My sister recently found and sent me a photo of the first perennial border I planted in London – and, Cami, our long-departed family dog on a rare visit from the Lake District. It is for what was then her and my 25 metre-long garden in Hackney. It’s summer, 1989.
The garden still retained the original, buttressed Victorian brick wall built in London stock, stained by years of soot, like many gardens of 19th century houses in the inner suburbs of and central London.
It had been neglected before we bought the flat but not so much that a little digging of the beds and a cut of the lawn by hand-held shears soon revealed a simple layout – a long concrete path, a narrow border and a lawn – dating, I’m guessing, from a much later period such as the 1950s.
Many of the plants had been gifted by a mentor and former work colleague Robert Holden who had even come over and helped plant them – the Persicaria, Achillea, Acanthus, Geranium, Iris and Digitalis. But others, such as the Rosa, Campanula and golden rod (Sidalgo) were already there, found beneath the weeds and needing only to be lifted and separated.
My sister went on to own the garden for another decade hosting the christening party for her son and the last lunch with my godmother.
I look at the picture and it is as if I am looking at a much younger version of myself – there’s some of what has become my approach to gardening, that is rewilding the city – plants were foraged from a friend or already grew on site and even them Robert mentioned how the Achillea and Digitalis would encourage insects – but also gaps – the soil is bare not mulched and the grass is a lawn not a meadow.
What the photo does not show is how much we have already lost as the climate emergency accelerates: the regular and very hard frosts, even in an inner suburb of London; the frequent and penetrating rain even in summer; the flowers filled with pollinators.