I was up early this morning as the sun levered its way over the hill. Its long fingers, reaching through the trees above, lay shafts on the meadow grass on the slopes. Finally alighting upon the caravan, they took the chill off the morning. We are still in the upheaval of construction, with our little house and the milking barn that will become my studio exposed and pared back to the bare essentials. It has been an exciting, long-awaited summer. Five years in planning and many more in waiting to live this dream.
A cold night and a silvery dew soaked my feet just steps off the track as the dog and I went for a walk ahead of the day proper starting. I wanted to take in everything I have done here and some of the things I plan to do, for this is my last regular article for the Observer. I am leaving the paper to take a breath before starting the next chapter.
The reward in tending this place is in it being a process of discoveries, but my delight has been deeper for being able to share it through this column. My English teacher, Joan Wiggins, helped me to see the value of holding and distilling a thought in words. A thought that might not last much longer than it takes to bury your nose in a rose or unearth the first freshly dug spuds. Gardening is special for that. Everything has meaning and association, a layering of accrued experience that builds towards a slow but sure understanding. Words help with this illumination and as I am working, I plan how to describe what makes this particular activity or plant special.
My old friend Jane, who lives on the hill opposite and who I met when we were students at Kew, said I would find my inclinations hard to resist and that I would soon be gardening our little part of the valley. Quickly, however, I found that, if anything, I wanted to make my mark less and to garden only with the energy reserves I could afford to throw at the place. I wanted to keep my head up and not be bent double, looking down. This is the place to keep your clarity and your ego – and every gardener has one – in check. From here my design projects back in the London studio can be seen with a fresh eye. The planting I have been commissioned to do for the Garden Bridge over the Thames needs careful planning, but I can retain perspective from this vantage point. The conundrums are more easily solved for having the raw materials of inspiration close to hand.
Not long into the first summer here I found gardening and farming to be at surprisingly different ends of the spectrum. The farmers have humoured me taking the naturalist’s view, putting the pasture back to meadow and introducing yellow rattle, and getting my hedges cut on a year-on-year-off rotation for the wildlife. I have had to contend with the sheep and deer outwitting my tree guards. One farmer’s comment that “trees like a good nibble” rankled with my horticultural training until I learned to build in loss. A haven is not always easily won.
We ascended a summer-worn track in the meadows behind the house, passing through my young crab apples and up on to the ridge I cut into the hill to make a flat track and point of observation. From here you can survey the wood and the stream below, over to the ditch where we keep the bees and up the valley where I have planted the orchard and nuttery. Immediately below is the neatly ordered plateau of the vegetable garden. Growing to eat has been an important part of being here and I am learning daily about how to get more from the land.
In the furthest corner is the blossom wood we planted in the first winter. Young whips, just 3ft and no more when they went in, are already up to 15ft high that you can stand amongst. They have transformed this previously coarse, open field into something with a distinct, developing environment. The most noticeable change is that the trees are all aflutter with birds feasting furiously, with the rowan already stripped, and euonymus and rosehip blazing in early sun. The hedge we planted with friends that first new year is thickened and tall. Walk in its lee and you move through clouds of eglantine perfume from the roses in the mix. These are simple pleasures. Time and ambitions marked in growth.
Over the stile and into the plum orchard, the trees are already burdened with fruit. It was good to plant trees in the first year here and to have them quietly advancing while we ruminated elsewhere. The plums were planted at the top of the slope. Should we have an untimely frost, I hope their early flower might escape the pool of cooled air below. So far I have been right, and the apples further down, which flower later, once the frosts have abated, have done well, too. In the shelter towards the bottom of the slope, the nuts take the ground that wouldn’t be favoured by either.
I make a special point of visiting the group of Kentish cob we placed in memory of Heidi, our beloved colleague and friend who died too young in the same year the nuttery was planted. She is with us there – in best spirits I might add – and so are the nuts, which are already fruiting. I pull away the excess of bindweed. Tending where I might not be gardening keeps the trees on the right path. Checking their wellbeing keeps you in touch and mindful. This is all there is to a green finger.
Over the years I have been writing, I have been lucky to record my own process in a sketchbook of words and communicate the mistakes and indeed the successes, to you. When I started writing a column 20 years ago, my haven was a 4x5m rooftop in Vauxhall, but I also had the luxury of gardening the four acres of Home Farm for my friend Frances, in Northamptonshire. We were planting on the wild side there, interpreting my observations from travels overseas. Home Farm was part of a zeitgeist when we started in the mid-80s, and a naturalistic movement has swept the country since. The Chelsea Flower Show brims with a froth of mingled planting that is now commonplace, but as gardeners we know the true value of working with and not against nature where we can.
Crossing the brook though the water mint, I visit my katsura grove in the stillness at the bottom of the slopes. The trees were brought back as seedlings from my long-term project in Hokkaido, Japan, where I am working on a 400-hectare park designed to be sustainable for 1,000 years. These trees are a connection with that place and one of the reasons for the decision to start a new writing project. There is a book there; a story that needs the room to be told.
Returning in an arc through a catkin coppice and up on to the rounded field named the Tump, I arrive breathless, the ascent is steep. We look up the valley to the building site. The slopes below me, where the brambles were cut this last winter, are already regenerating along the damp ditch with marsh thistle and meadowsweet. I have plans for a bridge here and for the land immediately beyond it to become a garden. The new studio will be perched on the edge of the garden: part in landscape, part in a cultivated world. It will be a touchstone and a place of industry and reflection.
From here I can plan the new garden. It is a place that is marked in trial beds, but I am teetering now on the edge of a new and much- pondered garden. The prospect brims with expectations. Although it is currently formless and ungrounded by words, it is sure to be the start of the next page.
Dan is starting a new website. For details, go to danpearsonstudio.com/nextsteps
Read this article on the Observer website
Photography courtesy of Sam Frost for the Observer