1967 - 1988 The Early Years
The Vegetable Garden was first started back in the seventies when the meadow in front of the old barn was ploughed over. An Edwardian greenhouse was acquired and over the next few years a number of people helped out providing a steady supply of produce to the kitchen. In those days the fields were worked by tractor and the plot was more akin to a market garden than a place to stroll and sit a while. Samye Ling was much smaller back then and resembled a frontier town with rough shacks and cabins, higgledy-piggledy workshops and wood smoke hanging in the air. The temple was being constructed and the whole place was a building site with people clumping around in muddy boots. There was only one bus a week to town and Samye Ling felt remote. By the mid-eighties there were a few allotment sized plots but it had all become rather overgrown and there was a general feeling of decay. The garden still didn’t have any boundaries and was wide open to the chill breeze that used to roll off the yard bringing in debris and unseasonable frosts. There was a concrete path from the main entrance to the greenhouse and a muddy grass track down the middle to the old meadow. The old greenhouse looked awfully forlorn with half the panes either missing or boarded up and there was the unmistakable sound of crunching glass underfoot as you picked your way through the nettles. One lasting image was provided by the broad bean posts. They had clearly seen better days and become gnarled and splintered old things with nails sticking out at all angles, rather reminiscent of Desperate Dan. There were some rusty antiquated tools scattered around and a few boxes of odds and ends including a number of mildewy books, but that was about it.
By this time however, there were twelve sturdy compost bins lined up where the woodshed stands today. Largely constructed with old pallets they had a rusty corrugated iron roof and certainly did the job. The Samye Ling farm was still flourishing back then with a dozen cows providing milk, yoghurt and a ready supply of farmyard manure. Wheelbarrows came from the kitchen brimming with cold porridge and vegetable peelings, before negotiating a muddy track with a few planks as a precarious catwalk. Not surprisingly this resulted in great slops getting trodden into the puddles and the whole strip was invariably a bog. Eventually a concrete path was poured along the front and the slab could at least be hosed down.
1988 - 2006 Gradual Developments
The Temple was officially opened in 1988 and soon after The Potala Guesthouse was built just across the road. Things were going fine until visitors, understandably, started complaining about the appalling state of the compost and in particular the accompanying clouds of flies. It was quickly decided to relocate the bins down at the farm out of harm’s way. The midden slab was extended and twelve new bins were built by a team of lads on a building course. The demolition of the old bins has passed into legend as the worst job of all and lasted over a long snowy New Year. The tractor and trailer were reversed in and the first bin, still full of rotting compost, was smashed up and carted away complete with rusty corrugated metal sheeting and rotten timbers caked in muck. The tractor then returned for bin number 2, reversing through all the mud and debris. And so it went on. It was awful. After a few days there was a long flat quagmire and it was decided to build a length of stone terracing and backfill to make a flower bed. This was planted up with annuals and herbaceous perennials, gooseberry and currant bushes. It filled the gaping holes under the old hedge and eventually developed into an old fashioned hedgerow so successfully, that the same formula was soon employed elsewhere.
The Greenhouse was thoroughly overhauled in 1990 and on completion there wasn’t a single drip. This lasted for a couple of years until slowly but surely the paint started to peel off, the putty started to drop out and once again the rain crept in. Every summer a week would be set aside to clamber up on the roof ladders and repair broken panes and give it a coat of paint. With hindsight the extra weight probably contributed to breaking what seals there were, but what could we do? Eventually the top putty was replaced with beading which could at least be given a quick coat of preservative. This seemed to be an improvement, but the general decline continued and the old place still required constant maintenance.
