Gardening and The Time Paradox

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It’s a little while since I wrote a garden book review. Followers of my Instagram account may know that I am reading Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook month by month, and I won’t be ready to review this until I finish the year’s journey with her in December. I also have another gardening book on the go, one of Christopher Lloyd’s, and I’ll review that in due course too. In between reading these gardening books as well as fiction, I’ve now started my new garden design classes and have whole library shelves of delectable design books available to me: plenty to keep my eyes occupied. Meanwhile, another book I recently read gave me a great deal to think about. It’s not a gardening book, but it was so tempting to extrapolate its ideas to gardeners that I thought I’d write this post about it. The book is called The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time and was written by two psychologists of Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.

I first picked this book up in the hopes of finding an explanation of why I am late for everything. (I did find out, incidentally: I’m a ‘Present Hedonist’, forever too deeply immersed in the current moment to notice the clock). But far beyond that, the book described the many intriguing different ways we perceive time, and how our balance of past, present and future perspective drives everything we do. It describes how our view of the past (positive or negative) determines our contentment in the present, and has less to do with the magnitude of events in our past than our way of framing them. Our relationship with the present is just as important. Reminders to live ‘mindfully’ aren’t necessary for us ‘Present Hedonists’, who rarely forget to stop and smell the roses or sit and enjoy the garden. (We never get anything useful done, mind you, but at least we are less prone to chronic stress and its related diseases.) ‘Present Fatalists’ on the other hand, feel that their life is governed by external influences over which they have little or no control, a perspective that is linked to anxiety and depression. Then there are the ‘Futures’, people whose actions today are driven by anticipation of tomorrow’s gains. Futures are good at delayed gratification. They study for exams, they invest in their pensions, they are always on time for the train. They are the lawyers and accountants who make the world go round while the Presents are smelling the roses and forgetting to submit their tax returns. We all need a good balance between a Past-Positive, Present-Hedonistic, and Future perspective in order to lead a healthy and productive life. So what has this all got to do with gardening?

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There could hardly be a better pastime in which past, present and future are more intricately woven. Let me illustrate with a simple vignette. At the end of last month, I decided that my wildflower crates were past their best (they had never really got off the ground, to tell the truth), and I decided to replant them for winter. I pulled the remains of the wildflowers out, first snipping off anything that could be used for a vase. I walked over to the compost heap, took off the lid, had a good look inside first, and then threw the spent wildflowers in. Then I spent a good few minutes flicking the brandling worms off the side so they wouldn’t be squashed when I put the lid back on. Large ones first, then the smaller ones, then tapping the lid to knock any off the lip and into the bin. Some of them got stuck, and I scooped them off delightedly, squeamishly, with a forefinger, which I then wiped on my jeans. (Can you see why I’m late for everything?)

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I replaced some of the old soil in the crates with new compost, mixing it in with my bare hands, heedless of the dirt I was going to have to scrape out from under my fingernails later on in order to be hand-hygeine-presentable for my day job as a ‘Future’ at the hospital. I liked the smell of the compost and the way it felt. Time slipped like soil between my fingers as I searched for vine weevil grubs (none to be seen). Once the soil was prepared, I planted some snowdrop bulbs. My favourite flowers are snowdrops, and the thought of that first sighting of glaucous shoots in a dark January brings me great anticipation for the season ahead. With the pleasure of past winters always vivid in my mind, I took a large bag of snowdrop bulbs and divided them between the two crates, arranging them in an even pattern across the soil, pressing them in with my thumb. I’ve never planted snowdrops from dry bulbs in autumn before, and it will be five months before I see the results of this trial. I also planted some Narcissus ‘Minnow’ in the gaps between the snowdrops, having admired a picture of them in a magazine; it will be seven months before I see those in flower. To give me something to enjoy today and for the rest of the autumn, I topped the crates with generous pink and white Bellis daisies, bought at the garden centre in a present-oriented splurge. Memories of past enjoyment motivating me to take time over a pleasurable job in the present in order to reap future rewards. Little wonder gardening is therapy.

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People who have a tendency to live in the present are at a disadvantage in the Northern Hemisphere’s future-driven clock-time culture. On the other hand, you can hardly open a newspaper or social media site these days without seeing an article about how we should all be practising mindfulness and living more in the present. It’s getting the balance right that’s key, and I’m convinced gardening can help. Much has been written about gardening and mindfulness: how tilling the earth and being close to nature makes us slow down and experience the infinitesimal now. But what about gardening and a future perspective? Well, if anything could reorientate someone to a future perspective, it’s gardening. Practically every intervention in gardening is made with the future in mind. We plant bulbs in autumn so that we have flowers in spring. We sow seeds in February so that we have vegetables in June. When we plant a sapling, we are not thinking only of the benefit for ourselves, but of future generations, of people we may never know, who never knew we existeda transcendental future. Gardening teaches us about patience, consequences, delayed gratification, investment of time and effort. If education exists to turn Present-Hedonistic children (and adults) into well behaved Futures, then there’s no education like the experience of a dreary, tulip-less spring to galvanise a Present Hedonist into getting those bulbs planted in autumn. If I were a psychologist interested in the time perspectives of gardeners, I’d test the correlation between a Future orientation and a willingness to sow biennials.

