Making a new garden is an adventure, there’s no doubt about that. Moving from one country to another and trying to create a garden is an even bigger adventure. It’s like learning another language.
My gardening and cultural background is firmly Welsh and English, although I have a smattering of Jamaican influence. My adult life has mostly been spent in London, but I was always a country girl at heart and much of this has been reflected in my thinking about gardens. But I only ever had a tiny patch. The photo below shows the first garden of the house we had in Camberwell. We lived in the house for 26 years and raised our children there. The garden evolved. It adapted to children and their roller skates, summer barbecues with friends, even a wake for my father-in-law was held in it. The shed you see was recycled from the old shed we found when we arrived, the path was made from London brick that we recycled from a wall that fell down; the garden was warmed by the large factory wall behind it; a peach tree, planted from a pip from a peach bought in Sainsburys was planted;roses came and went;a bay tree grew out of a chimney pot I put around it when it was young. The garden was tidy or less tidy according to how busy our life was. We never really finished it.
We thanked this much loved house when it was time to leave it and moved to a small house further out in the London suburbs. We knew we would only be living there for five years, so I decided to see if I could create a beautiful garden, which was nearly all edible, as an experiment. This was alongside an allotment which I had close by. The experiment worked quite well and by the time I left, we were really eating our garden and it looked quite pretty. It was rather bleak in the winter though. The allotment we used to work was instrumental in my understanding of gardening, as I learned much from other gardeners. I haven’t read much about this being a benefit of community gardening, but it is invaluable. When we left England to come to the Algarve, apart from my children obviously, it was the allotment community which I missed the most. I learned such a great deal from fellow plot holders, many who came from all parts of the world and all of whom had something new to teach me. A Jamaican allotment neighbour taught me how to improve the soil and that you could do it by adding stuff in layers, even without composting it; a Turkish neighbour taught me about grapes; my immediate neighbours made a beautiful bower and sitting area under the apple trees, where we often shared a cup of tea. The allotment committee meetings were a rich place for gardening discussions and somewhere to air differences of opinions on gardening ethics.
My first introduction to Algarve gardening came from a dear friend. She had lived in several houses in the Algarve and was a great plantswoman, always greedy for different varieties of plant, with a range forms and shapes and always stretching the limits. In her hands, canna lilies would be set riotously against a wall of azure blue, roses would climb into pomegranate trees and violets would bloom among agapanthus leaves. She was a plant magician and sadly she died before I could get her advice on this garden. But she is with me in spirit every day as I walk about, whispering to me about what to plant, telling me the names of things and pointing me in the right direction for advice.
I have several friends here in the Algarve, who kindly bring me cuttings from their gardens. Some have been passed on to them by my friend, who is no longer alive. It’s like a piece of her returned. It makes me wonder whether plant cuttings could be everlasting and how far some of them have travelled around the world or how many are the clones of plants have been handed down through the generations from far off climes. I recently sent some succulent cuttings back with a friend to England, where she will put them in a pot in her South London garden. I used to have a fern I took from my grandmother’s garden on the day she died. Each plant has a story. So then a garden becomes full of memories and history.
Although I miss my allotment community, I am finding new gardening friends here. Someone who reads my blog who lives nearby, but whom I haven’t met yet; a garden designer in Italy, who has created a magic garden, poets and priests who garden. I am learning the Portugese names for things from my neighbours and they are very helpful with their advice and encouragement, giving me fava bean seeds and coentro (coriander) seeds they have saved. So I am an evolving gardener, trying to apply the little I know to this huge and sometimes inhospitable space. Every morning I wake up excited and even though there is nothing to get really excited about yet, it is all here, in my head and heart. We just need the strength to make it happen. It’s part of my evolving garden history.