My garden diary in 2018

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In autumn 2017 my aunt gave me a little notebook as a belated birthday present, and I decided I would use it to start keeping an ‘analogue’ garden diary. After all, my online ‘Edinburgh Garden Diary’ had been going for four years, and I had been inspired by various other garden bloggers who keep written diaries (such as Green Bench Ramblings) to keep a written record. To my surprise, writing in my notebook about the garden became a habit as effortless and enjoyable as making a cup of tea. I treasure the delicous moments when I pick up pen and notebook, settle into my seat on the garden bench, or pull a chair up to the window, and lose myself in thoughts about the garden. There’s always something to say, and the words flow easily. Now a year of my diary has passed and I enjoyed reading back through so much that I thought I would share some of my writing with you. I have edited it for brevity, though not for style. I hope you enjoy this little review of mine of a year in a small Scottish garden.

January

2.1.18 A good 90 minutes in the garden today. Very pleased to get my last bulbs in: Woodstock hyacinths in narrow terracotta pots with ‘Peppermint’ muscari, and the rest of the muscari in the maze. Rainy and a slow dusk. I was able to carry on until after 4pm. Buckets of ferns, primulas and hostas drowning in water, but the first day back at work tomorrow so nothing I can do.

7.1.18 Another severe frost of -4 last night, and today a bright blue, clear, freezing day. The clay pots of violas are troopers, blooming away regardless. Incredible things. Old dried flowers on the ‘Tess’ rose by the back door. I should have deadheaded them and pruned this rose in November, but I declined to… Each square brick in the path is rimmed with frost. I have topped up the bird feeder, and the birds are waiting for me to go indoors. The city is quiet. Birds sing in distant back greens.

27.1.18 I have managed a Saturday morning wander and noticed the purple tips of the iris ‘George’ spear, which may flower this week, new tips of returning tulips, and plenty of snowdrops. The snowdrops in my window boxes are in various stages, but the oldest had their petals open beautifully today.

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Old flowers on ‘Tess Of The D’Urbevilles’
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Snowdrops under a hedge at Humbie Kirk Woods, a few miles south of Edinburgh

February

11.2.18 A sparkling early spring weekend. Snowdrops in the hedgerows at Humbie Kirk Woods where L and I went for a deliciously squelchy walk today. Snow on the high ground, and bright blue skies, and sun slanting through the beech woods. I was surprised and gratified that my Clematis montana ‘Miss Christine’  has survived an undignified winter in an old compost bag. She is now planted under the arch and will no doubt make it look most pretty in the summer. To my horror, I found two New Zealand flatworms underneath an old sack near the compost heap. I have often wondered if we had them. Bulbs (including repeating tulips) popping up all over. Gave the roses and Hydrangea petiolaris a good mulch. Hope they will do wonders this summer in their new positions (the roses, that is).

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Brick tiles of the garden path rimmed with frost
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Birds in the snow

March

3.3.18 We are snowed under. I don’t have a garden anymore, just a white blanket with some twigs sticking out of it, and a few hungry, desperate birds sitting in trees, tweeting weakly. I have been feeding the poor birds, first with bird seed, and then when I ran out of that, muesli with the larger nuts taken out, and sesame seeds. They liked the muesli very much, but many sesame seeds were remaining on the path this morning when I had a look (pyjamas, snow boots, bobble hat). I also realised that besides having nothing to eat they would have nothing to drink, so put out two containers of water for them.

It has been light enough to step outside into the garden before work this week therapy. My ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ irises , a whole two clumps, a lovely surprise, are looking tip-top by the arch. [Drumstick] primulas are starting to form their rosettes, rising from deep down in the earth like slowly emerging sea monsters. The snowdrops in the front garden have been a most cheering sight, especially when all else looks bare, and a mess.

17.3.18 Another icy weather front moves in from the East. Will this winter last forever? Occasionally a flash of sun intercepts the snow, which has been falling languidly for most of the morning. Not serious snow, and there is no settling. I rushed out during one sunny spell to rescue some quince blossom, but couldn’t stay out for long, and there is little to stay outside for anyway. This time last year we already had forget-me-nots, but not a sign today. But I was happy to see that my Helleborus ‘Winter Bells’ is out of its sulk and producing new flowers…

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Erythronium ‘Joanna’
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Primula denticulata in the front garden
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Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in the front garden

April

22.4.18 The weather has been suddenly so wonderful for the past weeks that I have done immense things in the garden and it’s hard to keep up or remember everything that has happened. I’ll start by describing the wonderful things that are to be seen as I look out of the window.

