Gardens Illustrated
Alice Vincent's stages of discovering her new garden
© Alice Pattullo

Alice Vincent on her first garden

Published: August 9, 2022 at 3:20 pm
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In the first of her new column, Alice remembers the excitement of finally getting the chance to make her own garden entirely from scratch. Illustration from Alice Pattullo

At the end of the month, I’ll celebrate my garden’s second birthday. Two years since my partner and I moved into this garden flat in Brixton. On moving day, I put off inspecting my new outdoor realm until we’d removed the last few boxes from the car. Then we cracked open a bottle of fizz and swug straight from the bottle, sweat working its way through my Taylor Swift T-shirt. I took in the first private garden of my own. The last of the clematis flowers were hanging on; it was the middle of a beautiful summer.

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Until then, I had only gardened on balconies: the first one exposed and bright enough to grow tomatoes on; the second larger, but surrounded by mature trees. Neither were as large as the spaces given to the balcony designers at the Chelsea Flower Show to landscape, but in many ways they were ideal spaces to teach oneself to grow in. A balcony may force you to heft compost up four flights of stairs, but at least you can control your growing conditions. Frost barely permeates, pests are limited. If you can muster a green oasis in a couple of square metres, you’ve cracked the first big secrets of gardening: problem-solving and perseverance.

Constructing flowerbeds was something I’d only read about in books

When people found out I was finally getting a garden after five sky-high years, they surmised that I must be terribly excited. In reality, I was overwhelmed. I’d never worked with soil in a meaningful way, I’d barely contemplated making compost. Constructing flowerbeds was something I’d only read about in books. There was huge promise in this garden – a blank slate of untidy turf, a few sad shrubs and the world’s most disproportionately large patio – but there was real potential I’d come up short of whatever expectations I thought I held.

Two years on and I’ve learned plenty; I mulch my beds with home-made compost, I sow hardy annuals. I spent the afternoon of my 32nd birthday wrenching a Kiftsgate rose out of the ground, and Valentine’s Day planting a bare-root Rosa 'The Generous Gardener'. Over the course of that first year I watched the light shift across the back wall of the garden from my desk, and, as the seasons changed, things grew up against it. Quite by accident, I’d created a late summer-garden, one flush with dahlias and grasses. On the August bank holiday we threw a party there, and it felt like a homecoming.

The second year has been calmer and more considered. The winter beds were filled with the skeletons of summer’s perennials, I threw in dozens of narcissi among the previous year's preciously planted tulips and it kept the squirrels away (they don’t like the taste). We’d plumped for an April wedding, and so I abandoned the lot for a honeymoon at the start of the growing season. This may sound heretical to some gardeners, but what I’ve learned most from the garden is that it manages quite well without me. We returned to long grass, plenty of deadheading and new surprises for a new stage of life.

I dream of plume poppies and martagon lilies and delicate, tiny narcissi

What lies ahead for year three? Bigger things, I hope. I’d always envisaged the garden to have two stages: one of hapless experimentation, another of landscaping and order – less playing around the edges, more forming something that allowed me to really grow. I dream of plume poppies and martagon lilies and delicate, tiny narcissi. I long to plant a tree.

One thing I’ve realised the garden is truly missing is a spot to sit and bear witness; it’s lacking an inviting, sun-drenched corner. Because while we can plan planting schemes and trawl through seed catalogues, the most vital part of gardening is to look and to be. I’m currently a rather frantic gardener, rushing around making mental lists and finding things to do. I’d like to be a more observant one, taking in a better understanding of what the space has to offer and making a garden with that in mind, too. Where a good nook starts, a deeper view follows.

Read Alice's column each month in Gardens Illustrated magazine. Subscribe here.

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Authors

Alice Vincent is the author of Rootbound, How to Grow Stuff and Seeds from Scratch. A self-taught urban gardeners, she is behind the Instagram account @noughticulture.

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