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I would also test the correlation between enjoyment of weeding versus a Present or Future perspective. As a Present Hedonist, I adore weeding. Give me a hand fork and a podcast and I’ll happily pull creeping buttercups for hours. I enjoy the task itself much more than the result. Put a Future to the same task and they’ll get on with it too; but with merely the return on investment in mind they are likely to find it a mundane, if necessary chore. It’s the Present Fatalists who suffer most. With little consideration for any future return on their investment of time, and a sinking feeling that no matter how many weeds they pull they’ll never get them under control, weeding becomes a hated and seemingly pointless chore. Yet, gardening is a science, and reliable outcomes can be achieved through specific actions, so there could hardly be a better or more pleasurable way of engaging the Present Fatalist and showing them that this is one arena in which they can take control. To this group of people, who have often had the least control over their lives (through adverse social or economic circumstances, for example) and who suffer frequently from mental health disorders, gardening perhaps has the most to offer.

If you are interested in finding out about your own time perspective scores, you can test yourself on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.

Zimbardo, P and Boyd, J. (2008) The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time. First edition, London: Rider.

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Tulip Review

If you want the best way to bring colour, life, optimism, joy and conviviality to a spring garden, you cannot do without tulips. The variety of colours is unbeatable with something for every taste, from chic and sombre almost-blacks and royal purples through crimson reds and fiery golds to pastel pinks and whites. I have always found it a challenge to choose my bulbs for autumn planting, and I suspect I won’t be alone in this. If selecting the best colours from a choice of literally thousands were not hard enough, the range of shapes, heights and sizes adds another dimension to the challenge. Little wonder how easy it is to either over-order or just give up in despair.

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I originally began this post with a sentence declaring that tulips were the ‘cheapest and easiest’ way to add colour to a spring garden, and then I deleted that sentence because tulip bulbs are not cheap when you come to think about it, especially not the ones that disappear after a season, nor the ones that get eaten by squirrels or mice, nor the ones that simply don’t appear for some unknown reason. Unlike other bulbs, tulips are most reluctant to increase their numbers, and only a handful of varieties can be relied on to come back year on year. As for declaring that tulips are ‘easy’ to grow, one has to remember that planting those hundreds of tulip bulbs every autumn can be back-breaking and repetitive; you need to plant so many of them to make a decent impression.

The quality of the bulbs you buy is important. Cheap, puny ones are usually a false economy because so often they come up blind or not at all. Not all bulb suppliers are equal; and even the better quality companies can get things wrong. By the time six months have passed and you are wondering why a patch of ‘Ballerina’ has appeared in your garden while there is not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight, it seems too late to contact your supplier with a complaint. Challenges aside, tulips remain in my mind an essential key to bringing colour and joy to a spring garden, and with some judicious planning (and the wisdom of hindsight) it is possible to minimise the pitfalls and heartache while ensuring yourself a three month stretch of glorious, bouncy, elegant, exuberant tulips.

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Not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight …

One thing I have learned is to take careful notes and lots of photographs during the tulip season, and store them somewhere that can easily be found when the bulb catalogues come out in August. Heaven knows but when you are surrounded by the florid hues of asters and dahlias you won’t be able to remember what spring feels like, much less care. And remembering what spring feels like is key to making insightful choices from the catalogues in order to recreate or even improve upon your garden of the springtime just gone.

Well, my safe storage place for my thoughts and photographs on tulips is the post you are reading at this moment. I’m going to talk about the varieties of tulips that I’ve tried over the past couple few years (successes, failures, surprises) and use it to help me decide what to order in three months’ time.

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Tulipa turkestanica

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the earliest tulip to appear and one of my most favourite tulips is the species tulip, Tulipa turkestanica, a heavenly little white and yellow burst of petals. For two years in a row I have filled two whole window boxes full of them so that I could enjoy them from indoors through the window, and they lifted my soul every time I looked at them. They would also look good in a pot with Muscari and primroses (pale pink or yellow) and the biggest bulbs can be lifted and stored once the leaves have died back.

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‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’
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‘Golden Apeldoorn’

‘Purissima’ is the best white tulip I have tried so far. A large single white tulip that flowers in April, its generous petals open in sunshine to reveal a splash of egg-yolk yellow at its heart. Like so many tulips it expires with great melodrama, the petals dropping one by one to the ground like enormous tulip teardrops. I thought it far superior to the double white ‘Mount Tacoma’ which I bought to take over from ‘Purissima’ but which was frankly a little dull. ‘Purissima’ looks wonderful in the border with ‘Apricot Beauty’, and would also look good with a yellow tulip such as ‘Golden Apeldoorn’, which flowers at about the same time. Both ‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ made a good return two years in a row; however, I was disappointed that not a single ‘Apricot Beauty’ came back for a second innings. In my opinion, the latter is a lovely enough tulip to be worth the bother and expense of buying afresh every year, and vies with my old favourite, ‘Menton’, for the prize of best apricot tulip.

