My Garden

Jane Carlton was born and brought up in Surrey but lived in West Yorkshire working as a librarian for many years, in higher education, the NHS and, latterly, in a secondary school.  Soon after leaving that post, and deciding that she’d be happier not going to work again, she began volunteering for a homeless charity and with the National Arts Education Archive based at Bretton Hall, where she had once been a librarian. For many years Jane had felt a strong desire to live in Scotland, the land of her father, and at this point she felt ‘it’s now or never, just do it’, so she did.

Jane lives in the south of Scotland and is on the other side of 65.


When I moved into my cottage the garden was virtually empty – just a blank page waiting for some words. The cottage had been a rental property, but had been empty for a while, so my next-door neighbour had used it to grow vegetables and, apart from a small privet hedge, it had nothing much else in it except the occasional potato plant.

This garden presented such a challenge – where to start? Well, that was quite easy at first because, in the removals van (the biggest the company had) was my collection of plants in pots – mainly fruit bushes, hydrangeas, hardy geraniums, perennials and a cherry tree that I was definitely not going to leave behind. 

It took two hours to remove the pots from the van, before any furniture could make an appearance. The hydrangeas were placed alongside the path while the fruit bushes, perennials and the cherry were duly planted out. By the way,  hydrangeas, though not much good for wildlife, are a bit of a passion, so they are good for me.

I’m one of those people who does a fair bit of planning, researching varieties and different possibilities, with rough ideas initially drawn out on paper, who then goes on to randomly place and plant. As a result, even though I’ve had the benefit of a garden designer’s expertise, and it taught me a lot, the initial plan has changed somewhat.

My aim for the garden is to encourage biodiversity, providing as much food and shelter for wildlife, and me, as I can. Not just pollinators, but bugs in general, which will attract birds and amphibians. Remember what David Attenborough said: 

“If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well.  But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse”.

Essentially, everything has a chance, or a second chance, so I have become a bit of a plantaholic – not just purchasing (often from the sad corner) but rescuing and rehoming discarded plants, saving seedlings which look interesting and taking cuttings. This also relates to what is already in the garden, or arrives unbidden – the self-sown and the ‘weeds’. Close planting (I don’t like gaps) does help to keep unwanted self-sown plants at bay but can mean frequent lifting and dividing as others grow – more plants to put somewhere else or to swap!

Leaving dandelions to do their thing is quite hard even though they are such a valuable source for pollinators: in my garden they are removed if they are swamping another plant; if not they are left alone. They are so useful, not only for insects but for the sparrows and bluetits who can be seen tugging on the seedheads. Other plants, such as Cardamine pratensis (aka milkmaids and cuckoo flower), are less inclined to swamp even though they do spread themselves around, and are usually left where they are.  

For many years now I’ve not used herbicides, pesticides, peat or animal by-products such as manure, aspiring to be fully organic or even vegan organic, but I’m not there yet. I also stopped digging a long time ago, to try and minimise disrupting soil life – the bacteria, worms and fungi, but it can also reduce the spread of weeds. A no-dig philosophy doesn’t go down well with everyone, but it does seem to be moving up the agenda now.

As for pollinators, and bugs in general, the best environments are those that are closest to our native, natural habitats (ref: buglife.org.uk) and this may mean doing not very much. However much space you have, there will be an opportunity to provide a feeding station for passing insects. If you think single flowers rather than double, which can be difficult for some insects to access, and aim for a succession of flowers throughout the season from spring to autumn, this would be a valuable contribution. 

According to Buglife, in the UK there are 16 million gardens covering 2 million acres, so every garden can help, whether it’s a large woodland or a hanging basket. Different habitats and places to shelter like log piles, climbing plants, piles of stones and compost heaps as well as bug hotels and bog gardens can all make a huge difference.

My project this year is to work on the far end of the garden, using forest garden principles where possible. The plan is to plant trees, shrubs, fruit bushes, perennials and ground cover which will provide food for me and for wildlife. There will be a wildlife pond and any wild flowers that appear will be able to do their thing without much hindrance as this part of the garden will be less managed than the rest.

Everything seems to grow faster and bigger here compared with other gardens I’ve had. The soil is wonderful – almost black, crumbly and obviously very fertile. The story I was told when I first arrived was that, because of its location close to the old harbour, when ships arrived from Ireland, the ballast (Irish soil) was removed and deposited on the gardens on my side of the street. A number of people have confirmed this so I’m hoping it’s true. To add to the mystery, I have found a number of pieces of clay pipe when planting. It’s not confirmation but I like to conjure up a picture of an Irish man or woman resting at the end of a hard day outside their cottage in the evening sun, smoking their pipe.

Over the six years I’ve been here, the garden has truly grown and, alongside that, the amount of wildlife has become one of the joys. There is a flock of sparrows which visits several times a day (at least two pairs nest behind the gutter in front of the house) and to watch them bathing in the bird bath or having a dust bath in the bit you’ve just readied for planting is wonderful. They also forage in the borders surrounding the patio and in the bags of garden waste waiting to go to the tip. I had intended to keep the privet hedge trimmed but decided to leave it as the sparrows use it most days in their squabbling, cheery, noisy way. An unexpected bonus was the lovely, highly-scented flowers it produces. All this I can see from my kitchen window. 

To watch a thrush beating a snail against the dyke, to catch the toad before it gets into the house and finds the bedroom (again) is wonderful; avoiding the frog as it hops under the geraniums, marvellous. Even the humble woodlice (‘cheesybobs’ when I was a child), the many spiders racing across the gravel round the patio and the ladybirds huddling in groups in the dead flower heads are wonderful. Everything, even slugs and snails, are a wonder and have their place.  

Jane Carlton

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