The Grand Plan

Garden design starts with a plan. Usually. Except, as I’ve mentioned, the dimensions of my garden simply don’t make sense on paper, it’s absurdly long and narrow. I’ve tried sketching out ideas, but the garden refuses to be pinned down. Instead, I’ve found myself feeling my way into it, having a rough idea of what I want and kind of where that might end up, but working it out as I go. Building from the ground up and seeing where it takes me, rather than imposing any artificial design that’s been sketched out from the comfort of my living room.

Here’s the starting point, from the estate agent’s pictures before I moved in. Sadly, that’s not my bench.

All very clean and tidy – but there’s nothing there. An old rose bush and the plum tree, plus straggly grass with trip-holes for the unwary dug by the previous owner’s dog. No flowers, no herbs, no soul. A fence halfway down to contain said dog, and the garden office/cabin beyond. A blank canvas, in other words.

The first idea was to have three circles cut into the grass – I marked out the first couple last year, but ran out of time and energy to properly cut them out. To get rid of the unwanted grass and cut down on weeds in the meantime, I put sheets of cardboard down – it looked hideous but helped to get the job done.

Phase one, the first circle with a large new flower bed between it and the patio is pretty much complete. More plants could be fitted in, but planting will be an ongoing process according to finances and hopefully the ability to raise some from seed – at the moment the priority is to mark out the bones of the garden. My instinct has been to create at least one small area that feels like a garden in the meantime, and seeing the flowers from my bedroom window always brings a smile to my face.

Phase two is to cut out the remaining two circles of grass, edge them and weed the newly created planting beds surrounding them. Both circles have been cut, and one has been edged, albeit wonkily, with timber edging that I managed to get on sale. The weeding wasn’t completed, and as a result both circles are being invaded by an eye-watering amount of convolvulus – bindweed. Nightmare. I want to garden organically, but have started to fantasise about a large dose of Weed n Feed, as there’s no real way I can beat the bindweed, especially as it’s burying its pernicious roots into the “lawn.”. Even if I miraculously beat it back to the fenceline, it will just keep creeping back in from next door’s garden as Mike isn’t much of a gardener.

Phase three; my much-wanted herb garden, just beyond the now-removed centre fence. Based on a mandala design, a circular area of path that buds into the surrounding planting area, giving a larger reach. This has been marked out for over a month, the edges outlined and cut halfway – until the weather became so hot and the ground baked solid. So progress has halted until we get at least one decent rainfall to soften the ground. Plus it’s just too hot to start digging, even if I didn’t have to use a pickaxe to get through the soil. It’s been left, as Lily said, looking like I’m marking out some kind of satanic ritual. This picture was taken a few weeks ago – the grass is like dried straw by now.

With these areas marked out, it’s easy to see that a little potting shed would be perfect in between the grass circles and the herb garden. A strip of decking outside the shed could double up as both a path and a place to sit, and the little space left is where the pond should go. It’s easy to see all of this, in the bliss of my imagination. Creating it though is another story. I need a new car and my shower is still broken. Three doors need the attention of a handyman, for three different reasons. While there are sheds at B&Q that seem fairly cheap, by the time delivery costs have been factored in, never mind assembly costs, it’s just too expensive. Realistically I need to build the shed myself, from pallets and scraps. Rather more realistically – I have zero building experience, and as Ivy would say, have obviously been spending far too much time on Pinterest. Ah, Pinterest – the mythical realm where inspiration triumphs over actual ability. A pond? That seems doable, until I likely unearth a large sunken concrete bunker, or fail to drive the spade in more than six inches deep. Oh, and of course I can’t handle the electric pump installation, neither can I afford to hire someone… and so it would be a stagnant swamp rather than pleasant pond. What should be phases four and five are fast becoming a personal Everest, the litmus test that decides whether I can manage to seriously push myself into new skills or whether in fact I’m just seriously deluded. More pallets are required before I can think about starting the shed though – and it’s far too hot to be trying to lug pallets up the street, or so I’m telling myself.