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‘Purissima’ and ‘Apricot Beauty’
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‘Apricot Beauty’

‘Menton’ is in a class of its own: a generous, peachy head sitting with remarkable poise on its tall, slim stem, a thing of exotic beauty that belies its sturdiness in a strong spring breeze. Such a carefully bred flower so far removed from the species should not be expected to grace us with its presence two years in a row, and yet twice mine returned, becoming one or two fewer each year; but I was so gratified that I forgave its eventual disappearance.

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‘Menton’
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‘Menton’

I was surprised at how much I liked ‘Prinses Irene’ (sometimes spelled Princess), a stocky, vibrant and vivid orange tulip with minky striped markings on the outer petals, which I planted around our circular brick terrace. One of my suppliers was giving her away for free in 2017, and she was even better value for coming back for another innings this year. Such a short-stemmed tulip also looked good in containers with Muscari: you just can’t beat orange with blue.

I adored ‘Bruine Wimpel’, in delicious shades of mink and rust, which I planted in pots, then collected and stored over winter before adding to my chaotic cutting bed with not a hope that something so classy would show up to the party two years in a row. To my enormous surprise, it reappeared this year in good abundance. ‘Bruine Wimpel’ is a good single alternative to the florists’ favourite double ‘La Belle Epoch’, which was everywhere on Instagram last year but can be so hard to get hold of.

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‘La Belle Epoch’
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‘Ballerina’

Given that I do not prefer lily-shaped tulips and certainly hadn’t ordered it, the grace and beauty of ‘Ballerina’ was a pleasant surprise, especially alongside the dark heads of ‘Paul Scherer’, the latter first seen at Shepherd House Gardens where we were reliably informed that it is a good returner – in fact, both ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Paul Scherer’ returned in excellent spirits this following spring. Although almost-black tulips are extremely striking, it is important to pair them with a worthy background to do them justice. ‘Ballerina’, on the other hand, is the kind of tulip that would look good next to anything, and I can see myself buying more and spreading them around the garden.

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‘Paul Scherer’
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‘Antraciet’

‘Antraciet’ had dusky red double heads and looked old-fashioned and expensive like a well aged wine, and returned beautifully for a second year. At the cheap and jolly end of the tulip spectrum, a Gardener’s World special offer of a ‘Bumper Border Mix’ of tulips for a fiver, thrown haphazardly into a large plastic pot and shoved in a corner, became the prettiest thing in the garden. It was so successful that it made me wonder if I shouldn’t just buy five bags of these at a third of the cost, make up several generous pots of them and sit back to enjoy the show thirty or forty pounds better off.

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‘Antraciet’
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Cheap and cheerful special offer

Tulips that were less to my taste included ‘Brazil’, which I’d bought in the patriotic hope of its being tall and tanned and dark and lovely, but sadly it turned out to be short, swarthy, sallow, and clearly living on a diet of beer and churrasco, though it did return for a second year running and has some interesting hues as it fades. ‘Blue Parrot’ and ‘Nightclub’ came out so late that the tulip party was pretty much over by the time they did (although ‘Nightclub’ was admittedly worth the wait); neither returned for a second year. ‘Chato’, which incidentally means ‘boring’ in Portuguese, was anything but boring. A remarkable lipstick pink, it is gay and delightful and just a little too flouncy for my tastes, though again returned in the border for a second year (I think about three returned).

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‘Nightclub’
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‘Chato’

Tulipa saxatilis was pretty enough, but did not return and was not a patch on its classier sister, T. turkestanica, while T. humilisOdalisque’ didn’t bother to flower at all. But the biggest disappointment was the non-appearance of ‘Charming Lady’, which I was so looking forward to.

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So my strategy for ordering this autumn will look something like this:

  1. Buy the best quality I can afford
  2. Order early
  3. Store the bulbs correctly until planting time (after the first frost)
  4. Don’t spend too long agonising over flowering times. Just ensure that any chosen as partners will flower at the same time.
  5. Keep to tried and tested favourites that return: ‘Purissima’, ‘Menton’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Antraciet’, ‘Bruine Wimpel’, and the non-returner ‘Apricot Beauty’.
  6. Try at least one new cultivar.
  7. For bulk planting in pots, buy special-offer tulips.

I would love to find out what your favourite tulips are. Which cultivars do you buy year after year or which in your experience perennate reliably? Which have you never tried before but are planning to buy this autumn? Or have you given up on the fuss and bother of tulips in favour of less needy bulbs such as daffodils and muscari?

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In The Garden: February

With this month’s warm and balmy temperatures, the garden has begun its slow explosion into green, starting of course with the snowdrops and dwarf irises, while narcissi and tulips line themselves up to begin their show next month. So, what is looking good in the garden this month?

Looking Good

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Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ in a vintage clay pot has come out to see the February sun.

