GARDENING / Hope springs in a stony bed: Mary Keen's garden season by season: Autumn

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THE Cotswolds are famous for gardens, but after six months in our new house I am beginning to wonder why. The climate is cold, the gradients are steep and the soil is stony.

Our last garden was on a gentle, south-facing slope. The gravelly soil drained fast but was easy to work, and around the house it was always warm. Abutilons often lasted the winter in Berkshire; there was a bay tree 20ft tall and we pruned our roses before Christmas. Here, the accepted principles seem to be quite different. Gardening is much harder work and the wind is wicked to tender plants. We have not yet experienced the winter, but locals imply that snow is bound to fall.

And then there are the stones. Fourteen barrow-loads, from a bed 14 yards long and two yards wide, is an average score for initial preparation before planting - and like the raisins in the muesli, more stones keep rising to the top. But unlike the raisins, of which there are never enough, there is an infinite number of stones. They are bad for the back and temper, but undeniably useful for building terraces and steps, which are also a feature of Cotswold gardens. So far, our own quarrying has provided all the building materials we need.

When we arrived here, the best aspect of the house was spoilt by a gravel sweep in front of the south-facing windows and the outlook over the lawn was darkened by too much overgrowth. A 30ft hedge of thuya stretched along the east side of the grass and there was a dense shrubbery to the south. On the western edge, two ragged cypresses appeared above a hedge of spotted laurel and lilac. The house, which is tall, was hemmed in on all sides and we knew the whole area needed opening up.

We increased the feeling of space in front of the house by removing the thuya hedge. This turned out to be surface-rooting, so it was not as difficult a task as we had thought. The hedge and the cypresses were felled by a local tree surgeon, who left us a mountain of home-grown forest bark that has come in very useful for mulching. At around pounds 250 for the clearance work, this was money well spent.

We cut down and uprooted the lilacs and snowberry on the southern boundary ourselves. Some are still putting their heads above the parapet, but relentless slashing ought to discourage them in time. If not, it will have to be chemical warfare. The setting of the house is now transformed, but on the wildest days the west wind whips round the corner and turns into a southern gale.

Clearance on a major scale is nerve-racking and involves much peering out of high windows to check what you might see if the view were clear. The thuya hedge did conceal much of our neighbour's farmyard, but it also hid a beautiful wood. It was replaced by a yew hedge, which will, in time and with plenty of dried blood, edit out the mechanical aspects of the farmyard and allow us to see the wood. I expect it to grow a foot a year (those who groan at the slowness of yew as a hedging plant have never used dried blood).

To the west of the house, we inherited a small orchard sloping to a pair of rose beds filled with hybrid teas. Below that, the slope continued to a bank of heather and Hypericum. This east-facing stretch was not enticing, and was the second area that we tackled.

Between two walls we had built with the help of a local dry-stone waller, we made a level terrace for the Bed of Fourteen Wheelbarrow Loads. For the time being, this is filled with agapanthus, sweet peas, peonies, hollyhocks, honeysuckle and plenty of Penstemon. Where the ground rises steeply, a difficult south-facing bank has been planted with rosemary, lavender and box. This ground is sheer and can only be stood upon with the utmost care, but the shrubs should hold it if they can get through their first Cotswold winter. Weeding, meanwhile, is alarming; I am working on a technique for using a mop dipped in weedkiller for the most tenacious plants.

The orchard above the new terrace is an easier proposition. The formal rose beds are now grassed over with a wildflower mixture, and once we have another tree - a Discovery, perhaps - to add to the five large Bramleys, the orchard will begin to look quite settled. A combination of wildflowers and fruit trees is always a winner, and is more likely to succeed on limestone where competition from grass is less strong. Poor soils do have their compensations: the orchard grass here has never looked untidy, though we have just had it mown so that bulbs can be planted this autumn.

Being extravagant with bulbs is a temptation that new gardeners find hard to resist. Dreams are slow to realise when you are labouring to change the layout of a garden and planting comes low on the list of things to do, but once you have a place to put things, bulbs are what you should plant. In six months, the dream can become a reality. It is easy to imagine the orchard covered in pale crocuses of a pale lilac species (tommasinianus), followed by small wild daffodils (Narcissus lobularis). And it may be that tulips in the well-drained, stony soil will survive here if planted deeply enough.

Autumn is for visualising, and anything seems possible as the catalogues arrive. Preparing to de-stone the spaces that remain is less daunting if you keep a picture of what it will be like when the garden is complete. I haven't enjoyed anything so much for years.-

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