Well, what did you all do during the pandemic? One thing we've done is transform our mini city garden into a patio. It's an odd shape, long and narrow, wider at one end, which requires screening from bins and bike pods. It's not a space that invites luxurious cultivation, but it's a decent enough 'sitootery' on warm sunny days.
We'd rather let it go since an issue with a sewage pipe within the building required the services of Scottish Water to fix some months ago. Weeds were taking over. Our lovely azalea that came out in a splash of deep fuschia pink every spring had entirely disappeared. Likewise one of our two contrasting clematis that trickled over the trellised railings. My husband may have pruned them back beyond recall this time last year.
We're old now, though it pains me to admit it, and we're neither of us gardeners. We dislike weeds and, even more, bending down to eliminate them. So we wanted low maintenance.
My husband is a benign opportunist. He saw two men, father and son, working in a front garden along the street and asked them to give us a quote. They proposed some patterned stone slabbing, remnants from a previous job. It looked good, but we felt their quote was too high and decided to seek some others. He then advertised our needs among acquaintances at his mosque. A Syrian turned up, a friend of the brother of the man who had transformed our bathroom while we were in China a decade ago. Khalid proposed ceramic tiles instead of stone slabs. He'd constructed patios and terraces in his home country and had photographs as evidence. His quote was only slightly over budget, but my husband was keen to give him the job.
So, on a recent sunny Saturday, he arrived with the tiles stacked in the back of his car, and all his gear including a small cutting machine that rasped away at intervals throughout the day. He was impressively organised. He arrived at 10.30am and finished the job after 7pm. The two Scots would have taken two days.
When I saw the finished article, I wasn't immediately thrilled. It's immaculately done. The whole surface carefully earthed and flattened, each tile meticulously measured and placed, the shaped ends cut to the nearest millimetre. A triumph of geometry. All white, it seemed to glare in the sunlight. But I've come round. It's a pleasure to walk on. It lightens up the front of the house, contrasting with the dark city sandstone and our remaining clematis which has dark purple flowers. It's now a blank canvas for whatever we might choose to decorate it with.
This is where I miss my mother. She was an indefatigable gardener. As was her father, who kept bees and hens and cultivated colourful herbaceous borders in their family home surrounded by sheep pasture and a prospect of hills either side of Loch Ness. I stayed there for 18 months or so when I was a toddler while my mother finished her medical degree at Aberdeen University. I was often admonished in the wake of my wobbling forays into his domain: 'Tut, tut. Off granpa's borders!' Maybe that gave me an allergy to gardening. But I think I just didn't inherit the gene. Books were more my thing.
Anyway, my husband and I decided to investigate our nearest branch of Homebase for some preliminary ideas. What to buy? And specifically, what to buy at this time of year? Shouldn't we wait until next spring? But you know how it is. You're in the mood. You want to get going.
My husband fancied a palm tree, well, more of a shrub. A spiky tuft. A friend suggested a dwarf maple. I wasn't sure. We don't have much room. I saw some lightweight, resin-lined pistachio green planters I fancied. I was afraid large heavy ceramic bowls might crack the tiles. But what to put in them? I wandered round and round, leaning on a trolley, pondering. I fancied some colour, but the season for hanging baskets is past. There were roses in bloom, but for how long? And what about scents? Lavender? Orange blossom? Jasmine? We needed to do some research.
So back home I googled 'Patio Plants'. I definitely want another azalea. A Japanese 'Geisha Purple' evergreen appealed. So did a Photinia 'Little Red Robin' evergreen and a Loropitalum 'Chinese Fire Dance' tree. What about an olive tree? My husband loves olives. Would it survive? Would it thrive in our climate? Would it produce fruit? My eyes danced. We could have a lemon tree, or could we? One of his sisters had a lemon tree in their courtyard in Fes. There was a Japanese Maple, Acer Palmatum Pitropurpureum. Now there's a name to conjure with. And a rival to the azalea, a salvia 'Madeline'.
As I write, this project is ongoing. Any advice will be warmly welcomed.
Since I left home after university, I haven't lived anywhere with my own garden. I grew up in houses blessed with gardens. My parents' first home, a semi-detached in Polmont, had a front and back garden, screened from the road by a high privet hedge. There was a fuschia between us and our next-door neighbour. I loved the flowers, like dancing ballerinas.
Later, we lived in a rather grand schoolhouse in West Lothian. A whole half-acre of ground, with a lawn at the front where I learned to cycle, an extensive fruit and vegetable plot behind and even a wood in the back with a stream beyond. We spent a great deal of time in it climbing trees. But when the 1960s and comprehensive education loomed, a new school was built and our house was to be demolished. So we moved to Edinburgh and my parents transformed the wasteland surrounding our new build house into an impressive garden.
Those are lost Paradises. From then on, my working life habituated me to nomadic abodes in rooms with elderly ladies, servants' quarters, shared flats, university halls of residence, a London YWCA. The first property I owned was a room and kitchen in Glasgow with a front garden you could barely squeeze into. Out back were drying greens and remnants of old brick wash houses, which at one stage were overrun with feral cats, until a posse of men in mackintoshes arrived one day to remove them.
We started our married life in a one-bedroom basement flat in Marchmont on Edinburgh's southside, which had patio doors into an extensive garden, rarely used by any of our neighbours. I liked that garden, but the flat was too small, house prices in that sought after area of the city were high and the poll tax was upon us. We moved north where money went further. This flat suits our needs, but the communal garden at the back is often busy and neighbours' washing hangs out nearly every day from April till October. It's nice to have just a wee bit of outdoor space to ourselves.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh