Last summer my husband's big project was building a pizza oven in our garden. By the time December came, the gloom of winter was already hanging heavily and he felt in need of another project. Which is why, on Boxing day, when the earth was cold and heavy he dug his spade into the ground and began the huge task of levelling our garden. He told me yesterday that he can still remember stamping the spade into the earth for the first time and feeling utterly overwhelmed by how many times of doing this he knew must follow.
Our garden had always sloped peculiarly across our plot of land and this sloping horizon felt discombobulating and so he decided to level it between Christmas and New Year. The children helped a little each day, once my father called over and spent an afternoon digging, but mostly we glimpsed this shovelling through the windows from the warmth of inside, as this bleak lone figure dug and shovelled, saving every earth worm that he came across in the process. It was the kind of work I can imagine being given to convicts, although this one had the luxury of working his way through Desert Island Discs podcasts as he dug. It was meant to be just that, a simple levelling task, but somehow as he dug our plans became grander and eventually took in most of the garden.
By February, we began to go on jaunts to reclamation yards in search of oak sleepers with which to edge the garden and create raised areas and for paving blocks for new patios and paths. These yards are frosty, odd places at that time of year and it was hard to imagine the things in them as part of a summer garden, but I think even so, we loved these outings and our heads bubbled with ideas and excitement.
A lorry came soon after and craned twenty-five oak sleepers to the front of our driveway. Just carrying them around to the back of the house was back-breaking. We wondered at how one cuts an oak sleeper to size. We considered buying a chainsaw, but didn't want to spend the money on something we'd never use again, so he cut each one to size with a hand-saw.
We decided to create a second, sunken patio around the pizza oven. More digging and then creating two sets of steps from sleepers and paving blocks. Two tonnes of hardcore and sand were dropped on the front of the driveway and then three pallets of paving blocks, at which point a friend came to the rescue, delivering an old wheelbarrow which we could use to get it all to the back of the house. The hardcore and sand formed the base to the patio and path and then the paving blocks were put into place. If the digging had been tiresome and back-breaking, the tamping down of paving blocks was even more mind-numbing. The tamping to make them perfectly level (I was all for a haphazard English cottage garden at this point, but my husband was wielding a spirit level) seemed to go on forever and my husband bought a second mallet so that we could tamp simultaneously.
One weekend in amongst all this was spent constructing a greenhouse, a birthday gift from my husband's mother, and from then on the monotony of garden work was broken up by learning how to grow vegetables, discovering what to plant when and enjoying picking packets of seeds from this couple's website (and some low-level bickering over how many chilli plants a family of four needs, when only one member of the family eats chillies. Having consulted a friend on the matter I think that the need to grow hot vegetables is a man thing). The greenhouse is raised at the back of the garden and we marked out a garden path leading down to it with my daughter's colourful knitting wool.
As we worked on the garden each weekend our little boy took advantage of this barren mud garden and built traps for bugs, made obstacle courses from garden canes, set up see-saws with planks of wood and dug holes just for the joy of digging holes. It was the kind of industry that comes out of complete boredom and lack of entertainment. I have so many photos of him from this time, in fact it's been difficult to find garden-in-progress photos that don't include the children as they generally grubbed around us for almost the entire time. Once the path had been put in place my father gave the children rides in the wheelbarrow and hurtled them up and down it to shrieks of delight. Again, I have so many photos: it seemed the whole time as though I was collecting memories for the pot.
And finally, it is finished. Last week the grass was laid. This is the only thing that my husband didn't do himself.
Or I'd thought it was finished. I arrived home yesterday to find that my husband was digging up the buddleia on the left of this photo as he thought around a logic problem with his work: this means more planting and the painting of a window frame that the buddleia had obscured.
To either side of the trellis that arches over the step I've planted a rose and a clematis, which hopefully in a month or so will be starting to cover the frame.
The path turns toward the greenhouse at the end of the garden, flanked by raised vegetable beds (which have been covered in netted frames in the battle my husband is forced to wage against our cats in an effort to protect his vegetables). A garden bench will eventually take the place of the grow bags on the right.
My husband used left-over bricks to create a zig-zagging path that goes behind the greenhouse to a hide-out for the children.
And last week we made a rockery beneath the trees in the hope that thirstless alpines might be the thing to thrive in this dry, shady spot.
Since the grass was laid it has been sunny every day. We have sat and drunk tea on the patio each morning and excitedly looked for signs of new growth in the greenhouse before we start work. In our lunch hour we have lain in the garden or played quoits. And there has been a lot of football after school. It feels like such a calm, tranquil place to be now that all of the hard work is done.
We also obsessively check on the growth of the laurels at the end of the garden. They are the slowest growing plants in the entire world. I bought them four years ago from an independent nursery who told me that not many people know it, but laurels grow as fast as Leylandii, but don't incite the same fear in neighbours. I don't believe this is true. But they have finally grown a foot in the last month and we are feeling excited about the day when our garden feels entirely secluded.
And finally last weekend, my husband lit a fire in the pizza oven for the first time this year and we enjoyed stone baked pizzas for dinner.
It is an odd thing to be with someone from when you are very young. I met my husband at university seventeen years ago - he liked blowing smoke rings, listening to obscure bands, and not washing very often. I remember pouring shampoo onto his head as he ate one evening so that he would be forced to wash it off. His big draw was that - as I told his mother at the time - he had cheek bones to die for. He was also the kindest person I'd ever met, who could make me laugh until my stomach ached (actually my sister is both of these things too. I think I may have found a male version of her in these ways). It comes as a complete surprise to me when he does things like single-handedly landscapes our garden, because they're not a part of the character of the person I first met, but are new bits that present themselves little-by-little each year and take me completely by surprise in the best kind of way.
Our friend Ben teases me that I make my husband sound like a God when I write about him here. I think I probably do...but that's only because I think that he sort of is (although it should be said, to appease Ben, that my husband has a GREAT many faults and short-comings that are too numerous to be listed here). But really, our friend Ben reads my sewing blog, brings home-made cheese cake when he visits, has carved toys for our children, and hand-makes truffles for our birthdays, so I think he may be throwing stones from a greenhouse.