 

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A surprise of crocuses, which I did not plant! I imagine they must have self-seeded from our nearby park, which is absolutely thick with the most beautiful displays.
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Helleborus argutifolus. I adore these subtle shades of lime and the soft rounded texture of the sepals.
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I planted a handful of ‘borrowed’ bulbs from our rented garden in 2015, and last year I divided and spread the clumps, so now this year at last the garden is starting to fill up. Nothing in the garden gives me greater joy to see at this time of year. I am not a galanthophile by any means: I am happy with old faithful G. nivalis. Perhaps one day I will splurge on some different varieties, but right now, these simple flowers couldn’t be making me happier.
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Electric blue Iris ‘Clairette’ saved over from last year’s pots.
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Another spring favourite of mine just coming into bloom. I have a white and a baby blue variety somewhere in the front garden and am awaiting their appearance with anticipation and hope.
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An enormous primrose taken as a seedling from my grandmother’s garden. It needs splitting.
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I am delighted to have spotted my first Anemone blanda, which I planted in autumn 2016 under the cherry tree.
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Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ making a surprise appearance at the back of the back garden. I ought to move these nearer the house as they were almost over by the time I spotted them in the distance through the rain-spattered window.

Jobs

  1. This is the month for sorting and sowing seeds. I stocked up on coir pellets (which I am using for the first time as an experiment) and washed out my seed trays and root trainers to ensure they were fresh and clean of any dirt that could have harboured disease from last year. I sorted my seeds into those that needed planting right away (sweet peas, Calendula, Cerinthe, Aquilegia, Nigella, Antirrhinum), those that could wait a month, and those that needed direct sowing. I had lots left over, which I packaged up to send to friends.
  2. It was a good month for mulching the beds with some left over horse manure, as well as some seaweed that I picked up on our recent walk on Tyninghame beach. I try to collect seaweed whenever I go to the beach (always the loose, dead stuff) as it is so wonderful to spread on the garden or to add to compost.
  3. Early spring is the time for pruning hydrangeas, clematis in groups 2 and 3, and certain other woody shrubs that flower later in the year. img_1902
  4. February is the last opportunity for clipping hedges before bird nesting season begins, after which it is necessary to wait until late July. Last year I had sparrows nesting in our privet hedge, so I took to them with hand shears instead of electric.
  5. Each year I grow a different variety of new potato in reusable deep sacks. I find it deeply satisfying earthing them up, watering them, and then tipping the bag out and finding all the new potatoes among the dark earth, even though our local greengrocer sells delicious new potatoes for far cheaper than I could ever manage to produce them. February is the time to ‘chit’ potatoes so I put mine in egg boxes by our french doors, where it is bright but not too warm.img_1901
  6. A general tidy-up was a satisfying way to spend a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, cutting back all the dead stalks and foliage for the compost heap to allow new growth to come through.
  7. Dividing perennials can begin this month if the ground isn’t frozen. I have my eye on a Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, some Bergenias and a Christmas rose that I would like to split so that I can increase my stock.

February Garden View

At last the front garden is beginning to green over with the fat shoots of bulbs growing in thick clumps all over the beds. Snowdrops are spreading beneath the roses and in small corners.

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The back garden too is changing: no snowdrops here, though I plan to spread some to this garden as soon as possible. However, many bulbs planted both this autumn and the previous one are making bold appearances.

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So that is it for February, a joyful month in the garden as spring begins to break through and cheer us all up after a long winter. I am now thoroughly looking forward to March, when the first species tulips and narcissi will be bringing even more colour to the garden. What have you been enjoying about your garden in February, and what are you looking forward to seeing in March?

Finally, can you see a face in the photo below?

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In the Garden: January

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Hasn’t it been a confusing month! While gardeners in some parts of the country have complained of the bitter cold and the lateness of their bulbs, those in other parts have been basking in clement, agreeable, if not exactly seasonable, weather. Here in Edinburgh, I am not sure what to make of the alternating balmy days of 11 or 12 degrees, and the frozen days of one or two below zero. But my bulbs are appearing just as they should, with Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, already flowering in some of the more sheltered spots.

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Looking good

The mild days have brought on some unseasonable growth from all sorts of plants besides the bulbs. Here are the brand new leaves, good enough almost to eat, of my Acanthus mollis. (As you can see, these clement days have also brought out the molluscs from hibernation.)

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New buds are appearing on the honeysuckle beside the front door and the Hydrangea petiolaris:

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And the raindrops look especially becoming on new foliage of Aquilegia:

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The Scarcococca flowered briefly, and quickly produced its shining berries:

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And the seedheads of the hostas are providing elegant hidey-houses for overwintering insects:

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But the stars of the garden are the hellebores:

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Helleborus ‘Winter Bells’
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Helleborus argutifolius

Jobs

1)  I have no greenhouse, and there is no room in the cold frame for tender plants, so I have wrapped hessian protection around my potted pelargoniums and alstromeria to ward off the worst of the frosts.

