I spent an energetic morning digging bramble roots out of the meadow with a pick axe, where the Systems Administrator had cut them down, and musing on how things had come to this pass, when we were having to reclaim part of our own garden. Garden restoration is only required following a failure of garden maintenance, according to one of the lecturers in historic gardens at Writtle when I was there. Well, yes and no. Even the most scrupulously maintained gardens can need refreshing every so often, as plants age and die or time and weather take their toll of built structures. No amount of assiduous trimming and weeding will hold off the hand of time for all time. In this case, though, we are fully justified in concluding that there has been a failure of maintenance, big time.
The question then is Why? And does it matter, given that the garden is something I do solely for my own amusement. It isn't a heritage landscape and it doesn't open to the public, so if parts of it are overrun with brambles it is nobody's business but our own. The pat explanation for why the meadow ran out of control would be that the garden is simply too big. That can't be the answer, though, because people manage larger areas than this by themselves, both garden owners who don't have outside help, and professional gardeners. I am always interested to discover the number of gardeners responsible for the upkeep of any garden I visit.
It would be fairer to say that there is too much of the wrong sort of garden. If I didn't insist on doing pots of tender plants and bulbs, and raising my own plants from seed, and having the sort of planting schemes with naturalised bulbs that require fingertip hand weeding, it would be easier to stay on top of all the big stuff all of the time. But I like pots and propagating and even hand weeding, and it is my garden and the whole point of it is to do what I want to in it. I could spend all my time strimming, and driving about on a lawnmower, and hoeing between clearly defined groups of big, beefy perennials in my borders once a week to keep the weeds down, but I don't want to.
As I continued chopping and musing I decided the Systems Administrator's frozen shoulder had a lot to answer for. The SA was out of action for any kind of heavy duty work with a saw, let alone working above waist height, for the best part of a year, which left me with all the hedges to do. Hedges are time consuming, there is no denying it, but when things reach the point where if you don't reduce the width of the hedge running the length of your drive by at least a couple of feet then you are never going to have another oil delivery, well, you cut the hedge. It took me the best part of a month's gardening time to cut the Eleagnus back, and another great hunk of time the following year to get the hedge along the boundary with the lettuce field back under control. When you see pictures of large and fabulous gardens in glossy gardening magazines and the owners are said to do all the work themselves, look out in case there's a mention that they get somebody in to do the hedges and heavy work. It makes a huge difference.
The two very cold winters we had on the trot three or four years ago played a part too, because they killed so much in the more formal part of the garden. I had to largely remake the island bed after the first, because I'd lost so many less hardy shrubs, cistus and rosemary and pittosporum, then the following year the replacements were killed and I had to do it all over again. Several hebes died, and olearia. Digging out the roots took ages, and meanwhile weeds sprung up in the unexpectedly vacated ground where previously the shrubs had been doing a pretty good job of suppressing them. Sorting out the back garden had to take priority over the meadow, which was rather left to its own devices, because you can see the back garden from half the windows in the house.
The meadow has a central strip of long grass with a path mown through it and shrubs and small trees to both sides, in the style of a very mini arboretum. That was the idea, anyway. We rapidly discovered that we couldn't let the grass continue around the shrubs, because mowing was impossible and it kept creeping up to their stems and suffocating them. My idea was to have a ground covering layer instead of easy going, somewhat shade and drought tolerant woodland edge plants, but in recent years they have kept getting dug up or eaten by rabbits. And yes, I could have had the grass going around every shrub and surrounded its base with a black plastic mulch mat to keep the grass off it, and then strimmed the grass, but I didn't want to. I hate strimming. The aging cats didn't help, as they stopped going that far, but I met two of the kittens up there today (plus Our Ginger, who seemed to be following Mr Cool. They have a complicated relationship) so with any luck the rabbit problem will diminish for the next few years. We need to mend the fence in places, though, where trees have fallen on it, and raise it in others. The fence as originally built was to the recommended height for rabbit fencing, but we know they can jump over it because we've caught them on camera doing it.
And I'm sure some of the problems with the meadow are down to bad plant choices and poor design. Things that have not done so well as they ought to, or died outright, creating gaps for weeds and extra work and expense in replacing them. I am not the first gardener to have fallen foul of mismatched ambition and encroaching scrub, and I won't be the last. Frank Ronan in one of his end piece articles for Gardens Illustrated recently described his mixed border, which was downhill of an area of long grass where despite his best efforts weed seeds blew in and he could never keep up with the weeding even before he started living in the US for much of the year.
Happily, the Systems Administrator is back on the case chopping things down. Rabbits do not eat primroses and they do not eat hellebores. Or box. I shall be planting a great many more. I shall soon discover whether they eat Solidago rigida and Teucrium hircanum 'Purple Tails' because I've got a couple of trays of each just waiting to go in the ground. Some of the original shrubs that have not been smothered by brambles or fallen trees have made quite good specimens. I shall spend the winter evenings planning what else could go in the gaps. Gardening is so much a process of learning by doing, however much you read about it at the beginning.