I was surprised but delighted when Fred, my son, and his girlfriend, Suzanne, asked if they could hold their wedding reception in our garden last August. I am always teased mercilessly about my devotion to the garden, so I felt ridiculously gratified at their request.
We batted around various ideas involving a marquee on the lawn. But these ideas bit the dust when Suzanne’s parents arrived from Dublin for a wedding planning weekend. Why don’t we use those “sheds”, they suggested?
The “sheds” are two massive stone, early Victorian barns, each well over 30m long and around 6m wide, beautiful buildings and ideal for the purpose. Except they were full with 30 years of detritus – mainly mine. Remnants from garden DIY projects for books, television programmes and contracts – useful items such as plywood templates from past Chelsea gardens, old tree guards, piles of stone, timber and bricks. Steptoe would have been impressed.
Over successive weekends, slowly clearing our way through the piles and stripping out internal partitions made by the previous farmer was an exciting revelation. The tarpaulin sheets that had hung from the ceiling for many years were removed to reveal the huge beams and rafters. And the rows of “putlog” holes (the small, regularly spaced, square holes used to house scaffolding during construction) were opened up to allow shafts of light through.
With hindsight, marquees are not necessarily straightforward. My niece Jessie’s wedding, also last August, was hit by torrential storms and gales. The marquee was insured for gales but not above a certain wind speed. If this was exceeded the marquee was out of bounds – it would be lethal. The whole family was up the night before in dressing gowns and wellies in lashing rain while tugging at ropes to stop the structure flying over the hills. Thankfully the wind dropped on the day and a great time was had by all.
Another friend was married in Greece in August, and no shelter was organised – why would you? Again, the weather turned and all the guests in strappy sundresses and light suits were soaked and frozen.
Grow your own wedding garden
In early spring (rather late as we had not had much warning), in front of a sombre yew hedge, I sprayed off a 1m strip of turf with glyphosate, in preparation for forming an eye-popping ribbon of colourful planting along one side of the entrance yard. After a couple of days I added a 50cm thick layer of green waste (bettaland.co.uk) to help compensate for the hungry roots of the old yew hedge.
Invariably I find this the most easy and effective way to start a border in existing turf. No digging – this just brings dormant weed seeds to the surface, plays havoc with the natural community of beneficial microorganisms and worms and does not help the soil structure (which will be pretty good, having been colonised by grass roots for years).
Next I sowed a selection of annuals into plug trays in March in the greenhouse to supplement some existing plants of my favourite dinner plate dahlia, ‘Thomas Edison’. The dahlias were cut back, as usual, to about 15cm when they reached double this height. This produces much more buxom plants with more blooms. To complement their strong magenta colour I sowed Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Sensation Series Mixed’, Nicotiana F1 Perfume Antique Lime (pellets, much easier to handle, from molesseeds.co.uk) and Nicotiana sylvestris, chosen for its stature, evening perfume and freely self-seeding habit. If you are lucky and grow it once, you may have it for life.
White corncockles (Agrostemma githago ‘Milas Snow Queen’), with their tall natural airy look, were sown later, at the end of May. Had they been sown with the rest in March they would have needed a lot of dead-heading to look their best at the end of August. I also bought some plug plants of Cleome Señorita Rosalita (kernock.co.uk) to add a vertical accent. These were all “pit” planted with a trowel through the mulch and dead turf at the start of the dry period, in early June. But they were heavily watered in on planting to encourage the roots to chase the water down. The cosmos, especially, seemed to thrive in the baking conditions and responded buoyantly to heavy cutting back.
We had a quote from a florist to decorate the trestle tables with posies of flowers in simple jars, but we all fainted at the cost and decided to do it ourselves. A client and friend who used to plan weddings lent us lots of small milk bottles and we all saved small hexagonal jam jars to have a semblance of uniformity. Growing flowers for cutting to run along long trestle tables meant ousting some veg from my raised beds. I planted about 30 gypsophila (Gypsophila paniculata ‘Bristol Fairy’) and kept cutting these back from late June. They produced hundreds of heads and I could have had enough for miles of trestle tables, let alone enough for 40 or so jam jars.