Phase six – and by now I’m probably fortune-telling rather than planning – would be to build a covered pergola adjoining the cabin to create a social space that’s further away from the house. See, my head figures that by now I’ve already managed to build a shed from scratch, so a pergola should be a breeze, right? This would be the perfect place for an outdoor sofa, I’ve always wanted somewhere comfy to sit outside. There’s a gap between the herb garden and the pergola area, that the kids are asking to keep as long grass, although eventually this could become a veggie patch. And finally phase seven or eight would be to spruce up the hidden orchard area that lies beyond the cabin, pop in some woodland plants and tame some of the tangled undergrowth. Oh, and if I could, I’d also pop in a covered porch along the back of the house; we built these in our last two houses and it’s soooo useful to have a little rain-proof area outside your back door, whether that’s to have a clothes airer standing outside, or to nip out to the firewood pile without getting wet.

That’s the plan then – technically more of a dream than a plan, given the issue of my having no idea how to construct it all. But a dream is a starting point, right? And until then… there’s always Pinterest.

Exhaustion and the quiet of the suburbs.

Saturday. The alarm switched off the night before, being able to sleep in until the heady delights of 7am, when my bladder can’t hold out any longer. There’s the list of weekend chores to tackle, but I’m exhausted. I manage to wash up, put the school uniforms in the wash, start emptying the bins… by lunchtime I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. Today would be a good day to start work on the herbal garden, but instead I crawl back to bed for a nap.

It’s not been the worst week, but it’s been tiring and stressful – battling with school over meeting Ivy’s needs, the strain of the car breaking down again and worrying at one point that we weren’t even going to make it into town for the school bus without having to push the car ourselves. Taking a friend to the shops even though I didn’t need to go myself. More arguments with Lily, a paediatric appointment, and having to contact the two other hospitals we deal with to get advice about her medication and whether it could be affecting her behaviour. Lots of niggling jobs were ticked off the To Do list; emails, bills, the Tax Credits form. Possibly I over-exerted myself planting pretty much all of the remaining pots that were waiting on the patio. But by Saturday – total exhaustion. It seems to go this way most weekends – the plans I want to make fall by the wayside as I don’t have the energy to carry them out. One day at home to catch up with homework and chores, to decompress after the busy week, and then a day to go out and have fun as a family, get a change of scene – that seems ideal to me. In reality, it’s one day spent feeling like The Walking Dead, barely able to do anything at all, and one day spent catching up on twice as many chores.

Lily and Ivy know that there are chores to be done, my new system is write out a list on Friday evening – everybody then chooses a couple of jobs and gets through them as quickly as possible on Saturday morning. I’ve had to enforce this by changing the Wifi password until the jobs are done; tiresome but effective. Otherwise I have to do absolutely everything on my own until I’m on the floor with exhaustion and frustration – it’s impossible to make progress on the home and garden fronts when you’re struggling to manage the daily chores. Or to put it another way – it’s depressing to spend most of the day working hard outside; clearing, digging, painting, mowing, trimming, shredding, planting, weeding – then come back in and discover the kitchen is piled high with dishes that nobody else is washing. Yet still, even though they know that the chores need doing, even though they know that they’ll lose their internet access, nothing gets done unless I nag and chivvy them into it. On the days when exhaustion wins out, I simply don’t have the energy to fight to get the kids to do their part. Frustration and resentment bite hard.

No sooner have I decided to give in and take a nap then out they come. The strimmers, the mowers, the hedge trimmers, the pressure washers, even at times the cement mixers and circular saws. All the noisy outdoor appliances that the suburbs can muster. I close my window and try to relax, but the noises grate on my tired mind. From her bedroom, Lily lets out random shrieks of insane-sounding laughter as she watches endless YouTube videos- a noise that grates even further as it’s proof that she’s neither doing her homework, nor tackling her chores. It’s not as if I can throw my windows open and order my neighbours to shut up while I get some sleep, and I’m done with arguing over Lily about what she should be doing. I’ve been spoiled by the House in the Sky – being detached, with only two neighbours to worry about, the other houses spaced out far enough for noise not to matter. When people mowed their lawns or set to with the strimmer, it didn’t sound as if they were waving them around right under my bedroom window. Am I right in thinking that there’s areas in Europe where there are very strict times about when you can and can’t mow the lawn? It sounds very oppressive to say that lawns can only be cut at 9am on Sunday mornings, but then – what bliss to enjoy the quiet for the rest of the week.

