THE smell of newly cut grass is in the air – or will be, I hope, by the time you read this. The travelling mower is due tomorrow, a date almost as long-awaited as the reopening of hairdressers. Yesterday, I heard the whine of someone’s machine making the first shave of the year. Although not so evocative as the arrival of swallows, this too is a seasonal harbinger of summer.

Our sward – not quite a field but definitely not a lawn – has been tufty since October, when so much rain fell it was impossible to give it a final trim before winter. A friend offered us the use of his mower before it went into hibernation, but by the time a dry day arrived, Christmas was almost upon us. Another suggested we get goats.

I love the roughness of our grass, which in places is a carpet of buttercups. In others it is pure moss, so airy and light it’s like walking on a sponge. You need to watch, though. There are hidden dips, which could twist an ankle, and massive underlying stones on which the grass barely gets a grip.

When we first viewed the cottage, in winter, the prospect beyond the gate onto the wooded slopes of the Eildons clinched the deal. Not being gardeners, we did not closely examine it. This large, unflashy rectangle of rugged grass, with silver birch, wild cherry, apple, crab apple and whitebeam trees, felt like an extension of the countryside, and just what we were looking for.

Come spring, the forces that had lain dormant throughout snow and ice, keeping the greenery in check, awoke from slumber, and we found ourselves in a jungle of weeds and knee-high meadow. Birdlife and wildlife were no doubt rejoicing, but while I am all for rediscovering nature, a balance needs to be struck. A film I recently watched with Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet, about 18th century gardeners the court at Versailles, is called A Little Bit of Chaos. Ours, by contrast, was chaos unchecked.

Those who know the difference between a tubor and a bulb might not have been dismayed, but for absolute beginners, we had no idea where to start. Other, obviously, than digging out nettles, rotten tree stumps and so much household debris we wondered if owners in previous centuries simply chucked pots and pipes and glasses out of the window when they were finished, like Greeks after drinking a toast.

Last weekend, we found a defunct old clay drainpipe, too embedded to shift without a mechanical digger. It lies there still, planted over with fritillaries, for future generations to ponder.

The front of the house was once cobbled, for access to the cart house behind, and long-time residents in Hoolet remember when there was a barn at the back. Next door was a dairy, with a hen-run.

I suspect that, until recent decades, the plot behind our cottage was barely reclaimed from the field, which still makes incursions under the gate. Nothing suggests it was ever seriously cultivated, although there are pockets of rich earth, possibly where chickens – and perhaps a pig or cow – previously roamed.

The back of the house is built into rock, which rises in the shape of a sugar-loaf, or – surely more likely – an iron-age barrow. Archaeologists are welcome to offer an opinion. Shortly after arriving, we had a rockery built into the stone-face, to turn a problem into an asset. Now, however, the steps we have had cut into the slope mark our attempt to impose some order.

This outdoor stairway curves enticingly up the grass, but when you reach the top, the extent of what remains to be done is all too clear. How to fashion this wide and rough expanse into a habitable, enticing garden, without losing its rustic charm and turning it into an outpost of suburbia, is the challenge.

If you were to believe gardening books or television, it’s no big deal. Measure your space, make a scale drawing, and then decide how to proceed. I did the measuring, on a sodden February weekend, when the metal tape measure flapped in the grass as if it were alive. Then I made the drawing on graph paper, which brought back bad memories of arithmetic classes. After that, nothing was clearer. If anything, we felt more at sea.

Perhaps you need to have worked a garden for most of your life to know where to go from here. It would certainly be hard to be more of an amateur. I realised the depth of my ignorance the other day when about to plant a packet of bulbs. “Pointed end upwards” the instructions said, but when I shook them out they were like tricorn hats, with points on every side. There was no telling which way was up. In the end, I buried them and hoped nature would eventually tease them to the surface.

In the early days, I couldn’t even recognise honeysuckle unless it was flowering. We have several plants given to us by neighbours last autumn, whose names I don’t know, which have still to come into bloom. It is like throwing a party but not realising who has been invited until you open the door.

Yesterday, I discovered one sprouting a pincushion of gentian-blue flowers. The pleasure was out of all proportion to its size, but explains why gardening grows addictive. The thrill of something coming to life before your eyes is extraordinary.

As we eye up the scale drawing and look ahead, we know all too well that there is more to learn than we can ever hope to accomplish. Even neighbours whose places could feature in Gardeners’ World say it’s a matter of trial and error. It is also, plainly, an ever-changing venture, as ideas evolve, fashions change, or – in the case of nearby friends – a former rose garden is turned into a vegetable plot, to make the most of lockdown.

I begin to wonder how I spent my weekends in bygone days, before weeding and pruning, planting and mulching filled the hours. Soon, as the weather warms, and it is possible once more to host friends in the garden, we’ll be issuing summonses. The trick is luring guests through the gate before they realise they’ve entered a never-ending episode of gardeners’ question time.

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