I love the crunchy sound that walking along a gravel path makes. It always makes me feel that I’m close to nature. Growing up in London, our local small city garden centre was always a place I’d escape to when I needed some peace and quiet. I’d pass the threshold and step into a sanctuary, breathing in the cleaner air and taking in the slower pace.

Here the inherent cycle of life would show itself. Cityscapes would subside and the seasons would awaken. It was a comforting retreat for me on those Sunday afternoons. I could remove myself from my personal stresses and regain a perspective on my life before recommencing another working week.

The garden centre existed on a modest scale, plants were arranged in aesthetic compositions perfectly staged to entice Londoners to spend some time and think up ways to transform their small city gardens and tiny balconies into relaxing havens. Customers would buy everything from a small apple tree to a beautifully cultivated deep-purple clematis perfect for climbing, it’s striking star-shaped flower weaving its way all along the trellis.

Delicate looking winter crocuses and snowdrops were the first to appear, hardy enough to grow through layers of snow, then springtime would arrive driving away the grey winds and rain. Bright yellow daffodils would emerge, followed by splendidly tall tulips of every colour. On hot summer afternoons I’d walk by clusters of deep pink hydrangeas arranged in old stone pots, then stop and stare at rose bushes with curious sounding Latin names taking in their majestic colours and subtle fragrances.

One of the best things about moving to St Albans all those years ago was without a doubt having access to several huge garden centres. I was fascinated and delighted to see how much grander they were. It felt like gardening here existed on a different scale, as a significant part of people’s lives rather than being some discreet hobby to be fitted in on a Sunday afternoon. I discovered that absolutely every aspect of horticulture is covered in these places, from fruit trees to bedding plants, from climbers to perennials, from houseplants to succulents.

Such vast sites encourage customers to dream big, allowing for infinite possibilities when designing their gardens, creating a sacred space or a private sanctuary with room for a few new trees, a pergola, a fountain or even a greenhouse! I was in the big leagues now, customers needed hose wheels, big spray guns and chunky wheelbarrows; moving from London, I’d turned up with a puny watering can.

After the first couple of months of lockdown, our options were either to have a picnic in the park or go to a garden centre. I was hopeful that by now I might get to see the odd exhibition or go shopping in London, but with the possibility of the virus resurging, it seems that life will remain more of a local affair continuing at a slower pace. I still can’t have a manicure or go to any local events; even the hairdressers will be fully booked for a while. In which case, I think I’ll go back into early lockdown mode and have another go at attempting to design my garden.

As my outdoor space is smallish, I need to think carefully about how I can bring features and colour into it without making it look too busy. How I can create a pretty bijou garden for relaxing in peace and quiet or for occasional entertaining? Once I have learned to weed, snip and prune my flowers in the right way, and prepared the right compost, I can start researching appropriate plants for my particular garden. I was reading somewhere that you can determine how much sun your garden gets and even double its size using mirrors!

I’d never actually heard of ‘vertical gardening’ until last year. I was fascinated to learn that you can create a living wall rich with flowering shrubs growing out of pockets on a wallhanging. Planting upwards can create an on-trend eclectic look, you can lean an old wooden step ladder against a fence and place small potted plants on each rung; hang some cascading mauve-blue wisteria over a fence or maybe weave a blossoming honeysuckle vine into an arched trellis. I like the idea of putting up a few hanging baskets in random places, adding flashes of colour with fuchsias and geraniums or even creating a mini pond using an old sink then adding some small rocks, gravel and pond plants.

So far, I’ve filled the new birdfeeder and hung it high on my cherry blossom tree, hoping it’ll attract smaller birds rather than the usual pigeons. I’ve planted some deep-red Calla lillies. I’ve draped a garland of solar lights over my fence. It looks so pretty in the evening. Herbs are easy to grow, and I now have a couple of small basil and oregano pots on my sunny kitchen windowsill. I like to pick a leaf or two, throw them into my pot and stir them into my ragu sauces.

Some of my old friends think I’ve gone a little bit crazy as I’ve never shown any interest in gardening before. Even my husband has been taking the mickey and last week showed me a feature on garden dresses in a Sunday magazine that made him smile. “If you want to get into gardening, you’ll need to look the part. Maybe you should buy one of these multi-coloured stripy garden dresses online.”

I was horrified! Some of these frumpy dresses looked like something a tea-lady would have worn back in the 1950s! Why is the fabric so cheap looking and the cut A-line? Why are they patterned in washed out florals or stripes? Can you imagine if a few neighbours were to come over and catch me wearing one? They’d think I’d finally lost the plot after months of lockdown?! Oh well, the truth is, maybe I have, just a little bit.

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at www.radioverulam.com/smallcitylife.