2) To prevent blackspot, last year’s hellebore leaves can be cut back and composted, allowing the new buds to shine through.

3) Squirrels just love to nip off the buds of emerging bulbs, and I have already found buds of my Iris ‘George’ on the ground. I like to paint on an unappetising concoction of garlic and paprika or cayenne pepper (but not chilli pepper, which can be harmful to wildlife) to put the squirrels off.

4) With all of summer’s growth dead and gone, now is a wonderful time to assess the garden and make any architectural or structural adjustments. I am building an extension to the brick terrace at the back of the house, and thinking hard about which shrubs to add for winter interest and structure.

5) I do not keep the garden too tidy, as a scruffy garden is best for wildlife, and though the jury is out on tidying up dead leaves, I err on the side of messy and leave them where they lie. However, where they are lying too thickly or have formed a mat over new growth, it is good to tidy up the leaves, and any dead or rotting stems that are not providing winter interest.

6) Having tidied up the garden and planned the garden’s permanent structure, now is also an excellent time to order seed for the coming year and make a sowing plan. I have ordered cornflowers, ammi, and sweetpeas, and will start sowing in early to mid February.

7) This is almost the last chance to trim hedges before birds start nesting. In the UK, it is illegal to cut a hedge that might contain nesting birds, which is usually from early spring until mid to late summer.

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January garden view

The following photos show views of the front garden in mid-January, as the first bulbs were emerging from both ground and pots.

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And a view of the back garden, which is still something of a building site, so I have cropped in close!

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So that is it for January, and not a moment too soon, some might say. Things start ramping up in February, with snowdrops and irises in full bloom, and pots just bursting with emerging bulbs. Which jobs have you been getting up to in the garden this month, and what have been your favourite sights?

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First sight of bulbs

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The best thing about January is seeing the first green tips of bulbs appearing through the bare earth. I could spend hours crouching down, scanning for a sight of these precious tiny signs of the year ahead. It makes the hard work of planting them all even more worthwhile.

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Can you spot the bulb?

What with the short days and being so busy during December, this weekend was the first weekend I saw the garden in daylight. At first I could see only a handful of eager muscari (always the first to show, months before flowering). Where were my snowdrops? Had they been eaten? It took some time for my eyes to adjust, and then I started spotting them everywhere, their tiny white heads so desperate to open before half-way out of the ground.

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Snowdrops

My faithful Iris ‘George’ has also come up again, for the third year running. I wonder if they have multiplied?

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Iris ‘George’

Watching the first bulbs appear in January is just about my favourite gardening thing. What’s yours?

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In the Garden: November

November has been kind to Edinburgers. We’ve had plenty of blue skies, no winds, and several days of good hard frost to zap the molluscs, as well as some rain to keep the soil moist. As autumn slips uncertainly into winter, every day has brought new sights through the window: golden trees that gradually defoliate to become stark against the bright clear sky, a lawn of blue-white frozen grass, the emergence of the first tiny Helleborus niger buds, and that most satisfying of things, a steady gathering of terracotta pots freshly planted with bulbs and top-dressed with grit.


Looking Good in November

It would be easy to say, ‘not much’, for the dahlias have blackened and gone, the roses pruned back, the sweetpeas and salvias have been thoroughly frosted, and even the Cyclamen hederifolium that have been cheering the area beneath the cherry tree are beginning to tire, though there are another few weeks in them yet. Yet I still feel a great deal of satisfaction when I look out of the window at both front and back gardens. All of the annuals have been cleared out of the beds, the edges cut, and the bulbs planted, leaving the ground neat and tidy for winter. My pots are neatly top-dressed, and indeed labelled (a first for me!), and arranged tidily around the edges. The garden is not pretty, but it is under control, with a great deal to look forward to as the first bulbs emerge.

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Gardening jobs for November

1) November is the month in which I plant tulip bulbs. We have usually had a frost to help wipe out tulip disease by this time. It is also not too late to plant any other bulbs that were not planted during October, especially those that flower later in spring, such as alliums and late narcissi.

2) After November’s first frost, the time is ripe to attend to dahlias. I wait until the leaves have blackened and the frost has sent them into dormancy. Those to be overwintered I then mulch heavily to protect against wet and cold. This year I am going to experiment with a layer of shredded paper that will be covered over with home-made compost. Those that need lifting (if, for example I wish to reposition them for next year), will be hung upside down for a couple of weeks and then stored in our cold back corridor in bags of dry material such as sawdust, shredded paper or dry compost.

3) I have just spotted the first buds of my Christmas rose, the beautiful and delicate Helleborus niger. Tomorrow I will carefully cut back the hellebore’s old foliage to prevent black leaf spot and allow the white flowers to shine through.

4) We had our first hard frost last week, so I made sure to lag taps and waterpipes with fleece, bubble wrap or polystyrene caps, and disconnect and empty the hosepipes.

5) November is the month in which I prune roses for winter. I shorten stems by about a third to the first outward facing bud to prevent windrock, and cut back and tie in my climbing roses too.

