When we bought our Edinburgh ground-floor tenement flat in late 2014, both front and back gardens had been long neglected by the previous owners, who for decades had let the flat out to a succession of un-green-fingered tenants. The front garden was a terrible marriage of concrete slabs and miniature rhododendrons. (Why is it that a miniature version of something you dislike is even worse than the ordinary-sized thing?) The back garden, if it deserved the name, was even worse: an impenetrable thicket of shrubs, trees and litter growing hard up against the windows of the flat. A huge amount of work lay ahead.
I worked hard on the front garden throughout the first half of 2015; you can see my progress documented in posts tagged ‘Blank Slate Garden‘. Putting all my energy into this project, I left the back alone, unwilling and unable to begin until the builders had finished their work. For many months, the closest I came to making a start was hacking a path through the dense undergrowth to allow the architect and builders access to the rear wall of the flat. In January 2015, I wrote: “The jungle of shrubs and saplings on the back green [have] grown so close up to our bedroom window that it seems they are trying, like underdressed teenagers outside a nightclub, to actually get inside the building. So I went outside with the loppers and cleared a three-foot gap, then picked up the rubbish that had accumulated on the ground during the time the flat was lived in by students. The things I found! The usual plant pots, crockery, barbecues, planks of wood and plastic bags, but also a decent tarpaulin, a mouldy folding seat, an unopened bag of grass seed, and a spade in near-perfect condition. I think I also found every snail in the universe.”
This photo is the earliest I could find of the back wall of our house. I had already cleared away a considerable amount of shrubbery by the time it was taken. The window was still a window, and the stone sill is visible in the top left hand corner.
Then this happened:
The photo above was taken in August 2015.
And a photo facing the other way shows the communal back green, an enormous space that is largely neglected but for lawn mowing twice a month.
I had ambitious plans for the area outside our back door. In our previous flat, we used to adore sitting out on our little terrace, eating lunch in the sunshine, or late on a summer’s night with a bottle of vino and the place all lit up with lanterns. I missed it and that’s what I wanted to create here.
One problem was the self-seeded ash trees abutting the wall. You can see them in the photo above. They were too close to the house, blocking the light, and I was worried their roots would damage the boundary wall and foundations of the building. We discussed the trees with Mo, the landlord who owns the flat above ours. Mo was also keen to see the trees gone. His tenants had complained that the trees scratched at their kitchen window in the wind, and they blocked too much light. We checked for tree preservation orders and emailed the 14 other landlords from the two blocks that share our back green; no one objected to our cutting the trees down.
We decided to wait until winter before removing the trees, as it would be much less trouble once the branches were bare. In mid-January 2016, with Christmas and our wedding finally out of the way, Mo arrived with chainsaw and ropes. He and The Brazilian set to work on the trees, and I lit the incinerator to burn the smaller branches and debris. The bonfire lasted for over 7 hours.
By the end of the day we were exhausted and kippered by the smoke, but we had achieved a lighter, brighter clearing outside our flat, several buckets of beautiful, soft wood ash to spread over the front garden, and a huge stack of firewood.