Writing this, I realise I truly am not young any more. I now reserve the right to dance badly in suits at weddings, say ‘ooof’ when I stand up and dismiss modern technological trends like bitcoin as passing fads.
What began as a necessary bit of labour, became a craft, and slowly a love – turning our muddy brown patch of dumpsite into an English country garden. We all know this must include a few things:
- outdoor relaxing space
- year round green grass
- opulent flower display
fond memories of potting flowers, going to garden centres, rolling turf, building little walls, cutting hedges, cutting sloping lawns, scooping dog poop, carrying bags of cement and generally keeping the patch to the back of our house as close to the Engish Garden Idyll as my family deemed possible as a child. Now its my turn here at Skywells.
Since then, I’ve learned a few things – mostly related to gardening in the context of Southern China. Here goes:
1/. Its all about the soil
There’s heavy clay here. Boggy when its wet, rock hard when its dry. Plants do not like this. Fortunately our patch has been used as a cabbage patch for 50 years with local ladies loyally pouring in bodily effluent, compost, ash and god knows what. It is also raised up by a metre helping drainage. We’ve become fairly intimately acquainted with a local chicken farmer who gives us pre-roasted s**t by the bag.
When it rains, it pours and it doesnt go anywhere. Originally anySCALE designers suggested we dig drainage trenches around the lawn. We scoffed and said ‘dont need that crap’. We were not right. Grass roots do not like sitting in the wet. So far we have re-laid the lawn four times and treat it broadly as an annual shrub.
At home we would go to the garden centre in spring, load up trolleys of little annuals, young trees, seeds, a few larger shrubs and think how hard it was to get it all home in the family estate car. How naive we were. In Wuyuan, there is no garden shop. Online is a game changer, if you have the stomach to wade through chinese apps and roll the dice with taobao. Find whats local. if I see a good looking little tree on a walk in the woods, its coming back with me. Selina has an aunty who runs a shower flop in Shanghai that has been a godsend.
4/. English seeds don’t work here
Ive tried sweet peas 3 years in a row. It gets too hot too soon. We raised some eyebrows bringing 200 daffodil bulbs back in my suitcase, only for them to all come up blind. (they’re 20cm deep). Get what works locally. Hydrangeas, nasturtiums, cosmos, zinnias, Nicotianas are my go-to. Roses are fantastic, but disagree with the rain. Hydrangeas need 3-4 years to start flowering properly. The best thing has been experience and mucking around in the garden.
5/. The seasons are mental
We have it all here. Winter is broadly the same as the UK and gets below freezing. Spring is mild and then all at once monsoon when the plum rains hit. Summer is hot like Arizona. There are very few plants willing to put up with this sort of treatment.
6/. Whatever gnomes push rocks up into the garden in the UK are active here in China too.
We spent years in the UK clearing beds of bricks, going down by a metre spending days picking out every last one. Then next year as soon as you dip a spade in the soil – chink! its full of bricks again. We have exactly the same problem in Wuyuan. A house burned down about 50 years ago where our lawn now is. The pieces of limestone I pull out are handsome once they are removed – but literally we are talking wheelbarrows of the stuff, I’d wager around a tonne. By hand.
Its different. Its very rewarding. I’m already making my own children mow the lawn. It doesn’t look like the gardens in magazine pictures, but its great to spend time in – to roll around on the grass in the sunshine with the birds is something I’ve found nowhere else in China. This is the one bit of the house I really built by myself with my hands.
Its also an ongoing project. Woe betide the southern Chinese gardener who doesn’t weed for a week in springtime. The jungle effect is immediate.
Guests have asked if its a sort of performance, that when they arrive to the fancy boutique inn, the boss is brushing mud out of his hair, dropping a pile of sticks and walking out of the garden. Its the lifestyle.