The real silver lining in the lockdown – and I feel guilty even saying so – is that spring has arrived early. This year we may not be able to leave the country for our summer hideaway, perhaps not even depart the local village, but we can instead turn the garden into a much needed holiday space. With imagination, my outdoors has become a giant colouring book in which I can revive past treasures that were awaiting the next trip to the recycling centre.
I begin with the garden fence. It frames the garden and provides a backdrop for the flower beds; the colour needs to be light, bright and pastel. I choose a pale sage blue/green/grey and it is perfect. Painting fences is back-breaking work, especially balancing on a stepladder in an awkward position, but it focuses the mind and is relaxing in its own way. I am transported into blissful mindfulness... and escape for a few whole days! The reward and my sense of job satisfaction are immediate: how often do you say that about your everyday work?
The biggest job is complete and now I am looking to paint this canvas. To fill my palette, with limited resources, I turn to the garage and loft for inspiration and to rescue anything and everything I can upcycle. I find plenty of pots and trellis and some rusty wall decorations which begin as unthinkable trophy pieces. I start with pots and planters of all sizes that have been gathering dust, some bought, some received as gifts holding beautiful plants and some that were passed on when others cleared out their sheds... lots of memories and happy times in this hoard. A good scrub and some fresh paint and they are restored to their former glory and look great as focal points in my new plan.
The next challenge is what to put in them. During lockdown the garden centres are unable to deliver and much stock has been thrown away. A few places are supplying plants but the wait is long. I manage to get some seeds from Dobies in Devon and an experimental vegetable patch sprouts into life. Flowers will follow later in the summer with a bit of luck. If you are unable to get new flowers you might use your perennials – divide them and share, or exchange plants with your neighbours. Chances are that if they do well next door they will thrive in your garden too. In spring Aquilegias look amazing and these bright purple blue varieties are my favourite. They self seed and are now peppered all around the borders.
Other flowering plants that have survived the winter include Geraniums and Sedums, both great for taking cuttings to grow new plants, and Scabiosa and a Calla Lily that have been overwintering in the garage. Fruits and herbs are mixed into the flower beds or potted up (Strawberry, Raspberry, Bay and Rosemary), so there is already quite a lot going on. Trees and evergreens are my reliable backdrop; Acers are slender and can be cut to fit the smallest gardens. I love hanging old CDs on the branches as they catch the lights and dance around in the sunshine like dream catchers.
For more inspiration I turn to my house plants; they can live outside in the summer and they might contribute to the holiday feel I am after. The popular Saxifrage (mother in-law’s tongue – hands up if you know why) and ferns are the ideal candidates. I have many because they look great in groups on window sills and are easy to look after. Both are ideal in small gardens as they tolerate shade well, although a thirsty fern will need regular watering. Saxifrage is happy in sun or shade, dry or wet – you can’t go wrong. I put them in pots and hang the ferns on the fences to develop my summer retreat.
Once the plants are sorted I turn to decoration. I want to use the garden as an outside room, extending the house and bringing it outside (rather than the garden in). Every room in the house needs a cosy sitting, dining area and other spaces for activities with decorative items and lighting.
This is a very exciting part of the process; more painting and making, giving new life to old pieces.
I find a tripod trellis which has lost its shiny glamour and a string of decorative wire bulbs that suffered a similar fate. I love painting them in white gold and they look fantastic. A small red rose I received for Christmas is now planted around the trellis and the bulbs are hanging on the fence.
I have been saving craft beer tops just because I loved the colours but was not sure what to do with them. Now I made a necklace for the garden – call it a garland!
More solar lights are needed to create ambient evening light but in the meantime, the sitting/sunbathing/relaxing (modular) space is used with a variety of furniture depending on my mood and activities, including a space to dine.
Let’s not forget to include some practical features for year-round maintenance: a butt to capture rainwater does not have to be hidden. Instead this Roman-style urn is stylish and creates a focal point in the garden. My latest favourite is the "Hotbin" that was last year’s Chelsea winner. This compact compost bin is perfect for a small garden and is odour free.
Now to light the barbeque, chill your perfect drink, relax and breathe the fresh air. Listen to the increased birdsong that comes with lower traffic and have fun, eat well and drink plenty. Here’s to hoping we can all find survival, strength, health, happiness – and inspiration – in the smallest of things!
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