A garden begins as a dream

... and ends in happiness, callouses and penury. Richard Holledge gets dug in
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The Independent Online
So there I was, standing in a bleak landscape, with yards of barren earth, one rose bush, two hollyhocks, a scrofulous shrub and an optimistic pile of topsoil. It looked like a practice area for the Mars Sojourner; it was, in fact, going to become a garden.

Starting from scratch requires an absurd sense of optimism. Unlike my previous garden -a chaotic mix of sun-loving plants in the shade, big shrubs blocking small borders, and a collapsed pergola - this small domain in Buckinghamshire was going to have everything in its place: colour co- ordinated borders, plants which came out in a spontaneous, but carefully planned, succession of colour and scent, and lots of elegant, classic species. I fed this fantasy with gardening books full of rich colours, lawns like billiard tables, vistas leading to warm brick walls, and wrought- iron arches groaning with the weight of fine, mellow roses.

I reinforced the ideal with visits to Dorset gardens where the pictures in the books came to sun-drenched, bee-buzzing life, clematis clung, wisteria wandered, and even runner beans with their splashy little red flowers ran up and down pergolas. It was as if I' d moved in with Pippa Greenwood.

So far, so good. Well, I hadn't actually done anything. But I did draw up plans.

There was going to be no lawn. This would be a secret haven of herbaceous borders and elegant shrubs artfully concealing hidden corners, well-styled alleys, tasteful pathways and cunning little nooks. So every morning, a year ago this month, I could be found with fork in hand, gazing seriously at the unrealised dream.

Then I started to dig. The first fork broke quite early on. I was trying to prise a lump of flint from its clay moorings and the shaft snapped. The ground wasn't just hard; it was solid: a compacted mass of flint, builder's rubble and clay. A pickaxe might have helped.

"You've got one of those gardens too," remarked a dejected chap in the ironmonger's. He held out calloused, blistered hands as testimony to his work on a self-imposed one-man chain gang.

I was not about to be discouraged at this early date, even by blisters as big as his. Anyway, I'd read the book by Michael Pollan, in which he carves out great chunks of the New York woodland to create a perfect haven of horticultural quietude, so I knew it could be done.

If only. After three months of picking, scraping and forking I came to the first lesson for the new gardener (apart from buying the Reader's Digest Gardening Year book). It wasn't a pickaxe I needed; it was money. I needed to rethink. I needed a JCB.

I contacted a lad from my previous village who had shown early signs of entrepreneurial zeal by washing cars in the neighbourhood, putting up fences and doing any other odd jobs. Now he ran an odd job business himself, on a grand scale. He came, he drove in the JCB, took out the top foot or so of impacted earth, returned with a lorry or two laden with topsoil, laid a strip of lawn and thanked me profusely for pounds 3,000 for two days' work well done.

It was worth it. The topsoil was so crumbly and mulchy, you almost wanted to roll in it.

So now what? It was autumn and the west wind was whistling, so I sensibly bought trees which I thought would be cold resistant, ones that would block out the neighbours, and ones I liked. I bought a flowering cherry because I had had one at the old place, a line-up of Amelanchiers because they do all sorts of things: change colour, have berries, and earn their keep. Then I became a little ambitious with a gleditsia - a yellow, frondy number which came close to death in the frosts of winter - and a snowdrop tree, which impressed even our gardening expert Anna Pavord. I bought bulbs and tubers by the ton.

Round about Christmas I read in Anna's column that it was the time to plant roses, so off I went to an untidy nursery, clutching a list of old- fashioned roses. I had this idea of creating a walkway with ramblers. Needless to say, in my impatience I did not buy any one of the roses on my list - apart from an Albertine - but tried hard not to buy those lurid numbers that grace most gardens. I bought 12 (for pounds 50) with names such as `Compassion', `Dublin Bay', `Fragrant Cloud' and `Handle' (sic).

I was glowing with excitement at these bargains, and shared the news with a friend who works in a garden centre. "I thought you would have bought something more classic than that," she said. Damn.

Then I decided that what every country garden needs is a herb garden and a vegetable patch. The fact that the perpetual spinach is like a great bright green hedge, the lettuces have bolted and the peas so ineptly staked up that they are slumped in piles over the gooseberry bush, has done little to diminish my pride. But then, there is nothing to compare with your very own home-grown pea out of the pod. I've had about 28 so far. As for the herbs, the only one I recognise with any certainty is the mint. But it goes well with Pimm's.

Now I'm in that fallow period of the summer when it doesn't seem to make sense to buy anything new, which is a comfort to the bank manager, but gives me the chance to plan the big autumn push. I've got to have a magnolia; I need a wisteria; I long for eaves groaning with vines, walls lined with pyracantha. What about 15 varieties of clematis, mingling elegantly with even more climbing roses? Then, of course, there's a pergola or two, not cheap, from the local blacksmith, several tubs, a bird bath, and a hammock for the cats...

It all becomes compulsive, particularly as the enduring miracle, the great treat, is that things grow. In a moment of responsibility I resisted the blandishments of the garden centres - can you imagine the willpower it took not to buy 10 lavender plants for pounds 35 last week? - and bought packets of seeds. Another miracle. You chuck in handfuls of cornflowers, gypsophila, marigolds, sweet peas and clarkia and the next thing there are small forests of colour. It's amazing how much territory you can cover with a humble nasturtium. I've got so much night-scented stock that it's like coming home to some bucolic tart's parlour.

Talking of which, if Michael Douglas can be treated for sexual addiction every time he is unfaithful, there ought to be some sort of therapy centre for sad, impecunious gardeners addicted to garden centres. They are far more seductive and a lot more expensive. But then, what separates the Bob Flowerdews from the boys is the ability to get into the greenhouse and propagate, grow from seeds, imbue your cuttings with that hormone rooting stuff and wait for a twig to burst through the greenhouse roof a fully-fledged tree. Is there time? I don't think so. Is there enough money? Never.

Funds: Go for a bank loan, or use an overdraft on your credit card - that way the 12-13 per cent interest is payable on a diminishing sum each month.

Practicalities: Nurseries and garden centres: Little Heath, near Potten End. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire (01442 864 951) - friendly, knowledgeable, with an improbable Indian arts centre. South Heath, near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire (01494 864 252) - workmanlike, helpful. World's End, between Aylesbury and Wendover (01296 623 116) - brash, massed ranks of plants and gear.

Books: `Second Nature', by Michael Pollan (Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99); `The Reader's Digest Gardening Year', pounds 19.95; `The New Kitchen Garden', by Anna Pavord (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 16.99); `A Gentle Plea for Chaos', by Mirabel Ostler (Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99).

Inspirations: Cranborne Manor, Cranborne, Dorset (open March to September, 9am-5pm); Edmonsham Hall, near Wimborne, Dorset (open April to October, Wednesdays 2pm-5pm); Heale Plant Centre, Middle Woodford, near Salisbury, Wiltshire (open daily).

Anna Pavord returns next week