I was thrown into the depths of despair the other day, after a friend of a friend said that we must have a fabulous garden and could she come and see it at the weekend?
I tried to explain that garden writers’ gardens are like builders’ houses and mechanics’ cars, but she was having none of it. She didn’t expect it to be perfect, but was sure she’d get loads of ideas.
On that basis, I reluctantly told her to give me a couple of weeks’ grace, wondering exactly what she might think of our property when she finally did turn up at the gate.
In an effort to see the garden from a fresh perspective, I walked to the end of the driveway, closed my eyes for a minute, turned around, and opened them.
I saw holes in the path where the dog had tried to bury something, a pile of dead palm fronds, a stack of reinforcing rods leaning against the wall of the carport, tree stumps that had been waiting for two years to be removed, two orange petrol cans outside the shed and a yellow sprinkler which, because it’s yellow, stuck out like the proverbial.
There wasn’t a lot wrong with the actual lawns and gardens, but the outdoor living spaces and service areas certainly left something to be desired.
I’ll get it all sorted at Easter, I thought. (Looking up Google to find out when Easter would fall, I was sidetracked by christianity.about.com – only because it promised a comprehensive explanation – and surprised myself by reading several pages about how Easter dates are calculated. Fascinating. Yes, honestly.) Easter means many things to many people – relaxation, religious celebrations, road trips, rest.
To The Partner and I, it means four days of slog in the garden instead of two, the closure of the local garden centres on the exact day when you find you really, really need two more lavenders and a Lomandra to finish the vignette you’ve spent the previous two days creating, and – in the best of all possible worlds – a much more attractive garden at the end of it all.
If you’re of a mind to make a massive effort outside instead of relaxing with tea and hot cross buns, the first task is to recognise what you need. It’s easy to create an area that everyone else admires, but that doesn’t actually provide the space or services you want.
For example, outdoor areas designed for eating or entertaining are often too small. They’re a bit like boats and sheds – you don’t realise how much more space you really need until they’re finished. If this is the case, see whether you can extend or reorganise the area so there’s space for two more couples, and make sure everyone has room to push their chairs back after dinner.
Guests need to be warm and this is a good time to consider heating. An outdoor fire is the ultimate luxury and the latest gas models are easy to install, easy to light and easy to look after, but less easy to pay for.
Ready-built log fires aren’t at the lower end of the budget either, but you can choose a design that won’t break the bank and be assured that, if it’s from a reputable manufacturer, it’ll warm your guests without spewing smoke all over them.
If you’re handy, there’s certainly the opportunity to build one yourself. How-to information abounds on the internet and also many hardware companies’ websites. My choice is a pizza oven. They look great and are supposed to be hand-crafted, so perfection is not required – and they’ll feed you too.
A patio heater – either the café-style gas variety that sits on or alongside your table, or even a radiant heater on the wall (yes, there are models designed for outdoors) will also do the business. And at the lower end of the budget, a fire-pit is the answer. A basin-shaped concrete, metal or stone container supported on fire-proof legs makes the perfect vessel for a camp-style fire.
Look at your garden with a critical eye at night. If you can’t see anything, consider some lighting. Exterior lighting installed at the time of building can be a bonus (although the disadvantage is that garden growth alters the path of light significantly), but after the event you can choose from 12 volt garden lights which are great for an ambient feel, highlighting plants and showing up edges.
A cheaper or temporary solution is to use solar lighting, tapers, braziers or candles. Our list of tasks for the weekend probably won’t encompass garden lighting or the construction of a pizza oven, but we will finish off half a dozen or so areas that are works in progress. Gaps will be filled, edges created and random bits of garden art positioned.
We’ll also spend an hour or two arguing over how many trees will fit into the orchard, and where they should be sited to provide an easy path for the ride-on. The Partner reckons two, but since I’m now the mowing queen, it’ll be four.
Easter’s an appropriate time for candles, so light up your garden. They’re inexpensive, especially if you buy in bulk, and if it’s calm weather, you don’t even need those fancy candleholders. Melt some wax on the bottoms and stick rows of candles along the tops of garden walls, around ponds and water features, and beside paths or driveways. If you need to shelter them in holders, be inventive with a mismatched collection of glasses or vases, old tins or funnels of waxed paper.
There’s great pleasure to be had in wandering around the garden, lighting them before friends arrive. Stumbling about putting them out at the end of the evening after a few glasses of wine isn’t quite so appealing, of course.
Top of my list for new additions to the orchard is an almond tree. Not many home orchards have nut trees but they’re great multitaskers – you get an attractive presentation, wonderful blossoms and food. They generally prefer an open, sunny site, and want to be sheltered from spring frosts when flowering, so be aware of that if you’re in the south. They like dry weather at pollination time and during the growing season – they don’t like humidity or bad drainage, and prefer the East Coast. Not exactly easygoing, then.
My brief research suggests that Almond All In One, a self-fertile option recommended for home orchards, will produce heavy crops of soft-shell nuts with a sweet flavour. This variety requires less winter chill than others, so it should suit our northern climate. It’ll grow to about 4.5m which will dismay The Partner, so if I have to concede defeat, I’ll go for an Almond Garden Prince – a highly ornamental, productive dwarf form.
It has beautiful, soft-pink spring blossoms followed by medium-sized sweet nuts enclosed in soft, well-sealed, fuzzy shells. It is self-fertile but will probably do better with a companion. Best I don’t tell The Partner that we’ll need two.