For years the garden had struggled to survive the relentless weeds that always threatened to return the plot to a jungle. This is an organic plot and simply spraying them into submission isn’t an option. Similarly asking visitors to tackle weeds that seemed to run rampant into the distance was too soul destroying. Smaller manageable plots were much more appealing so in 1991 we finally signed up to the idea of deep beds and started laying out a grid. Having been told from an early age never to tread on the soil it made perfect sense not to keep walking up and down the drills, compacting the soil in the process. The idea of the earth settling naturally thus providing a greater depth of soil was appealing, and to this day volunteers still compliment the lightness of the garden soil. The next major problem was what to do about the grass paths? There was the sheer hard work of pushing heavy wheelbarrows along slithery grass paths when it was wet and bumping over rutted ground when it was dry. A few paths are one thing but this was a big plot with dozens of beds, and the scale of managing the unruly strips was daunting. We ruled out mowing as hopelessly impractical, and weeding just seemed to open up a can of worms and make matters worse. In the end we eventually settled upon hoeing. Hoeing the paths! In reality it was more of a scraping with a sharp spade and it sufficed for many years. But at the beginning of each season there were all the beds to be straightened and great clumps of bulging couch grass to dig out. Something needed to be done.
By 1996 we’d had enough and a plan was hatched to concrete the main thoroughfares. Unfortunately this brought a good deal of local hostility but it seemed like a just cause and we pressed on regardless. One by one the major avenues were quietly slabbed over and then, slowly but surely the minor ones, until after a good few years the whole garden enjoyed a network of neat paths serving equally neat and tidy beds. The paths are covered in silt much of the time so blend in easily with their surroundings, but the big plus is they keep the shape of the bed and can be scraped clean in a jiffy. Similarly the boundaries were vulnerable to a steady incursion of weeds as the garden petered out with leaves and general debris collecting at the bottom of the hedges. This was halted by building stone terracing a few feet inside the perimeter with an adjacent slab path to form a solid barrier. It certainly keeps them at bay. Over the years the hedges gradually became hedgerows and now provide a good thick boundary. The outcome of these extensive works is that the routine maintenance of the garden has become much more manageable. The days of grass paths are mercifully in the past and we no longer spend hours and hours tending the unproductive land.
The Peach House was built in 1995 and was the first development for twenty years. The eponymous tree was a popular feature running the length of the building with branches trained over the beams. These were covered with blossom in the early spring and rosy fruits ripening in the sun later on. There was also space underneath for flowers and herbs, workbenches along the back wall with cupboards underneath, shelves up the wall and a couple of seats for pondering on. A nursery was established to raise stock and glazed cold frames were also built for selling potted plants to visitors. By now it was becoming evident that what we really needed was a proper shed to keep everything together. Back in the old days we used to meet up every morning in the Greenhouse where there were a couple of chairs and the tools were kept in a battered croquet box. So in 1996 we dug out the site in front of Harry’s cabin and built the iconic Shed. This represented a giant step forward. It was home to a potbellied stove and at long last there was somewhere to hang a coat and get warmed up on a cold day. After all this time it was nice just to be comfortable. There was a small office and a couple of comfy chairs, a workbench to do things on and firewood at the door. We even had a pair of French windows that caught the sun and a porch outside with a bench looking out over the beds. What a place! There must be hundreds of people with fond memories of times spent tucked up in here, drinking tea and discussing one thing and another. This is where all the decisions were made.
All of these improvements gradually changed the agricultural nature of the plot and instead brought the comfortable feel of an old fashioned formal kitchen garden. The site was being divided into smaller rooms with something different around each corner. Hedges were planted along the boundaries and the garden started to expand towards the old farm. The old meadow had to be cleared of stones and the grass dug out, with the clods being barrowed up planks on to huge compost heaps mixed with layers of muck. Once the grass was stripped, trenches were dug and filled with muck and then back-filled in preparation for a crop of potatoes. The Mandala garden was laid out with beds radiating from the Chenresig statue at the centre and more rows of beds were dug around the sides. Rinpoche also brought his block laying skills to the site, building cold frames and a composting enclosure. Word though would soon get out and very quickly a team of willing helpers would appear to finish the job and allow him to return to more pressing matters. So by now we seemed well prepared even though some seasons there wouldn’t be enough staff and occasionally patches would remain fallow until the numbers picked up again.
In the meantime there had been a groundswell of interest in growing herbs. This continued for a few years and from just a couple of beds the herb garden was gradually extended until it occupied the entire patch in front of the Greenhouse. Great sheaves were picked but without anywhere to dry them they had to be bundled up and carted away for processing. Herb teas and hand creams were sold in the shop but it was clear we needed more facilities. In 2003 plans were drawn up for a multi-purpose workshop and three years later work began on site.
