IN Edinburgh’s New Town, a definition of luxury is when a friend gives you the key to the residents’ private garden, and you can pretend this barely-used park is all yours. I’ve never had that pleasure, but I’ve often stared longingly through the railings at the avenues of rhododendrons and umbrella-shaped trees, secured behind locks. Before the pandemic they seemed to be used mostly by dog-walkers rather than nature-loving escapees from the overlooking flats.

In the environs of Hoolet, other than the padlocked cast-iron gates of the great houses, there is no such thing as a private garden. In one sense, everyone’s property is off limits without permission, as it is anywhere else. Unless, that is, you’re an apple-scrumping child – and which of us has never been? At this stage of life a garden with fruit trees is excellent training for a career in the SAS – get in, achieve mission and scarper without trace or casualties. Part of the allure of these raids, as I recall, is not just the trepidation of trespassing, but of taking forbidden fruit. Usually we gathered the unripe apples and stone-hard pears as ammunition for our long-running battles, rather than as a source of vitamin C. If kids ever clamber over the fence for our apples, they’d be more than welcome. If they could also pick the crab apples and turn them into jam that would be appreciated.

Many aspects of life are very different this summer from last, but one thing has not changed. Regardless of the lurgy, fruit is ripening fast on bushes and trees; the high season of berries is upon us. One of the most vivid memories of our first August here was sitting in a friend’s summerhouse and suddenly seeing three folk emerging from the far end of their garden. Each was clutching a bowl heaped with jewel-like fruits, and as they passed it was as if we’d glimpsed the three Magi.

A few days ago, we were invited into the same garden, to help ourselves to raspberries. It had been a day of torrential rain, with intermittent sun. The sky was darkening as we made our way between the rows, which were heavy with fat sweet rasps. When the rain began, I put up my hood, and picked on. The scent of wet leaves and trodden earth was intoxicating, a bouquet richer than a Barola. These bushes had been growing here long before our friends arrived, 30 years ago. They are kept company by apple and pear trees, redcurrant bushes, and plums that, when ripe, hang from the branches like ear-rings. There’s also a large bed of still-ripening strawberries. One year I watched a mouse, on tiptoe, nibbling a dangling berry.

I’ve rarely tasted better raspberries than the ones we collected, their flavour enhanced by the atmosphere of the garden where they grew. Being allowed access to this most beautiful, out of the way corner reminds me a little of The Secret Garden. That book that made such an impression on me as a girl that I drove my parents nuts begging to be allowed to buy a derelict Victorian walled garden close by. I would climb onto the seat by the bus stop to look over its wall and plan how I’d clear it of weeds and shattered glass house and fill it with vegetables and flowers. Since I’d shown no desire to lift so much as a dandelion in our own back yard, I was told to dream on.

The garden where we, and others, are invited to forage is a perfect complement to the fields and hills beyond. Flowerbeds, graceful trees and a croquet-style lawn coexist seamlessly with fruit and, previously, rows of vegetables too. When people picture the rural idyll, it’s often a rose-festooned house where hollyhocks run amok. Yet the true cottage garden was never chocolate-box pretty but a place where leeks and cabbages grew among primroses and poppies – more Mr McGregor than Vita Sackville-West. That is still the case. In one of my favourite Hoolet gardens, a formal square bed of roses encloses a profusion of succulent young lettuces, ready to lift for lunch.

This is an artful nod to where all such cultivation began. Originally, humble countryside plots were essential sources of food; there was no room for unproductive and time-consuming grass, or patios where clematis and wisteria rambled towards dormer windows, choking the gutters. Wholly utilitarian, they contained rectangular beds devoted to cabbages and potatoes and, weather permitting, caned trellises for fruit. These were beautiful in their own way, but it was only when flowers escaped from hedgerows and colonised the margins and spaces between the plots that they gained nostalgic postcard charm.

The plant collector, Major Lawrence Johnston, is responsible for redefining the cottage garden. In the early 20th century, when he and his mother moved into Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds, he took the idea of a rural plot, edited its contents, and scaled it up. The result, with winding paths, artistic focal points, and teeming, colourful borders, had the appearance of being haphazard, random and accidental, when in fact it was rigorously planned. It sounds spectacular. Increasingly, though, I’m coming to think that outdoor spaces designed solely to please the eye are lacking in one vital ingredient: the kind you can put on a plate.

Thanks in part to the generosity of neighbours, we too are starting to feed ourselves: redcurrants and blackcurrants, strawberries – still in relative infancy – rhubarb, carrots and herbs. We’re not in the league of those who can nurture asparagus; I’m told it takes seven years for a first crop to appear. In fact, we’re not in any league at all. After Alan dug up last year’s potatoes, I replanted that bed with roses, honeysuckle and lavender. At one point in late spring, these new arrivals were suddenly swamped by a profusion of shaws, as the undetected, button-sized potatoes left buried in the winter sprouted into life. Following a striking display of flowers, we now have an unexpected crop of delicious spuds to keep us going for weeks. The satisfaction of filling your own larder is immense. It’s at times like this that you realise keeping a cottage garden is a process of give and take.

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