Location: Highgate Hill, North London.
Aspect: North East facing. Virtually sunless in winter with morning sun in the spring, summer and autumn. Sheltered by London brick walls.
Soil: Heavy clay and subsoil over a disused school playground. Far from ideal growing conditions!
Weather: London’s big city microclimate means frost and snow are rare. The cold soil and heavy shade is not kind to anything Mediterranean or sun-loving.
It pains me to admit it, but our London garden is the less mollycoddled of our two plots. This is inexcusable given we are privileged to have outside space in the capital city. In our defence we’re at work all day and down at the coast at weekend, so most of the time we only get to enjoy the garden at the crack of dawn or in the evening. From late October until early April I barely see the garden in the daylight.
You’ll think me a gardening lightweight when I confess that tackling the appalling soil fills me with dread. Several years ago, when we dug the long pond, we almost gave up at a depth of about 40cm. Below a shallow layer of sticky clay and subsoil, lies the remains of a tarmac playground which, unsurprisingly, shows no signs of breaking up naturally. When the building was converted from a school the delightful developers clearly believed this lumpy mess would do for most people. The drainage is dire to nonexistent. Since 2013 I have been adding copious amounts of a bracken-based compost called Lakeland Gold, which has gone some way to breaking up the clay, but in practice I know it could take make years to create a friable, free-draining tilth.
To add insult to injury, in 2012 a six month restoration of our Victorian building meant scaffolding blocked out most of the light coming into the garden. Workmen compacted the soil with their heavy boots and equipment. By August I’d finally given up making it look nice and sulked indoors until spring.
Motivated by shame, this blog and a perennial lack of space to fulfill my gardening ambitions, I resolved that 2013 would be the year I started to face the challenge of creating a decent garden. The first task, in late April, was to tackle the left hand side of the garden where the ‘lawn’ was. There was no sense in starting sooner as it was simply too wet to do anything productive. I removed everything apart from a magnolia, Mahonia x media and a newish Dicksonia antartica and dug in mighty quantities of compost and grit to open up the soil. The worms, which are inexplicably plentiful, soon got to work.
I had in mind quite an overgrown formal style, which is in stark contrast to our coastal garden. I imagined large potted camellias and box for structure (yet to materialise), softened by hostas, irises, primulas, epimediums, astelias, ligularias, hardy begonias and lots of ferns.
Our tragic attempts to cultivate silly things like lavender, Callistemon and Euryops are over. I should have learnt my lesson a long time ago and saved my pennies for real contenders. Green prevails, but combined with splashing water from the ornamental tank, this only adds to a sense of calm.