2006 - . . . A Building Phase
The Oakhouse represented a major step forward and dominated procedings for the next few years. The scaffolding went up and contractors erected a large two storey, green oak, post and beam structure. All that was left for us to do was fill in the walls, construct doors and windows, slate the roof, and everything else besides. Easy really. Suddenly we were building properly and starting to amass tons of tools and equipment. Progress was steady and gradually the place started taking shape. Throughout this period the crops were kept ticking over but the building was now the main focus and any spare time was consumed on site.
For the ten years while it was a building site the Oakhouse had been the main workshop for everything, but as it approached completion it was clear that we needed another workshop. The raspberry patch tucked away behind the Old Greenhouse seemed perfect and the Back Shed was constructed with the traditional railway sleepers. More storage sheds were built along the back of the Oakhouse and most of the materials have been brought inside, gradually reducing the piles of open storage that seem to pop up everywhere. The adjacent Peach House was a light cedar wood frame and was intended to abut the new building, but sadly it collapsed in 2010 under the weight of snow. So this was added to the already full itinerary and new foundations were dug for something much more substantial. This has now been built and resembles something more like a solid nineteenth century orangery. The block walls are finished in a sandstone render and there are sturdy columns at the front not unlike the Nash Conservatory at Kew. The plan had been to use clear box-profile corrugated sheeting on the roof, which wouldn’t have been pretty but sufficed for our purposes. Then midway through construction the project was given a commercial aluminium glasshouse and miraculously the roofing frames fitted our new construction to within half an inch. This seemed like a positive omen and the finished effect has been splendid. There is stone slab staging and shelves up the back wall and to the front there are beds for mixed planting. There’s even room for a small grand piano. But this will be have to remain a general purpose greenhouse at least until the Old Greenhouse has been replaced.
The garden extended further up the top end with another large plot of vegetable beds. This area was rather exposed so we started to consider the possibility of building a proper walled garden, traditionally an important part of any established garden. Work started in 2011 and the thick stone walls bring a substantial and peaceful presence and provide shelter for the plants and visitors alike. Built in the Gothic style of a cloistered ruin, such is the flavour of the stonework that visitors frequently ask, ‘What was this building?’ We usually say it’s being restored, or suggest it was the northern outpost of the 12th century Premonstratensions from Shap Abbey. In any event the moss and lichens are starting to take root and there are creeping plants in the nooks and crannies. It’s beginning to feel ancient already and will no doubt keep people guessing.
The garden recently received a remarkable cacti collection and is an unlikely addition to a Borders garden. A cool Cacti House has been built to accommodate them and they’re gradually acclimatising to their new surroundings, learning to cope with the reduced light levels and shorter season. It seems there is a large following for these unusual plants particularly in spring when they all start flowering and the range of colours is quite exotic. In winter they need to be brought inside to hibernate in a cool dark place.
And now the Old Greenhouse has come down and the plan is to build two smaller greenhouses with a grass quadrangle in the middle. On the right there will be a Vinery to house the old vine which is still alive and kicking, with beds underneath for salad crops etc. To the left, backing on to the hedge, will be a Fernery-cum-Winter Garden which should thrive in our overcast conditions and provide some greenery all the year round. This tends to be a grey place so a colourful garden in winter, even if it’s only green, holds great appeal and could be very uplifting. Alpines wouldn’t have much luck outside in the damp but in a greenhouse there’s huge potential, so an Alpine House is also under construction up by the ruins.
Over the years there has been a huge amount of trial and error as we’ve grappled with the conditions and endeavoured to build something interesting. Samye Ling has by nature a largely transient population and there tends to be a new team every year. Different people bring different ideas and as such this season’s salad specialities, giant hollyhocks and medicinal herbs, could be next year’s Chinese vegetables, tree fruit and aquatic fish. Dahlias were popular once, planted in the greenhouse they were not unknown to reach eight feet tall and produce dozens of perfect flowers the size of dinner plates. They slipped off the radar for a while but are making a comeback and there is also a plan to build a Dahlia House. And this is where we are today. A lot of rainwater has passed under the bridge but we’re still going strong and at times it would seem that anything could still happen!
For an overview of the Samye Ling Garden please select from the items to the left.