So my starting point for the garden at Sculpture by the Lakes will be the day we moved in – 18th December 2007 – a cold, grey morning. Approximately 250 plants – trees, shrubs, herbaceous – had been carefully dug up, wrapped and shifted from a warm and sheltered garden in Wiltshire to a chilly and decidedly windy spot alongside the River Frome in Dorset.
Let me quickly setting the scene for you: there was little in the way of garden when we arrived. Five fruit trees and no flowerbeds except a two foot wide border on the northeast face of the house and another on the southwest side. The shady northeast side had sun-loving plants and the baked southwest side had shade-lovers…. an antipodean experiment which hadn’t quite worked? The rest of the land was down as mown grass and a lot of fencing. It’s daunting to start with such an empty page but at the time it was still a very exciting prospect.
December – a good time of year to shift the entire contents of one garden to another? Partly, but I had not anticipated the shock to some of the larger specimens nor the impact that wind was going to have, added to which was the very major drainage problems we had, and continue to have. If you look up alluvial or riverine soils in the reference books, one of the first things they tend to say is “very prone to compaction”. Such an understatement and so many losses. I feel horribly guilty now when I consider the lingering death I inflicted on what where some beautiful specimens. Eight 10 foot Italian cypress trees (Cupressus pyramidalis), first blown horizontal by winter gales then a slow drowning in horribly compacted, cloggy soil; a beautiful 14 foot evergreen Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) which suffered a gradual decline over three years until eventually I put it out of its misery; a similar fate for a willow-leaved Podocarp (Podocarpus salignus) and my favourite oak-leaved Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); still worse, 40 feet of box hedging and eight clipped box cones – I’ve managed to save some but they still look a bit peaky.
On the positive side, all my bamboos survived the experience and are now thriving and finally regaining their pre-transplant height. Given a few more years and wet summers they should produce some impressive sized canes. Bamboos, being a sort of giant grass, respond just as a lawn would to good food and plenty of water, they grow fast, and big. A surprising transplant success was a little species evergreen oak tree – Quercus myrsinifolia or the Bamboo-leafed Oak – which sulked for eighteen months with literally not a leaf on it, then suddenly produced a mass of new growth. All the herbaceous did well of course, these garden thugs are used to such brutal treatment on an almost annual basis, and all the roses bar one have thrived.
Mistakes? Oh sure, lots of them initially, and subsequently and probably in the future too. But that’s what I love about the entire horticultural process. The ability to change and adapt, experiment with new plants or learn something about an old favourite. There is nothing so satisfying as putting in a new specimen and see it thrive because actually, for once, you’ve given it exactly what it needs.