More cosmos and white corncockles plus my second favourite, the tall, lime green Nicotiana langsdorffii were also planted in the raised beds. We tested a couple of jam jars a few weeks before to check the vase life of the flowers. They looked pretty impeccable after five days in a cool room, which meant we could arrange flowers well in advance. At the last minute we added a few late cow parsley-like plants that grow wild on our verge. Name places were made using gold felt tip on bay leaves.
A wedding outdoors: all the other stuff
Having a theme for a wedding seems to be a trend. Given the rustic and rural buildings, we decided to pep up the scene with a bright mix of eclectic colours. Our large old crew yard, which is enclosed by the barns and a yew hedge, has four large drums of evergreen oak surrounding a simple grass rectangle with most of the planting confined to trained fruit trees around the walls. The wedding was a great excuse to add some splashes of colour and sparkle.
The theme can affect the budget, so think carefully. There are ambitious ideas around. Someone I know created a range of themed shops in a specially made village, booked 18 hairdressers and make-up artists and all the guests arrived early for a makeover.
But the amount spent doesn’t necessarily result in a fabulous day; adding something quirky and home-made often helps to generate a convivial atmosphere in a way that top planners with mega budgets can fail to provide. Jessie decorated her wedding tables (for 250) with huge multicoloured chilli plants grown in catering-sized tomato cans and interspersed them with bunches of garish dahlias (purloined from various gardens) – they looked sensational.
To complement the multicoloured lanterns outside we chose multicoloured chairs for inside. Vicky Woodling of Purple Doors Props (purpledoorprops.com) has a huge array of traditional wooden chairs in many styles and colours; some even have brightly upholstered seats. They, together with a huge assortment of different brass candlesticks borrowed from an antique dealer friend, added great sparkle to contrast with the expanse of old stone walls.
Huge triangles of bunting (made by Suzanne’s mother, Una) were hung between the old oak beams and also between the trees along our long drive. Una has now sown these together to form a beautiful quilt for the happy couple.
To add yet more colour and evening light, we positioned a harlequin mix of different coloured lanterns along the border, hanging them on road pins.
The lanterns (feuerhand.com) have a burning time of 20 hours. They add an amazing amount of light, which you can adjust. I rashly bought 70 (but negotiated a great discount). The road pins (those thin metal poles with the curly heads) were from True Traders. I find them useful for many things horticultural, from fixing temporary covers over vulnerable veg, to using for temporary chicken fencing.
While the dance floor is in full swing, having several covered chill-out spaces where you can have a decent conversation without shouting above the band was top of the list for some. We hired a small “Hat” tent to slot inside the four clipped evergreen oaks (eventsandtents.co.uk). This provided a covered outside area for sofas and general chilling. We wrapped the tent legs with hessian and put big, multi-stem field maples in front of the posts with their pots hessian-wrapped. My local wholesale nursery Double Yew Nurseries Ltd (doubleyewnurseries.co.uk) kindly lent me these.
This was just as well, as the rain pelted down just as we arrived back from church and so 175 people crowded into the hat tent for Suzanne’s father Ken’s achingly funny speech. He refused to wait until after dinner as he hates performing in public but he was brilliant at projecting his Irish lilt over the pelting rain on canvas.
Luckily, the weather turned after that, so everyone could spill into the yard which we filled with fire pits surrounded by hay bales for seating, covered with faux sheepskins from Ikea, and poser beer barrels. We lit the fire pits about an hour before guests finished eating inside and used kiln-dried wood from Certainly Wood (certainlywood.co.uk) to minimise the smoke. They do a “Grill and Chill” wood cut between 4-10cm diameter which makes the fire easy to manage and it heats up quickly. They also provided old apple wood, which has gloriously scented smoke. The multi- coloured lanterns decorated the barrels, the barn walls and the outdoor tables with bright splashes of colour.
Fred and Suzanne wanted a two-day event as many guests had flown over from Dublin, so we followed the main event with a late “lunch” at 4pm the following day. As dusk came and the fires were relit the gravel yard became a dance floor as Paddy James, a singer they met while skiing, filled the yard with his Celtic songs.
But we made one huge mistake: we ran out of draught Guinness, so our two Sandy and Black pigs (a main attraction) were named by popular consent “Anymore” and “Guinness”.