I’ve always beaten myself up over days like this, the days when nothing gets done, intentions swirling down the drain of exhaustion. Now I’m trying to give myself more wiggle room, more compassion. Accepting that much of day to day life feels like a battle, that ASD/ADHD makes life feel harder, uses up more energy. That it’s been a week of doing things that I find difficult, that the stress means paying a price, several shiny gold tokens extracted from my energy levels. When Lily was a lot younger, we learned the hard way about her need for decompression days – generally after a day or so of absolute hell when we were supposed to be on holiday. It didn’t matter how fun it was, how many activities there were to do, how great the swimming pool was or how many places we wanted to explore – after a big day out, we needed to spend the next morning at home (or in the tent, caravan etc), letting Lily chill out, watch her videos etc. If not, she got over-stimulated, over-tired and there was hell to pay – screaming tantrum after screaming tantrum.

I’m only just realising my own need for decompression days. Society isn’t very good at taking a pause though, something that’s getting worse instead of better, an endless push for faster, harder, more. If you’re ASD/ADHD, your head is full enough already, 50 brain tabs running all together while being constantly bombarded by sensory overwhelm. Noise is a big one for me, something I’m noticing when trying to drive; it’s why I’ve bitten Lily’s head off at times when she starts immediately fiddling with the radio and changing it to one of her CDs while I’m still absorbing the energy of both kids coming out of school full of complaints and chatter, the frenetic car park of pupils and vehicles moving in and out, the queue to get out, the cars whizzing past on the main road… SHUT UP ALREADY! I guess that’s why when I travel earplugs are essential, otherwise I can’t sleep – my brain recognises that the noises around me aren’t right and starts freaking out, trying to pick up every sound in case I’m in danger.

The fastest way to improve the everyone’s work-life balance would be to make the weekend a day longer. The bliss of having that extra day during Bank Holidays or Inset days but all year round- we get a decompression day, a chores day and a fun day. Personally I think it would boost the economy and the nation’s productivity no end, reducing sickness and stress and giving neurotypicals another day to go to the Mall and spend money. In the meantime, I may have to buy ear plugs for home use too, or fantasise about a return to scythes and old-fashioned non-electric mowers like my Grandad had. Wasn’t Poldark supposed to have sparked an interest in scything again? Thinking about it, I know one of the actors in the TV series… could I get Poldark himself to scythe my overgrown grass and set off a quiet new suburban trend?

Courtyard Retreat

DSCF7704

The patio. A crucial part of the garden, the transition between house and nature. A place to sit and enjoy the view, to share a meal, to sip an early morning mug of tea or evening glass of wine. In this case; not exactly a promising start. Mouldering old trellis, a myriad of pots and containers, the bench we’d brought with us from the last house, in dire need of a repaint.

DSCF7705

It got even worse before it got better; a huge pile of thorny prunings from the rosebush, plastic mesh retrieved from the undergrowth when I fixed the fence, bags of compost… Not exactly somewhere you want to sit and relax. The patio had become a dumping ground, making me shudder every time I came outside. Looking out of the windows onto the garden wasn’t a pleasure either.

Although I’d been working hard in the garden, I told myself that the patio could wait. The urge to fix it up was growing though, the awareness that I needed a place to sit outside, be still and enjoy the garden as it gradually developed. It fast became a soul-urge. Paint the trellis, came the whisper. Start there. And so I did… and it didn’t take as long as I’d feared, and one thing led to another and…

DSCF7848

Ta da! Sorry about the glare, it was taken through the living room window. Suddenly the grotty patio had become a courtyard retreat. A place to sit and breathe, read a book, eat lunch, listen to the birds. The early morning sun makes it a lovely spot first thing, then as the heat builds up in the afternoon it begins to shade over, becoming a refuge for over-heated gardeners. Even Lily and Ivy have appreciated the difference, having been spotted out there occasionally; Lily with her tablet on the bench which still manages a Wifi signal from the house, Ivy at the table with sketch book and paints. At the House in the Sky we’d often sit out on the patio to eat a meal, particularly if we had friends round – it’s a habit I’d like to get into again, although the table only has two chairs and is on the petite side for three sets of plates, glasses etc.

DSCF7874

As afternoon turns to evening, the little solar bulbs (Sainsburys) switch on, making the place even more enchanting. The bench has a fresh coat of paint and waits patiently for one of us to sit in the cooling air, letting the day’s stress slip away in the fading light. Lesson learned; it’s worth taking the time to make one small area of the garden into a special retreat, a refuge from the cares of the day and thoughts of all that still needs doing. And if that sweet courtyard refuge is what you see when you first step out of the door, rather than an ugly pile of jobs to be tackled, so much the better – it will coax you into your garden rather than beating you about the head with your To Do list.