Of all the reasons for making a garden, providing a space for entertaining people probably generates the most anxiety. When we moved to our present house 16 years ago, the relatively large size of garden, and its adjacent Christmas tree plantation, inevitably turned my thoughts to how best to make it a suitable stage for summer parties. This influenced me when we laid out the paving and paths, and planted the hedges, trees, borders, orchard and small ‘meadow’. Although, of course, I wanted the garden for solace, physical and mental refreshment, creative expression and horticultural experiment, I always acknowledged that, just occasionally, it would have to brace up and act as a colourful backcloth to important family events.
A few weeks ago on the hottest day of the summer our only daughter was married in the church nearby. Afterwards, we held a reception in the garden. Its grand moment had arrived. It had to rise to the occasion; professional, as well as maternal, pride was involved.
I am profoundly relieved to say that, mainly, it did. The apron of paving, backed by a curving yew hedge at the top of the steps which lead up from the central lawn, turned out to be an ideal platform for the silver band, who played while we drank champagne after the service. There were trees enough for shade on a blistering hot day. The walk through the grassy ‘meadow’ to reach the dinner marquee, which had been erected in the field where once the Christmas trees grew, was pleasant on a warm, still evening, with the air ruffled by butterflies. And I think that there was sufficient drama and surprise in the garden’s layout, as well as scent and colour from the flowers, to satisfy the guests — gardeners or not.
But this isn’t about self-congratulation — although I so rarely have cause that I cannot help revelling in it for a guilty moment. It is about encouraging all the other middle-aged gardeners in the land, who wish to hold a wedding reception — or indeed any kind of party — in their precious garden.
The first unexpected but cheering lesson I learnt is that you can get a surprisingly large number of people in a small space, without them looking crammed together. Our central lawn measures a modest 15 yards square, and is overhung on two sides by the spreading boughs of venerable apple trees; 180 pairs of feet were planted on that sward during the speeches, yet it never looked badly crowded. (And stiletto heels make a reasonable job of spiking the lawn, by the way.)
From experience of Chelsea Flower Show, I knew how important it was to neutralise the damage that rain can do. It is relatively simple: order a trailer-load of bark chippings from your neighbourhood tree surgeon, and have him dump them on to a plastic sheet in an inconspicuous, but convenient, place in the garden. For £60, or thereabouts, you have insurance against grass paths becoming muddy, if a lot of rain falls before the party. Bark chippings are light to barrow around and, if this propitiation to the weather gods does the trick and no rain falls, you can leave them for six months in a heap, and then mulch your borders with them.
I was fortunate that I didn’t have to discourage my daughter from marrying in winter. Apart from the fact that the flower arrangements would have been dull, all shiny red and green, I would have missed the greatest opportunity ever for my garden to work its enchantment on the people I love. With luck, if you are a keen gardener, your daughter won’t suggest such a thing but, if she does, it is possible to ‘force’ bulbs, such as scented hyacinths and narcissi, in pots in the greenhouse to flower in the wintertime. You will need plenty.
Interestingly, it isn’t necessary to work too hard in your garden before an event, although I found this out far too late. For months before the wedding, I toiled without cease: almost every evening until dusk, I battled with the effects of late frosts, drought and unseasonable heat. The garden had never looked better yet, when I stood back and viewed it critically, I knew it would look better still — in five years’ time. No amount of work I put in could change that. There were still gaps in borders, unsatisfactory colour associations, too few summer bulbs and repeating roses, immature trees.
However, our wedding guests seemed uncomplicatedly beguiled by the idea of a country wedding in a garden in midsummer, and were delightfully uncritical. So, just for a long moment, the garden ceased to be about light and shadow, colour and texture, Latin names and alkaline clay, scent and bindweed. It was no longer the object of my vanity. It had become simply a bounded space, enclosing and holding all the warmth and gaiety, joy and happiness of that day of days.