From clay field to a family oasis: the story of my parents’ garden

How my mother and father’s persistence and skill transformed a weed-infested tract of land in to the backdrop for family life
Gaie and Toby Owen on the drinks terrace beside the pond © Rick Pushinsky

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Thirty six years ago my parents, Gaie and Toby, bought an 18th-century cottage and saw on the Land Register that they owned an extra quarter acre of a neighbouring field across a stream from their garden. It was made of leaden clay that characterises the Thames Valley, the kind of clay that sticks to boots and spades and weighs as heavily on sole as the body.

Anyone with my parents’ collective gardening experience might have been tempted to avoid the monstrous clay, concrete it over or give it back to the farmer but my redoubtable parents decided to turn the deeply furrowed earth into an extension of the garden. This seemed particularly ambitious when Oxfordshire’s winter winds and penetrating chill settled in for the first season followed, in spring, by a spectacular crop of bindweed, couchgrass and nettles.

As the years went by the weed-infested clay received barrow loads of labour and attention until now, when my parents sold the cottage, the estate agent’s brochure described the garden as “magnificent”. Actually, by then it was two gardens, both magnificent. Toby’s realm was a symphony of lupins, roses, iris, peonies, dahlias, snapdragons, wisteria, mulberry and damsons around the cottage. Gaie’s garden, transformed from the unpromising field to a formal area enclosed by hedges and included a vegetable garden and pond where newts eyed friends and family as they sipped evening drinks and listened to blackbirds. In summer the garden was chocolate-box pretty and in winter, when clay was frozen into submission, it became a glittery theatre of icicles and frost. Year round, the cottage was filled with garden flowers including Christmas when the regular trio of holly, ivy and mistletoe was joined by delicate-looking pale blue flowers of Iris unguicularis — renamed ugly-style from its original, I. stylosa — and late roses.

Lupins, iris, roses, aquilegia, peonies and kniphofia in front of the cottage © Jane Owen
Sweet rocket beside a chinoiserie-style bridge © Jane Owen

This idyll was created in-between my parents’ working lives (Gaie still works) and became a refuge from the working week and a venue for parties including my wedding, and regular visits from family and friends. The clay-to-soil transubstantiation demanded focus and skill. Gardening books explain how easy it is to transform intractable clay by digging in organic matter and adding clay breaker, gypsum, which releases the soil’s fertility and makes it more manageable. Gaie knew better after clay-and-bindweed battles in other Thames Valley and Teeside gardens.

She used builder’s sand that had been left in the garden plus enormous amounts of home-made garden compost, and straw, mostly applied as a top dressing rather than being dug in.

In the early days, the vegetable area was sliced into 14 narrow beds, with larger beds respectively for soft fruit bushes and asparagus, and flower borders beneath the apple alley, made from a job lot of saplings that were sold off cheap at the end of the planting season. In order to avoid soil compaction no one was allowed to step on any growing area. She limed it, once, and added blood, fish and bone as fertiliser, in order to keep the garden organic.

The cottage from the kitchen garden with onions in the foreground © Rick Pushinsky
The decaying wooden mermaid © Rick Pushinsky

Digging happened but usually only in order to plant, or to remove fat white bindweed roots, evil arrow-sharp roots of couch grass and the leathery variety that anchors nettle. At the southern end of the transformed field, where the views stretched across grazing cattle and horses to wooded hills, my mother made a raised-brick drinks terrace. It included a pool and a wooden mermaid backed by a (very) mixed hedge of hawthorn and hazel — which was in turn bordered by the stream.

The stream found its way down to the Thames between the new and the original gardens spanned by a couple of sleepers with chicken wire nailed into place to stop us slipping into the water and flag iris below. Our cousin, the landscaper Patrick Phillips, suggested putting bridges at the southern and northern boundaries to help circulation between the two gardens. My mother added Chinoiserie sides to them, copied from the nearby Pusey estate.

In 1982 she planted a protective wind break of Rosa rugosa on the west. Within that she added a hedge of beech along north, east and west, and yew on the south in order to create the ornamental garden, a hortus conclusus quartered by box hedging infilled with roses, crocus, narcissi, iris, catmint, penstemon, snake’s head fritillary, lavender, honeysuckle and more. Each quarter also had a tree at its centre: quince, medlar, Cox’s Orange Pippins and bay.

Pink sweet Williams © Rick Pushinsky
Self-seeded poppies © Rick Pushinsky

My brother, Jo, and I bought a Japanese Elm sapling that now stands 30ft high. Friends and family bought other trees that made a shelter belt against the north wind and a line of pylons half a mile away. A grove of Jerusalem artichokes appeared to the west of what became the vegetable garden, a favourite venue for the local pheasants.

There were a few failures. The Rosa rugosa hedge, advertised as stock proof, was cropped to the roots by adjacent cattle. A magnolia proved by its speedy death that we had not planted on acid soil. Couch grass got into the pond, pierced the liner with its needle-ended roots, and drained it. The pond had to be refurbished. Pheasants and rabbits eschewed lettuce in favour of chewing all forms of brassica and legume, broad bean, French bean, runner bean, climbing bean and mangetout until a cat appeared and frightened them away.

Mostly though, the garden grew and flourished while babies were born and new friends made. The cottage continued to be decked out with flowers and, increasingly, my mother’s glorious meals were made from what she grew. Peas of every kind, broad beans, asparagus, potatoes, rocket, tomatoes, gooseberries, strawberries, artichokes, raspberries, red currants, blackcurrants, scorzonera, parsnip, globe and Jerusalem artichoke, spinach, salads, onions, shallots, garlic, leeks calabrese, broccoli, chard. A modern octagonal greenhouse and three mighty compost heaps powered the garden along with Gaie and her weekly gardener (a different) Jane.

My parents walking to the cottage © Rick Pushinsky

In late winter and early spring the ground beneath the damson tree alley in my father’s garden was awash with pink, white and deep pink from the species cyclamen he planted and that have multiplied along with snowdrops and aconites, blue and white anemones, tiny narcissi, followed by foaming cow parsley. Toby planted roses and wisteria up the front of the cottage and lilac in the boundary hedges; roses too over the cesspit outlet around which he arranged a deeply eccentric croquet pitch. The eccentricity infected the lawn that became a mix of moss, clover, bugloss, speedwell, yarrow and almost everything else except grass.

The steady progress of the garden made a reassuring backdrop to the working week and the ups and downs of bringing up a young family. And my parents’ hospitality and welcome, their conversation, their cottage, their year-by-year more beautiful garden had an enchantment that will thrive and grow in the collective family imagination. My youngest, Miranda, emailed from Berlin shortly before my parents finally left: “I have a strong memory of the summer house — the smell of dry, hot wood in the summer, the chest with the pearl horse inside, the pond filled with angel hair like pond weed, the dens which were worlds unto themselves, the glass bell plant covers, with algae and snail tracks on the insides, the bonfires and of course the wooden mermaid ever decomposing.”

Jane Owen is editor of House & Home

Photographs: Rick Pushinsky

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