cheers for you. What memories for your grandchildren! - Jeanne

  4. what lovely gardens. i like the SQ idea very much. the photos of your grandchildren gardening a so sweet too. my mouth is watering for fresh veggies.

  5. your garden is lovely...I would love a snoop...ours is small but we never keep up to it...too busy working late...I wish you were nearer for advice...all my lovely flowers are now dying off and leaving patches...whilst others are tiny and still jasmin desperately needs cutting back...perhaps never looks a i wish it to in my head...despite years and years of trying...perhap more time and effort needed on my part...lovely pictures H

  6. I LOVE you garden beds.. you can come play in my sewing room if I can play in your garden :)

  7. Fantastic. A brilliant solution.

  8. hello ann,

    thank you for your nice comment on my blog -- it means a lot!

    this is so inspiring... i love the idea of square foot gardening...