Country & Garden: Water, water everywhere

Garden Workshop: What is the best way to renovate a waterlogged garden in the Lake District? Anna Pavord offers a solution

WE MOVED recently from Cornwall to Cumbria and have inherited a garden of about half an acre which was last cared for 12 years ago. Neighbours have told us that this was once a lovely garden and we think that several of the remaining trees and bushes look interesting, if neglected. We have started to clear out the elder, hazel, sycamore, etc, that have seeded, and have begun to make a patch for a vegetable garden, but we have hit several problems.

The area outside the side door (and main entrance) becomes soggy when it rains. The levels are erratic. Can we make it drier? If so, how? I know it has rained a lot recently, but even the path sinks under water.

We know where we would like to put the vegetable/fruit garden, but have been told that nearby trees will take all the goodness out of the soil. If so, can we overcome this? I am used to a Cornish garden and also want to know how best to continue to grow my favourite squashes, cape gooseberries, etc, in a northern climate.

We have a rough idea now of the original layout of the garden, but have requirements of our own, so the garden must evolve. The three children need an area of lawn; I need a herb garden and we want to keep a "wild" boundary next to the road.

However, we also want to work within the existing framework as much as possible and to incorporate some of the surviving trees and shrubs. How do we go about rescuing the neglected ones?

EMMA MACKINTOSH, her husband Ross and their three children (Alex, who is six, five-year-old Katherine, and John, three) live in a long, low, white-harled farmhouse near Hawkshead in the Lake District. The house is beautifully situated, sheltered by rising land and well screened by trees, including ancient beeches. People must have been gardening round this house since at least the 1600s and, despite the recent neglect, the Mackintoshes have taken on a place with some superb features.

An old stone wall marks the southern boundary of the garden and immediately behind that is a wonderfully wild stream (sorry - beck), hung with ferns and mosses. Along this boundary, somebody who knew his plants has set fine rhododendrons, acers and azaleas, some of them now 12-15ft high. The path to the kitchen door is made from huge black flagstones, which continue round the south and west sides of the house. The site is flattish and the soil, though probably hungry, as many acid soils are, looked light and easy to work.

Having taken on a house that was a ruin, and a garden that was completely impenetrable, I do not underestimate the slog that is needed to clear undergrowth and restore some sense of order and delight in a garden. Fortunately, Emma Mackintosh seemed more than equal to the task.

Most importantly, she was keen to release the potential of the garden. She felt (hooray!) that a garden un-gardened was a criminal waste of opportunity. And she had ideas and energy. At the moment, she is doing a textile design course, but had already dug an impressive vegetable plot and (with her husband) released many rhododendrons from choking bramble and elder. I felt like getting out my fork and joining her there and then.

Ross Mackintosh trained as a land agent, so he will know better than I the best way to drain the land by the side door. Only time will tell how necessary this may be. Although the Lake District was severely flooded on the day of my visit, I got to the Mackintoshes' door dry-shod. But water is weird stuff, with a mind of its own. If it decides to be troublesome, a simple land drain exploiting the lie of the land towards the beck would keep it out of harm's way. The wide flagstone path at least prevents the area immediately around the house from churning into mud.

The patch the Mackintoshes have chosen for their vegetable plot is unlikely to suffer from the presence of apple trees at one end of it. The soil is light and stony, so will, anyway, need regular feeding. They are lucky in that they have access to as much farmyard manure as they want, and that a field gate leads from the lane directly into the lower part of the garden, close to the vegetable patch. A tractor could deliver a load of FYM without upsetting any other part of the garden.

But will Emma Mackintosh be able to go on growing the squashes and other tender produce she enjoyed in her Cornish garden? I don't see why not. Although, geographically, they have made an enormous leap north, growing conditions may not be as different as she believes. For a start, their Cumbrian house is sheltered. And it is low, on a level with Esthwaite Water opposite. It is also much sunnier, she says, than their Cornish house, which was tucked away in a deep coombe.

But she will need artificial help in extending the growing season. The Mackintoshes have acquired a greenhouse and this, together with some rolls of Agralan fleece to protect crops from early frosts, should be all she needs. She can start the squash seedlings in 3in pots on her window ledge, harden them off in the greenhouse and set them out in early June already well grown. Tomatoes will probably do better in the greenhouse than outside.

The layout of the garden was not entirely satisfactory. Mrs Mackintosh had discovered two beds that seemed once to lie either side of a stone- edged path, but they were rather lost in the expanse of grass and did not relate to any other features in the garden. Nor did the strip of path between them link to any access from the house.

She wanted somewhere to grow herbs and flowers, but I did not feel this was the right place. The beds would always look as though they had been dumped from on high by a passing auk. But the west side of the house joined on to a south-facing stone boundary wall, which made a wonderfully warm corner, butting onto some huge flagstones.

Protected as it was on two sides, and with the best aspect in the garden, this would be the most natural place to make a large, squarish bed, where herbs could be mixed with bright annuals such as eschscholzia and Shirley poppies, with Iceland and Welsh poppies too. "I'm a very bright person," said Mrs Mackintosh. "I love colour." Poppies, and other annuals, could deliver as much as she wanted.

There was space for a bench either side of the massive chimney stack, where you could sit with your back against the west wall of the house, looking out at the sun setting over Esthwaite. Thyme from the herb garden would soon creep out and colonise the cracks between the flagstones.

Unfortunately, there was already a snake in this Eden. An oil tank had got to the sunny south wall before the Mackintoshes. Colour-washed trellis, covered with sweet peas or nasturtiums, will have to be thrown up as a disguise. Even so, it worried me. Who on earth could be mad enough to waste a south-facing wall in Cumbria on an oil tank?

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