6) In October, I emptied my leaf-mould bin and spread the delicious, crumbly leaf mould around my cyclamen and hellebores. With November’s huge leaf-drop both in our back green and on our tree-lined street, I was able to refill the leaf-mould bin with fallen leaves.

7) Although the garden is now empty of flowers, November is a perfect time to get out and go foraging for all the best that autumn has to offer: acorns, pine cones, mossy sticks and berry-laden branches make beautiful indoor decorations. I collect seedheads from the garden too, but always leave some in situ for overwintering insects.

8) November is a good time to cover or store garden furniture. I have put mine in the back passageway, where it will stay dry and frost-free until the first warm days of next spring.


An embarrassment of containers

My annual over-enthusiasm in ordering bulbs left me short of pots and containers in which to plant them, once again. Thus I was on the lookout for pots, or any suitable containers I could convert. While staying with my parents last month, I found two old wooden crates, which my father said I might take away with me. To convert them into well-draining tubs, I drilled several holes in the bottom of them, then lined them with old pet-feed sacks in which I had made cuts for drainage. Each one was able to hold over 30 bulbs.

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Then I found these on eBay…

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…a haul of over 40 vintage terracotta pots, some bearing the famous ‘Sankey’ marque (and others looking suspiciously like B&Q’s finest).

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The haul included a large and slightly wobbly terracotta urn.

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I also planted a good many tulip bulbs in the ground around both gardens.

Finally, here are some views of both gardens back and front:

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The back garden, with furniture cleared away for the winter, edges cut, tender perennials moved closer to the house, and sweetpeas left in situ to shelter the Salvia ‘Amistad’ from the worst of the frosts. Christmas tree is inching its way towards the house…

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And here follows the front garden, with pots, tubs and window boxes planted up with bulbs, the latter to replace the ones still bursting with erigeron and apple mint once they become exhausted.

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End of month view: March 2015

When a project becomes an obsession, it consumes your time, your money, your thoughts, your very soul. The front garden of our new flat has been my obsession for the past three months. During this time I have thought of little else, spent money on little else, used my free time for little else than digging, planting, heaving unwieldy loads of concrete, earth, gravel, and armfuls of hedge, from here, to there, to back here again, to the car, to the tip, to hell and back, it sometimes seemed. And it was all in pursuit of an aesthetic vision that was sometimes hazy, sometimes felt unachievable, but drove me on through sleet, rain, sub-zero temperatures and aching muscles…

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November 2014

Do you remember this? This was the garden that we bought in November 2014, with its concrete paving and overgrown shrubs.

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January 2015

And this was the view at the end of January 2015, shrubs gone but privet hedge still very much the boss.

I played around with different garden layouts on quadrant paper. The shed would go in the darkest corner, along with a small compost heap. I wanted a curving path leading from this to the gate, and an area to sit and admire the view, with space for potted plants and a climbing rose. There would be a sunny bed, a shady bed, and a blossom tree in the North West corner where it would not overshadow the beds too much.

What to edge the borders with, and what to tread underfoot? My first edging choice was wood, but I could not find a source of what I considered to be inoffensive wooden edging. Plastic? Eugh! Bricks? Pretty, but my Aunt Kate warned me that they harbour slugs. Everedge? Have you seen the price of that stuff? I am not Rockefeller. On with the search. But search as I might, the only viable option seemed to be Everedge. Bendable, long-lasting, attractive and a piece of cake to install, it was screaming ‘Perfect’ to me. But the price… ouchio.

Fine. Maybe I could find the funds for Everedge. I would turn off the heating and rifle through bins for my lunch. Before long, I convinced myself that three figures for garden edging that would eventually be hidden under clouds of lavender and catmint was entirely reasonable, and soon enough five heavy slabs of dark brown Everedge arrived on my doorstep.

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Here is the shady bed outlined in Everedge. Finally, a garden is emerging, a garden no longer dominated by a very bossy hedge.

Now for the paths. Having admired the reclaimed brick paths of more than one garden blogger, I think this would have been the option had I had more time, energy and money at this stage. Grass was a no-no (too much upkeep, not enough sun). Flagstones? Ah, sigh. Probably six times the cost of the Everedge. What about gravel? It is inexpensive, quick to lay, free-draining and not wholly unattractive. What’s more, it gives a pleasing crunch underfoot.

20150330_130249-2On Monday, we took delivery of a package that was too big for the letterbox.

Spreading the gravel was surprisingly fun. Perhaps not the back-breaking part where we shovelled it out of the bag into the wheelbarrow, but definitely the pouring out and combing it smooth with a rake. Ah, that lovely crunch; the satisfying way it smoothed over the sins of the bumpy, muddy, rocky ground below; the contrast of the dark soil, black Everedge outline, pinky-grey paths…

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IMG_0043And so here, at last, is my End of Month View: March 2015. Ta-da!

It will look even better once the plants are more than an inch high. So, exactly what plants do we have?

