Turning rough land into a lawn is never easy, but when the plot in question faces the sea on the north east coast of Scotland and it was once the site of a small-scale Victorian stone quarry, the task rapidly gets to be an even harder one.
“The chap that had lived here before us rented the ground behind the house, but didn’t actually own it. I think her really wanted it for the big shed and as a place to store his boats over winter, so nothing had been done to the ground since goodness knows when,” explains Phil Bain. “We really wanted a garden, so we negotiated to buy the piece and then, of course, we had to start taming it.”
To call their newly purchased land “neglected” or “overgrown” would be flattery. It was what Phil’s wife Maggie laughingly calls a jungle – and the pictures taken at the time certainly bear out her description. “We used to joke that we’d find one of those Japanese soldiers hiding there who didn’t know the war was over,” she says. It was just horrendous!”
Strim and Slash
“The worst of it was that we didn’t know what was there. Most of the stone for the original houses at this end of the village had come out of it in the late 1800s and after that, we were told, it was used as a bit of a tip for a lot of the spoil from later building up at the back. Every step you took, you worried about a hidden well or falling down a deep hole.”
Armed with a new, heavy-duty petrol strimmer and a sickle, they set about slashing and strimming the undergrowth down towards ground level, generating a huge hay stack of grass and weeds in the process.
“It took us a couple of days to do – and it was pretty hard going – but in the end, we could see the shape of the ground and the kind of grass we’d inherited.” Phil grimaces before adding “and it wasn’t looking too good.”
The whole area was also full of persistent field weeds – plantains, dandelions, thistles and the inevitable daisies. Given the scale of the problem, trying to dig them out would have been an impossible undertaking, so they decided on a regime of weed-and-feed and “resigned acceptance” to use Maggie’s phrase. As she explains, seven years on, the plantains remain an ongoing nuisance, but the rest of their problem weeds are largely under control, or at least contained.
The whole patch of ground was also very uneven, making it difficult for them once they eventually did get the grass into a suitable condition to begin mowing it. Unfortunately with the plot rising steeply from the back of their house to the coastal slope above, truly levelling the ground was never an option and they both concluded early on that although terracing would be an ideal solution, it would be just too much work for them to undertake. Instead they simply opted to work with the contours as much as possible, with some re-profiling and levelling of a few areas as necessary to fit in with the overall design.
Today their garden boasts a relatively small but closely mown section of quite respectable turf, with an area of longer grass and wildflowers behind it, while the upper section, where the ground rises almost vertically upwards retains much of its original character – though these days it gets cut three or four times a year.
Is there much more to do? Probably not according to Maggie, who feels they’ve reached the point of diminishing returns now. “There’s all the routine grass maintenance to do, of course, but I don’t think we’ll do much more beyond that now.”
Phil agrees, “we’d have to put in a lot of effort to make even small changes and frankly, it’s not really worth it. I mean it’s never going to be a grade A bowling green, no matter what we do and we’ve got a lawn of sorts to sit on and give the dogs somewhere to play. And that alone is a big improvement, believe you me!”