I’m sorry, Paul, but I think the four words that most frequently enter my head are probably, “I love my garden”.
They pop up when I’m working in it, wandering around it, looking out on it from my seat by the kitchen window and just waking up in the morning listening to it.
But earlier this month my friend corrected me. Not about the hierarchy around here (which would also have been on her agenda had I confessed this), but on the use of the word ‘my’.
I’d just sent her a photo of the wonky-antlered Daryl, sprawled out on the lawn by the house, nonchalantly glancing up at us. It wasn’t his antlers that had caught her attention, it was just how proprietorial he looked sitting there. It had changed her mind about exactly who was in charge around here: whose garden really was it?
Since we moved in, almost three years ago now, I’ve been schoolgirl-excited every time Daryl, or Harry, or Sammy the stoat, Terry the toad or Norris the newt has appeared.
But in the back of my mind I’ve been very conscious of the fact that gardeners are not really supposed to like herbivores sharing their patch. I’ve been nervously awaiting the turning point, where cute furry animals become number one evil enemy.
But instead, I’ve had a different type of turning point this month. A turning point that has provided me with the definitive confirmation that there will be no such point to come. This garden – not my garden – is the animals’ domain. I’m just lucky enough to share it with them from time to time, whilst the plants are simply a very beautiful, if incidental, backdrop.
And just as I can’t grow lime-loving or nutrient rich-loving plants on my dry, sandy soil, there will be a few plants that don’t stand a chance against the animals. But this is England, things grow; there will never be a time when I’m struggling to find something that survives – nay, thrives – in any corner of these four verdant acres.
The one thing that has amazed me more than any other, is the increase in both the frequency and variety of animals joining us here over the years.
My one reservation about clearing the years of neglected jungle was that I knew I was removing shelter, food and nesting sites as I went. I didn’t want to live in a brambly, nettley mess, but I was very conscious about coming in and wrecking the equilibrium with the wildlife.
But it turns out it seems to have had the opposite effect. The animals love it more than ever, with the roe deer now living on site rather than being occasional visitors and new species appearing for the first time each and every month.
No doubt the pond has been a big factor in that. This year has seen kingfishers, red kites and geese pop by for the first time that we have seen, the latter also distinctly possessing that territorial air about them.
And watching Harry and Harrilena stand at the farmyard fence, just within the domain of the garden, seemingly working out whether to make a break for it and leave their safe environs for the big, wide, outside world, only consolidates this sense.
I think it must be the biodiversity of the planting that has also helped. Where we once had lawn, we now have wildflower meadow and where large groves of nettles stood, now cow parsley, geraniums, ferns and epimedium offer up a veritable feast.
Of course, with no interference from man at all, this little patch would eventually turn into uniform woodland. I find it fascinating that the relatively light touch manipulation I carry out actually helps nature and biodiversity along their way.
If there’s one defining characteristic of April, I think it’s that nature, at this time, seems to be at the absolute peak of its influence. It’s not only the time for new babies in the animal world to appear, but it’s also when nature’s self-seeders seem to exert their presence most profoundly.
We may plant all sorts of exotic species from all over the globe, but in April, our natives, having sat tight all winter, wake up early and gently fill our world with their subtle green growth and soft, sweet flowers. They don’t make any fuss about it, they just know the lie of the land and pick their time, before the trees cast their shade and before the interlopers get their act together.
They fill every space that’s not yet taken: forget-me-nots and buttercups in the weak grass under the magnolia; cow parsley between the still emerging clumps of echinacea; honesty and garlic mustard under the roses.
Some may despair at alkanet, celandine and dead nettle growing up between the lawn and the wall, but to me this is nature at its most magical. All this colour and texture finding its way there, the perfect height, the perfect combination and the perfect conditions; man’s only contribution, to look on in awe.
And I’ll never stop being amazed at how ‘right’ nature gets it. I don’t really like honesty purple; I’d never deliberately choose a flower in that cerisey shade. And yet put that purple next to its particular shade of foliage green and I just adore it. I struggle to think of a single natural plant with colours that don’t look entirely right and picture perfect beautiful.
And so, as I’ve continued my somewhat slow recovery back from virus to full health this month, it’s been the perfect season to aid that process. Nature provides so much hope, shows so much flexibility, optimism and reward. It doesn’t shy away from difficult times, it just waits it out until its time is right, resilient in the extreme, calm and patient, yet remaining single-minded in seeking opportunities in which to flourish.
On days where I’ve not been able to do much physically, I’ve found myself particularly drawn to the magical properties of water. To the pond and the little winding stream. I watch the ‘toadpoles’ and the smooth newts busying about as they grow by the day.
I see the tiny freshwater shrimps, creating miniature pathways through the sand in the stream, whilst hawthorn blossom glides along the surface with the gentle flow.
Being forced to stop and slow down has opened my eyes to new treasures this month. Treasures that will stay with me now, even as I speed up and get back to work. It’s been frustrating to not be able to toil, but perhaps there is a silver lining in the experiences I might otherwise never have had.
As I do get back to gardening each day, my love for and closeness to this place has expanded more than ever.
I love the animals’ garden.