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Well, this is Scotland, after all. A wee winter heather…

IMG_0032Leaf buds reluctantly emerging on a hydrangea aspera ‘Macrophylla, which I bought for a song from the garden centre sale shelf.

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A yellow honeysuckle for the railings. The honeysuckle is in a race with the weather… I need to paint the railings, but cannot until the temperature reaches 10 degrees on a dry day, by which time the honeysuckle may have begun winding around the railings. Come on, sunshine!

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Cyclamen, from Bodnant, to naturalise under the morello cherry tree…

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… and a Bergenia Eroica, also from Bodnant, just coming into bloom. The foliage will turn to ruby red in winter.

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And my beloved drum primulas, divided from the vigorous specimen I planted in our rented flat’s front garden last spring. This one will be divisible again before long, and is working hard to give my mostly bare garden some delightful spring colour.

IMG_0008And another vigorous primula, again divided from clumps in our rented garden.

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The white tulips, Menton tulips and white narcissi that I planted very late in January are bursting through the soil in a most gratifying manner.

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Alliums are a garden must, in my opinion. This is one of several that I bought from Bodnant’s inspirational garden centre. It does not appreciate the wind that has been howling through the depleted privet and damaging its long, floppy leaves.

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A camellia japonica ‘Mathotiana Rosea’, also from Bodnant. The Brazillian had been sitting an exam in North Wales while I borrowed his car for a blissful morning at Bodnant, and he did raise an eyebrow when I brought his car back to him filled with a jungle of new plants. The camellia is in a pot of ericaceous compost. The soil in Scotland tends to be acidic, but I have not tested ours, so the pot is to be on the safe side.

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A garden is not a garden without roses. My darling Granny gave me a generous birthday cheque, and with it I raided David Austin’s virtual shelves for five roses; here are two: a climbing Shropshire Lad for around the sitting room window (joined by a clump of ‘borrowed’ snowdrops from our rented garden), and a yellow Lady Gardener, the latter sprouting famously already…

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..while my poor hellebore ‘Double Ellen Red’ is doing rather less famously. It caught a fungus while wrapped in winter fleece, and I am not convinced it will make it back to the land of the living. One lives in hope…

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And where is my hosta Devon Green? No where to be seen… yet.

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A geranium pokes a cautious head forth through the stony soil. I can’t recall its name.

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Two pots… the first contains a lily, whose shoot excitingly appeared yesterday. I transplanted these inherited muscari into the pot to make it look less empty. The second contains dianthus, bugle and stonecrop, all going cheap at Homebase.

And I’ve been busy sowing seeds…

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… sweetpeas…

and

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delphiniums…

Still to sow: black poppies, white cosmos, apricot foxgloves…

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Here is my new compost heap, currently containing privet hedge and leaves, shredded down. Our soil is desperate for some organic matter, though this won’t be ready for a year or two.

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And the privet is already growing back! Privets use a lot of nutrition, and if you don’t directly feed them they sap the nutrients from the soil, leaving other plants gasping. I have poured what seems like gallons of liquid feed onto the roots (which are fully cleared of the half-foot of dead leaves), plus generous handfuls of chicken manure pellets and wood ash. All this will help it grow back healthily without depleting the soil.

So, there we have it. Plenty of sweat and toil, and plenty more to do. And I couldn’t have done it without my friends… The Cousin, who uprooted the cotoneaster, then dug over the entire garden without even being asked to, before single-handedly pushing the damaged wall back into place. My friend Fiona, who donated a sunny afternoon to helping me hack back the hedge. And The Brazillian, who kept me company on tip-trips, helped me heave the concrete, spread the gravel and burn the shrubbery as well as supplying constant cheering-on, encouragement, and not a little patience.

End of Month View is hosted by Helen at The Patient Gardener. Do visit her blog and find out what she and other garden bloggers have been up to this month.

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Bulbs in!

If ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,’ this was the weekend to test it. The Gods of Weather put all their talents to display, often simultaneously, and gave us blue skies, blizzards, sunshine, 80mph gusts, demented yellow clouds, steady rainfall, the lot. I was outside for around 4 hours each day, but did I get I cold or wet? Heck no. I wore thick boots, jeans, waterproof trousers, two t-shirts, a jumper, a quilted jacket, a sailing jacket, a scarf, a lined woolly hat, and on my hands gardening gloves over marigolds over woollen gloves, and I was as toasty and dry as could be.

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So… did I get those bulbs planted? Hang on a sec, here we’ve got the architect, inside the flat taking measurements for our renovations, now requesting to take photos of the rear elevation of the flat. That means rapid deforestation of the jungle of shrubs and saplings on the back green that have grown so close up to our bedroom window that it seems they are trying, like underdressed teenagers outside a nightclub, to actually get inside the building. So I went outside with the loppers and cleared a three-foot gap, then picked up the rubbish that had accumulated on the ground during the time the flat was lived in by students. The things I found! The usual plant pots, crockery, barbecues, planks of wood and plastic bags, but also a decent tarpaulin, a mouldy folding seat, an unopened bag of grass seed, and a spade in near-perfect condition. I think I also found every snail in the universe.

