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How to build a beautiful garden on a shoestring

Anya Lautenbach's 'shoestring garden' at her home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Anya Lautenbach's 'shoestring garden' at her home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire - Britt Willoughby-Dyer/Dorling Kindersley

Back in the summer of 2019, Anya Lautenbach posted one of her first tutorials on taking lavender cuttings on Instagram. After spending seven years creating her half-acre, blank-canvas garden in Marlow, Buckinghamshire from scratch, and propagating almost all of the plants in it – from roses and wisteria to hydrangeas, lavender, dahlias and more – her advice came with the weight of sound horticultural experience.

Fast forward a couple of years, just as gardens and growing were finding a whole new audience thanks to the pandemic, and the self-taught gardener’s easy-to-follow advice started to snowball into video tutorials, providing step-by-step tips on creating a garden at virtually no cost by multiplying plants from cuttings, division, layering and gathering seeds.

Today, the propagation guru has more than a million followers across social media channels, including 690,000 followers on Facebook and almost half a million on her Instagram account @Anya_thegarden_fairy, where her tutorials include splitting clumps of Geranium ‘Rozanne’, deadheading cosmos or sowing gaura. Her no-nonsense videos, such as those where she demonstrates how to prune lavender, have reached 10 million views.

Anya Lautenbach sowing at her garden in Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Anya sowing at her garden in Marlow, Buckinghamshire - Britt Willoughby-Dyer/Dorling Kindersley

Next month sees the arrival of her debut book, The Money-Saving Gardener: Create Your Dream Garden at a Fraction of the Cost, in which Anya takes readers through her gardening philosophy and step-by-step guides of each of her propagation methods. The book gathers together all the knowledge gleaned as she created her own garden; other than young hedging plants, fruit trees and a beloved Prunus ‘Tai Haku’, around 90 per cent of the garden has been created using propagation. She guides her readers through how and when to take softwood and hardwood cuttings, semi-ripe or root cuttings with straightforward instructions, and lists of plants that the method is best suited to. Her gardening philosophy is, in addition to saving money, firmly focused on growing as sustainably as possible, by reusing and recycling wherever possible, and working in harmony with the natural world.

A border at Anya Lautenbach's garden in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where she has propagated 90 per cent of the plants
A border at Anya Lautenbach's garden in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where she has propagated 90 per cent of the plants - Britt Willoughby-Dyer/Dorling Kindersley

The success of her videos undoubtedly lies in their accessibility: she translates propagation skills that can often seem complex into something very simple. It’s an approach that she partly attributes to the fact that English is not her native language. “I think I operate on a narrow field,” she says of the abbreviated, clear-cut way she talks her followers through each process. When she was first approached by her publisher to write a book and realised she would need to produce 40,000 words, she jokingly asked her husband if she even knew that many English words.

But her appeal is also in her incredibly enthusiastic instructions, which come with a minimum of botanical language or confusing horti-speak. “I think we definitely make it too complicated,” she says of the wider gardening world’s approach to discussing gardening skills. “We also make too many rules. If, as a beginner, you open a book and it says, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ people are just going to think, ‘There’s no way I will ever propagate roses.’”

Instead, she has reduced skills into simple formulas. “You can capture it in a one-minute video. You just say it’s so easy and these basics will create success, and that will then lead to the next success. Then you can go back to the books if you want to know more.”

Her book is dedicated to the two women who together helped her become a gardener – her mother and her late mother-in-law. The seeds for her propagation obsession were sown in her childhood, growing up in Poland close to her grandparents, war survivors for whom being able to grow food or forage for it was a necessity, not a pastime. Her mother was also constantly growing something. “Our windowsills were always full of cuttings. As a child you don’t think much about it but she has given me so much passion without my even knowing it. Obviously, being a mum myself now, I can see that sometimes those seeds take time to germinate.”

