We live in a traditional Edinburgh tenement flat, with its own front garden and a shared ‘back green’. A back green is a large walled area of grass suitable for drying clothes, beating carpets, letting the cat oot and so on. Every Edinburgh tenement has its own back green, and they range from manicured, inventively gardened, sociable areas that are an absolute joy to spend time in, to overgrown wastelands filled with abandoned bikes and the skeletons of cats that never found their way home. Ours was the latter type. Trees grew right up to the windows of our flat, blocking light from the rooms and doubtless damaging the foundations with their roots. No one ever went out there, as our neighbour averred to us shortly after we moved in. I could see it would be hard work righting these wrongs, not least because the space was not ours alone and I sensed that resistance to change may be on the cards. Any changes would have to be subtle and gradual if we newly-arrived upstarts were to avoid upsetting longstanding residents.
Therefore I set to work on our private front garden, which was ours to do what we liked with. It was covered in an uninspiring arrangement of square concrete paving slabs and gravel, with a few overgrown shrubs and pots, and an eight-foot high, four-foot wide privet hedge surrounding it on three sides. It was gloomy, neglected, and unloved. Over the first months of 2015 I cleared away the concrete slabs, cut back the hedge, dug over the soil, and created a brand new garden from scratch. You can follow its ongoing progress by searching under the tag, ‘Blank Slate Garden‘.
This is what the garden looked like in November 2014, when we bought the flat:
And this is what the garden looked like in September 2015:
In January 2016, with work on the front garden completed and another non-garden-related project out of the way, I made a start on the back green. We had already removed much of the undergrowth next to our flat so that the builders could install our French door. Now, with the approval of all the neighbours, we removed four or five self-sown ash trees and then I set to work building a circular brick terrace with a path and flowerbeds. There was some initial concern from one or two residents about the extent of shrub pruning and cutting back that was going on, but once the small area outside our French door began to look good, I started receiving compliments, and eventually a couple of neighbours even ventured out and began joining in with the gardening.
This is what the back garden looked like in the summer of 2015, just after the French door had been put in:
This is what the back garden looked like in the summer of 2016 after the trees had been cleared and the terrace had just been built:
Please note that many blog posts that I wrote before November 2014 refer to my gardening exploits at our old rented ground-floor flat a few streets away from where we currently live.
What is it like to garden in Scotland?
Scotland is a temperate region of the north of the UK, characterised by low population levels, exceptional scenery, fantastic air quality, and terrible weather! Edinburgh is in many ways a perfect city: beautiful, clean, liberal and affordable, but with low average temperatures and high rainfall gardening can be a challenge. Because we are a coastal city, we do not see the heavy frosts and snowfalls experienced by the central and northern parts of Scotland, and the majority of rain falls on the west coast (those poor Glaswegians). We never undergo the water restrictions that our poor compatriots in South East England frequently suffer, meaning that we are never banned from using our hosepipes. But then, we rarely need to use them at all, thanks to summer-long rainfall.
Spring moves northwards at walking pace, roughly 13 miles a day, and our growing season is a good three weeks behind that of Southern England. The advantage of this is that forgetting to sow a packet of seeds, or perform the Chelsea chop, or prune the roses on time is never a problem. Sunlight is less intense in Scotland, but we receive at least an extra hour of daylight compared with the UK’s southerly regions and this makes up for it. Against a sheltered, south-facing wall, many tender sun-loving plants will do extremely well. The challenge is, finding out which, and then remembering to mulch them well in winter!