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Finally, back to the front garden. So, did I get the bulbs in? Hang on a sec, first we have a rhodadendron root bole right where I want to plant the bulbs. So with trowel, crowbar, fork and sheer bloody-mindedness I got that root bole out of the ground. Then the blizzards came…

So, did I get the bulbs in? Hang on a sec, it’s now 5pm, it’s snowing, and I’ve had nothing to eat since breakfast. I hot-footed it to Victor Hugo, and ordered a late lunch.

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Sunday, and it’s raining. No matter, I’ve got my quadruple layers on, and I’m back in the garden. Now, you’ll recall that much of the soil in this garden has been under concrete paving slabs for the past twenty years, and elsewhere it is under gravel, and as a result it is sticky, compressed, full of little pebbles, and devoid of organic matter. There is quite a lot of sand covering the soil too, which they’d used as a base for the paving slabs. I’d previously thought I’d have a job getting rid of all the sand, but now saw that it was a blessing and could be mixed into the sticky soil to improve it. I also had five bags of excellent well rotted horse manure courtesy of the obliging Emily.

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The obliging Emily

Having turned the manure over the soil, I now had a small bed ready for the bulbs. I also prepared a large terracotta pot using compost from a bag I found under the hedge.

So, did I get the bulbs in? YES!

Using the handheld bulb planter that Earth Mother urged me to buy (she was right, everyone should have one), and liberally dousing the planting holes with bone meal and slow release plant food, I planted my lifted white tulips and white narcissi from last year, plus some dwarf tulips T. greigii ‘Toronto’ and some Late Single ‘Menton’ that I had spotted going begging on the shelves of Homebase when I nipped in to buy the bulb planter. I also planted a small pot of Galanthus nivalis because I saw them going begging too; a happy garden has to have snowdrops. The bed is only about the size of a kitchen table, but it’s enough for now. Doesn’t matter that the rest of the garden looks like a building site; this tiny rectangle is going to dazzle with bulbs.

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Where were you/when you oughta been plantin’?

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I have a confession. You will not be impressed, my fine fellow gardeners. I have a guilty secret hidden away in some brown paper bags in our hall cupboard, and I hardly dare look or think about those brown paper bags. For inside those bags are waiting…. Oh, how can I tell you this? Inside those bags are my spring bulbs which I still haven’t planted.

All right, all right. In my defence, November was tricky. We had just bought our flat and were hellbent for weeks on stripping out the hideous decor. Then when I finally got round to doing the same thing to the garden, a five-hour session of incinerating the shrubbery in the December rain while inhaling copious amounts of thick smoke led to a nasty cold with chronic cough which I’d just about got over by Christmas, when horrors, I caught a second dose of it on Boxing day, this time with ensuing chest infection and more unsightly coughing.

‘I told you not to spend so much time outdoors in the cold,’ says the Brazilian at smug intervals as I hack my pleura up into a handkerchief. ‘When will you learn?’

I resent this. Why shouldn’t I go outdoors in the cold? I’m young and sprightly, not a geriatric at all. Being from Brazil, the Brazilian thinks that anything under about ten degrees is highly dangerous. Still, I feel utterly pathetic, a sort of cross between King Theoden withering away on his throne while his wicked advisor whispered caution in his ear, and Proust who died of a cold (how just like a man).

Oh, but the guilt about those bulbs. ‘Oh sinner woman,’ I sing to myself, ‘When you gonna plant ’em? Oh sinner woman, when you gonna plant ’em?’ All on that day, of course. But which day? At last, almost cough-free, it was going to be this Saturday. The Brazilian will be at work all weekend so I could just slip outside unnoticed and shove them into the ground somewhere, anywhere…

Well, we all know what happened to the sinner woman:

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She ran to the weekend, it was SNOWING, she ran to the weekend, it was POURING, she ran to the weekend, it was FREEZING, all on that day. All on both days, in fact. I can’t see myself planting bulbs in this sort of weather, frankly.

So she ran to her duvet, it was waitin’, she ran to her duvet, it was waitin’, she ran to her duvet, it was waitin’, all on that day.

White stuff

When ordering my bulbs last autumn, I was in a minimalist, John and Yoko way of mind and decided that it would be terribly chic and classy to have only white bulbs in the garden.

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As a result, our front garden is now indeed full of only white bulbs: white daffs, white tulips, white narcissi, no colour anywhere, save for a  dash of purple from a small primula planted in the glum wisdom of hindsight. It’s very dull.

IMG_0125 IMG_0124I must have been mad. Gardens aren’t for minimalism, unless you’re Japanese. I’m not Japanese, I’m English and I definitely like colourful gardens, preferably with all the colours mixed together in a countryish way.

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The way to be classy and chic in a garden, I’ve realised, is to avoid having plants that look too unnatural or exotic or spiky. This is Edinburgh, not Babylon.

Anyway, lesson learnt. Next year we’re having a crayon-box technicolor spring.

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Planted in glum wisdom of hindsight