Anya arrived in the UK in her late twenties to learn English, having grown up in eastern Europe in the 1980s. “We were cut off from the West,” she says. “I very quickly realised that the only way for me to achieve something in life was by learning English.” She left behind a career in business development and ended up just outside Inverness, working on Mohamed Fayed’s Balnagown Castle estate, so that she could master the language.

Despite being surrounded by the incredible landscapes of the Scottish Highlands, she was intensely homesick. One day, after she called home in tears, her mother told her to grow plants. “She said, ‘Just get a plant. Because home is where your plants grow.’” And from then on, Lautenbach started to grow and propagate new plants, channelling the knowledge she’d absorbed as a child. “There’s some sort of magic. As the roots grew from my cuttings, suddenly I started to feel almost like I was growing my own invisible roots at the same time, and I started feeling settled and more at home.”

Anya Lautenbach built her garden in Marlow, Buckinghamshire from scratch
Anya built her garden from scratch - Britt Willoughby-Dyer/Dorling Kindersley

When her English was good enough, she moved south to Buckinghamshire to return to her corporate life: a salesperson but with a creative soul, as she puts it. She got married and had her first son before moving to her current home in 2012. But just as she’d found her dream home on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where Purple Emperor butterflies appeared in clouds just the other side of their garden boundary, and where there was space for their growing collection of beehives (they currently have 11), she was also going through a severe mental health crisis.

“I was isolated, actually, at that point,” she explains. “I never asked for any help in terms of mental health. I think I did suffer from postnatal depression. And since then I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. I was feeling trapped and totally lost and I couldn’t even go for a run because I had a newborn.” Home alone with a baby, she was then plunged deeper into crisis as she was faced with the devastating effects of close relatives back home in Poland going through long-term illness. “It was like storm after storm after storm. And I was so overwhelmed. I was constantly in tears, struggling with what was happening back home.”

Anya Lautenbach in her garden in Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Anya in her garden - Britt Willoughby-Dyer/Dorling Kindersley

Her mother-in-law, aware that she was in extreme distress, implored her to start gardening, showing her inspiring gardens, teaching her about design and encouraging Anya to take cuttings from her own mature garden in Durham. “The one thing I could control was my plants, and creating life – it was almost like a positive dose of medicine,” she says in retrospect. “Propagation saved me from a serious mental breakdown.”

A few years later, looking at the garden she had created was, she says, astounding. “People say it takes so long, but it doesn’t. Because, you know, when I look at my pictures from nothing, it’s incredible. The only ‘secret’ is, obviously, planting it in the right place and providing the right conditions.”

Pots at Anya Lautenbach's garden
Anya: 'Propagation saved me from a serious mental breakdown' - Britt Willoughby-Dyer/Dorling Kindersley

Her first-hand experience of how cathartic and life-enhancing growing can be, of how it can provide an escape from life’s toughest situations and give hope and a way to look ahead, has also fuelled her approach to social media. When the pandemic hit – and it became clear that gardening was providing a solace to so many – Anya rallied with other well-known gardeners, including Claus Dalby, Charles Dowding and others, to provide live discussions and inspiration. It’s given her a unique connection with many of her followers, who contact her explaining how propagating plants has helped them through the bleakest of situations, too. Going forward, she hopes to harness this by working with mental health charities.

But for her, there’s another fundamental way that propagation can make meaningful connections, and that’s across generations. In the autumn of 2022, one of her followers messaged her via Instagram to say that she had tried to propagate a rose from her late mother’s house in the Cotswolds but the cuttings had failed to take, and asked for help: “And she said, ‘You know, those roses connect me to my mum. If they ever take, this will mean so much to me.’” Anya took the cuttings, nurtured them in her own garden, and they began to flower. “Now we are planning to get together and replant them,” she says. “I myself lost my mother-in-law, but she lives on, her legacy lives on. Propagation can connect us to previous generations – and to future generations too.”

The Money-Saving Gardener: Create Your Dream Garden at a Fraction of the Cost is published by Dorling Kindersley on Feb 1 and costs £16.99

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