"People often say to me: 'What the hell are you doing in my garden?'" A great opening line (well I thought it was funny) from a stand-up comedian at our local pub many years ago, before the likes of Eddie Izzard (compère that night) and Jo Brand (also in the line-up) were famous, and just around the start of my career in gardening, when all I could be trusted with was a lawn mower and a pair of shears. The words came to mind recently while watering plants in my next-door neighbours' garden. They'd gone to their son's wedding in Muir Woods, California and we were to look in every few days to check the post. To my surprise, they were insistent that we didn't need to water the garden; but when two days of intense heat began making containerised plants in our own garden gasp, I simply had to go and check theirs.
I've often thought how well our neighbours' garden sits next to ours in an almost seamless marriage of styles. The previous owners had applied to the BBC to get it designed during the garden-makeover era of the Nineties, but were turned down and had to follow their own instincts. The layout, a simple terrace with a stepping-stone path through planting to a smaller clearing at the back works just fine, and, like ours, is reasonably low maintenance.
Taking up the hose next door gave an interesting perspective on our own space. For a start, I was impressed at how the boundary hedge (ours) offers so much privacy either side. Each garden is predominantly green, carrying a semi-exotic undertone that suits the Sixties-townhouse architecture. Both have Mind-Your-Own-Business (Helxine soleirolii), ours punctuated by Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Niger', our neighbours' embroidered with wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) like droplets of blood. Acanthus, fern and yucca our side, fatsia, bamboo and eucomis their side. Like us, many of their plants were in pots and were dotted around the garden as if they were planted. Whether they have adopted this policy through indecisiveness or (as we have) simply to give us the option of varying the scene, I don't know, but the informality (read that as controlled abandonment if you like) of planting against the geometry of the terrace and path affords it the sort of intimacy I like in a garden. But there was a problem.
Seeing some French lavender that I had given them as a present earlier in the year, I began to have an inkling as to why they might not have wanted me nosing around. Lavender is hopeless without water in a pot, and these were in the final throes of a pitiful demise. How insensitive I had been in offering plants that didn't really associate well with their existing palette! Lavender stoechas with ferns, for Christ's sake!? It plainly showed that I was just trying to get rid of the plants and that my gesture was completely devoid of sincerity. Of course they seemed enthusiastic when I offered the plants, accepting them gracefully like anyone with good manners, but I was doing exactly what I tell friends and clients not to do – offer gifts of plants without even consulting the plant plan. Plants aren't like other unwanted gifts that can be hidden until the person who gave it to you comes to supper.
I couldn't help thinking that going to California for a wedding was an elaborate last resort in the hope that two weeks of neglect would kill the unwanted gifts without offending me. I ceased watering immediately and pulled the blinds down so we didn't have to witness the languishing lavenders, but of course it's done nothing else but rain ever since, and our neighbours have returned to find the plants thriving. By rights they should be seething, especially as they saw that the hose had been disturbed. Instead, they thanked me for watering, so I reckon I'm in the clear. There may be an outside chance that they are secretly cursing me, but I don't think so. They're too nice. I mean, why else would they invite us to their second son's wedding in South Africa next summer?