Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Wild Wood

Long, long ago, when the world was young – or at least when DH and I were young – we moved with our two small children into an old and decrepit farmhouse high in the hills of Mid-Wales. It came with about half an acre of neglected ground, part would-be garden, part a small, steep, infertile paddock above the house to the north.

In my first flush of enthusiasm at having space to grow things, I started a vegetable plot in the garden behind the house, with some modest success. The following year I decided to try to clear the paddock by planting potatoes there, but the ground is so steep and the soil so poor that this was an experiment I wasn’t tempted to repeat. So the paddock lay fallow for a couple of years, until DH managed to set it alight during the great drought of 1976 and we nearly lost our few trees as well.

Once we had recovered from the shock, we decided something different had to be done with this poor patch of ground, and the sight of our singed trees gave DH a brainwave.  He would plant trees! Lots of trees, beautiful specimen conifers (DH loves conifers) which would fill up the paddock and enhance our surroundings. Well, that was the idea….

Unfortunately, when he went to the local tree nursery for his infant conifers, they happened to be having a sale of larch seedlings at a giveaway price. You can guess the rest. Being of Scottish ancestry and therefore not one to sniff at a bargain, DH went mad and bought about fifty of the baby larches, in addition to all the specimen conifers he had already chosen.

Back in those days I worked in a public library, so my first instinct when faced with dozens and dozens of seedling trees was to bring home a book on their planting and care. It was written by a tree specialist, so one might have thought DH would welcome advice from such a reliable source. Not a bit of it! The writer stressed the importance of preparing the ground before planting. DH simply dug lots of small holes. The writer emphasised how essential it was to give trees plenty of room to grow and even provided a useful chart of planting distances, based on eventual height. DH just looked at the seedlings, particularly the tiny larches, and planted them really, really close together, so they would have company. 

It should have been a recipe for disaster, and in terms of a formal garden, I suppose it was. The first surprise was just how quickly the seedlings established themselves and grew. Given the poor soil and exposed position of the paddock, we rather expected to lose many, if not most, of them in the first few winters. Gripped by frost, buried in snow, battered by south-westerly gales they might have been, but nothing seemed to deter them. They just grew and grew and grew. Even though they were so closely packed in places that their branches became entangled and they had to strain upwards to the light, still they managed to grow, until today, nearly 35 years later, many of them are towering 40-footers.

Naturally some have succumbed over the years, but they don't go to waste. Indeed, one fine afternoon earlier in the week we were up in the wood, where DH had just sawn up a dead tree, carting the logs down the hill to be split and stored for firewood. As we always find ourselves doing when we’re up there, we kept stopping work to take in the atmosphere of the place: the slanting sunbeams, the sound of the wind high in the treetops mingling with the muted song of birds tuning up for spring.

We stood looking downhill through the trees, down past the house to the wonderful view of the valley and the distant hills, and realised yet again that we have inadvertently created our very own Wild Wood. Tiny, it is true, and not exactly well tended, but with its trees and bushes and brambles a haven for wildlife, a playground for children, and, in its own small way, a magical and mysterious place, where one feels a million miles away from the outside world. It isn’t what we set out to make all those years ago, when DH brought home so many baby trees, but it is living proof that sometimes what happens by accident is better than we could ever have planned.


  1. And how fortunate you are to have been able to see the fruition of what you started...
    We have made so many gardens...and left them.

  2. Yes, we are, Fly. We're probably as firmly rooted here as the trees, despite our current peripatetic lifestyle. It must hard to put so much of yourself into a garden and have to leave it behind.

  3. When I last went back to our childhood home in 2008 the garden our mother wrestled out of the rough bit of moorland hillside had almost reverted to nature.

    The beech hedge planted on two sides of the triangular plot, to screen her rockeries and beds from the winds sweeping up from the coast, is now a small forest.

    It was like the secret garden creeping up overgrown stone steps between overgrown shrubs to find the overgrown rockeries and paving.

    I brought back a piece of mossy paving – part of one of the heavy stone roofing slates that our mother hauled up a couple at a time from where the roofers on an adjoining cottage had thrown them down to the ground as waste.

    Over the following summer she carefully laid them as paving to paths and terrace if the latter is not a grandiose term for the tiny patch of laboriously levelled ground at the centre of her garden.

  4. Thanks so much for this, PolkaDot. Though it's sad to see so much loving hard work revert to wilderness, at least it's a wilderness of trees, shrubs and flowers, and not the bleak, bare, tussocky moorland it was before she began work. Instead there's another tiny Wild Wood flourishing and providing shelter for wild creatures.

  5. Ah, serendipity in action! We've lived in our house for 5 years, and are only now starting planting--and wishing we had started earlier. How satisfying it must be to see things you planted 35-40 years ago!!

  6. Oh, it is, Anita. Our little wood isn't trimmed and tidy, but it's a really special place and we love it. Good luck with your planning and planting.

  7. Lol! We don't really plan. Just go to garden centres and buy what catches our eye, and are filling the beds up, bed by bed. I love hellebores and shade plants, so hopefully there will be a theme and consistency to the garden!

  8. More serendipity at work there then, Anita. It's amazing what plants work well together when you try, and of course for shade-loving plants you need shade, so is your garden big enough for trees?

  9. Perpetua I so enjoyed reading your blog. It looks as though nature knows best - a little haven for wildlife - wood for the winter fire and a magical area for your grand children to play. I took photos of my 'garden' after we came back from our hols in the hope of spurring me to get it back on an even keel again. I haven't had time yet, but I certainly know about the weeds. We are knee deep in runner beans and tomatoes and the soft fruit and apples have been fantastic this year - busy, busy, busy.

    1. And I've just enjoyed rereading it, Molly - one of my earliest posts. I was up in the Wild Wood again this afternoon after clearing all the brambles away from the steps and it still has its magic, even if it's yet more overgrown now than when I wrote this post. As for the other weeds, I'm gradually getting to grips with them. Good luck with clearing your garden. All those crops sound marvellous.

  10. I came to this post by way of your "suggestions" at the bottom of your latest post...

    I would have been like your DH...
    but I like the Larch for winter colour, spring colour, shape, etcetera!!
    And, as you say... the thinnings provide wood.

    When I was in forestry we always planted at 3ft spacings [far too close together for a 'standard' tree] but this allowed for the odd failures, and as you discovered.... planted this close together they grow tall and straight!

    The first thinnings went for firewood, rustic furniture, and so on...
    the second also... leaving fine larches at 9ft spacings to grow on for timber... these were also thinned again at around 25years to leave a 6yd gap between trees.

    This, seen at maturity, becomes a cathedral when the sunlight slants between the branches in Spring or Autumn... even more so with a bit of dawn mist!!
    A truly wonderful sight...

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Tim. The LinkedWithin gadget can often bring up good suggestions and it's nice to see the older posts get another airing. I've passed your comment across to DH who will be fascinated to read it as he loves anything to do with trees and their cultivation.

      I didn't realise you had worked in forestry and am glad to hear that DH isn't the only one who likes to cram in as many trees as he can at least at the beginning. :-) Time and weather have done a fair job of thinning out the larches over the years, but the specimen conifers are now truly enormous and the remaining larches aren't exactly small either....


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