We’ve been lucky with the gardens and allotments we’ve had up north. I had heard that you can have sandy soil, clay soil and, if you’re lucky, you’d get the soil that was just right – not too free-draining, and not too water-retaining. I hadn’t realised we had been lucky until we moved into our rented home in South Oxfordshire. We chose a 10-year-old new build with decking and a lawn. I barely paid attention to the lawn as I was ensuring the plants that had spent a couple of weeks in the living room back in the flat were surviving. When autumn came, I understood the look of dread that appears on people’s face when they utter the phrase “clay soil”. I’ve never seen a squelchier lawn. I then turned to the bottom of the garden and identified an opportunity to make a small bed. I got permission from the landlady to plant at the bottom of the garden and started planning.
Clay all the way
It was a long process to get to the planting stage. I marked out the bed and dug out the odd clump of lawn that was out of place. I also did some weeding, and boy was it hard. The clay was heavy, and surprisingly hard to dig through. I spent the cold months adding layers of compost, top soil and soil improver (i.e. mostly mulch material). It was my first time doing something like this and was unsure how effective it would be. Towards the end of April I decided it was time to plant out some of the plants. I was so pleased to see that my experiment seemed to work.
Choose structures you can take with you
Before I planted anything, however, I needed to think about what type of structures I could use for plants to climb up and be a point of interest from the kitchen/back door. I had to choose elements that would not be permanent, and that we would be able to take with us should we move. I chose a couple of teepees, and some trellis. At first I rested the trellis against the fence, but quickly realised gusts of wind would easily topple them over. So I used some screws and wire to tie them in. The screws only went in half way, about the depth of the trellis. Now I could concentrate on the plants.
I almost managed to dig a spit of compost before reaching clay. Even then, I would dig out a little of the clay and add some compost to the bottom of the hole before planting hellebores, a white hydrangea (not sure if it’s Annabelle, it didn’t say on the label), and a fern to grow in the shade cast by the shed. To that I added a cream coloured geum, and I planted out the snap peas I had sown in the cold frame. I will be planting out the sweet peas in the next week or two. I also have some sunflowers that I am looking forward to dotting around the bed and on the decking. It is a fairly shallow bed, in the sense that it’s probably no more than 2 feet from the edge of the lawn to the fence. It would be best if it were deeper, but then again were it my own garden, I would change many things in it.
The garden is West-facing, which is great. But the fence surrounding the entire garden is 6 foot tall, which isn’t great. We have morning sunshine on the bed at the bottom of the garden, and then the sun creeps up the lawn until it reaches the decking. Still, the left side of the garden gets no sun because there’s either a fence or a wall. So I need to think carefully about which type of plants and veg to grow on each side.
Creating a good environment for plants and wildlife
I’m pleasantly surprised by how nice it currently looks. Especially when I look at the photo I took on the day we moved in. As with everything, it pays to be patient and invest in raw materials to give your plants the best chance. I have bird feeders interspersed with the teepees, which saw no visitors throughout winter. Then, all of a sudden, a couple of pigeons started prowling the area. Looking up at the feeders, trying to figure out how to get to the food. Then came the blackbirds. And slowly but surely we’ve had robins, blue tits, sparrows, coal tits; even starlings and a chaffinch that enjoying picking at the space between bricks for any bugs. I have even seen a field mouse or two.
It is becoming a small ecosystem. Last week I decided to dig up the strawberries that had died and see what had happened. I was met by a load of small, white, grubs. I think they were vine weevils that had recently “hatched”. After shifting through the compost and picking out every single grub, I placed them in a saucer and left it on the roof of the shed. Come morning, all the bugs had disappeared – there are some very busy bird parents out there at the moment.
Now, I love looking at the bottom of the garden. The pots bring me joy and are within hand reach. And there’s something interesting to look at beyond the decking. I can’t wait for the snap peas, sweet peas and sunflowers to get growing.