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On stony ground
May 6, 2011 | By:
Sally Brampton’s vision of a courtyard garden is thwarted when her trowel hits stone

Narcissi and tulips bring a promise of life. Photo by Sally Brampton

When I first met my new garden, described in the estate agent’s particulars as a charming patio, even the kindest observer would have been hard pressed to see any charms. I may be a snob but I cannot abide the word patio, so from now on it will be known as the courtyard garden.

It measures 12 feet deep by 16 feet wide and has an old (but sturdy) trellis 14 feet high, through which a breezeblock wall is all too horribly visible. It backs on to a motorbike repair garage, nicknamed Boomerang Bikes by locals because every time a bike roars out of it, it reappears half an hour later.

At the base of the trellis was a half-hearted flowerbed (in other words, a patch of earth shored up by a couple of rows of bricks). Other than an overgrown camellia with virulent red flowers, a choisya (Mexican Orange blossom), which had given up the effort of standing and decided to lie down across the flagstones, and an unidentifiable shrub – or, at least, one whose acquaintance I had never made – the flowerbed was bare.

It was November when I arrived, before the big snow, but as I can’t face the spring without some promise of life, the first thing I did was to plant narcissi, tulips and hellebores. Or rather, I tried to plant them, only to discover that two inches below the surface of the soil, my trowel hit stone. A previous occupant had spread a scattering of soil over an existing terrace, so it was less a flowerbed than a faux landscape.

Further along the bed, there was more promise of depth in the sight of an old rose that had managed to find some purchase. It had a base as thick as a man’s forearm and a tangle of thick thorny stems that would have quelled even the most ardent prince as he fought his way through to find his Sleeping Beauty. One sad flower remained, a bright red hybrid rose (what is it with these people and violent scarlet?) rather than the pale pink, white or cream overblown English roses I love.

As the rose was about to throttle the garden, I attacked it (pruned is too gentle a word) with a pair of stout leather gloves, secateurs and a woodsman saw to achieve some modicum of control. Digging it up completely was out of the question so I vowed, come April, to plant at its stout feet a variety of clematis that would scramble through its stems and soften its thorny presence.

There is no patch of ground that cannot be turned into a thing of beauty. All through the hard cold days of winter, I dreamed of the paradise I might create, come the balmy light and warmth of spring. And I left the flowerbed empty, just in case there were plants hidden beneath its surface that would burst back into life. Gardeners forever live in hope.

Previously: Come on over to my place