Firstly the front garden: The snowdrops are well and truly over, and now we have Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in three generous clumps (a fourth less generous clump towards the back). The bigger clumps contain perhaps ten bulbs each, demonstrating how well ‘Thalia’ bulks up, and the effect is of course doubled as each head contains two flowers. . Complementing these in a perfect match are the lilac pompoms of Primular denticulata, another plant I could never get tired of. Towards the front, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is looking exceptionally pretty, and Erythronium ‘Joanna’ is underneath the cherry tree (‘Morello’) which is about to burst into blossom. (I was afraid it would have none given its maltreatment in December but I have seen the buds I do not deserve them!). My little Sorbus cashmiriana has come charmingly into fresh green leaf and flower buds are visible. The habit of the upturned branches is so uplifting … it is such a pretty tree that R noticed it and remarked upon it.

Not looking good: the Iris foetidissima… no fresh new leaves at all yet just sulking. I wonder if a feed would kill it or cure it. Also not looking good: the piles of topsoil, the piles bricks lying around, the big white sack of sub-base. The camellia needs moving … it is in the wrong place, but has two white buds that are promising to burst. Again, a dowsing with feed and water may help it decide to go ahead with this seemingly onerous task (everyone else’s camellias are almost over).

Now for the back garden. It is hard to see through the window for the enormous window box before my eyes, containing Primula vulgaris, Primula ‘Wanda’, and tall fat blue muscari. It has been my most successful w.b. yet, especially along with the snowdrops that started out in there. Such a scene it is! Anyway, the garden beyond, which had a big tidy-up, is looking pretty nice too as it springs into life. The most noticeable thing is the cerise P. denticulata. I also have some Tulipa ‘Purissima’ … Clematis ‘Miss Christine’ is coming cautiously to life by the arch. Under the roses, tulips, and all around are forget-me-nots, which I allow to spread at will because they are so useful and delightful. The Icelandic poppies I bought at Chatsworth have fat buds on them, and so does the geum at the front of the garden, but not the back geum. The delphs are looking bushy and fabulous, as are the foxgloves. The best thing is that the [white] peony has many buds on it. When I say many, I mean two so far, but that is many for me my first peonies! In four years!

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First peony!
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The back garden in spring

May

10.5.18 The tulips are in full bloom. Some ‘Belle Epoch’ popped up in the cutting patch along with numerous ‘Purissima’. Combined with Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ (or is it ‘Winston Churchill’?) and forget-me-nots it makes a very pretty jug for the dining room table. I have been ordering my perennials for the front garden. I am very excited to be getting such gorgeous plants for the front garden. The Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ is a real risk  I fear it may be too red rather than dusky purple. Time will tell. R and I have been enjoying a lot of rainbow chard, which is just beginning to bolt. The sweetpeas are in and the courgettes are germinating. Seeds need pricking out and plants potted on. Nematodes all watered in last week. I wonder if the positive effects on the plants have as much to do with the watering as the nematodes themselves, as I used litres.

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Icelandic poppy

July

5.7.18 The RHS exams and my college application took all my time and energy for most of May and June. It has been the hottest, driest summer we’ve had so far in Scotland. Beautiful days of no wind and temps in the mid-twenties for weeks. The garden is not looking too parched; it is Scotland after all. But things are worse down south. Now, thinking back to May, once the tulips finished there was a gap, and suddenly the geraniums sprang into being, as did the geums. The foxgloves emerged, and the roses (‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’ always first). Then my delphiniums, all mixed in with the white and pink foxgloves, oh, and the best poppies, Icelandic bright orange with big creamy yellow centres, just keeping on and on all summer, and the perennial wallflower ‘Winter Orchid’. No bearded irises for me this year. I wonder what has got their goat? Two flowers on my peony ‘Avalanche’. The buds took weeks and weeks to develop and open up. It really was quite painful to watch. I am not sure I would plant peonies again. I don’t go crazy for them like other people seem to. My lovely Geranium pratense now there’s a plant that gives good value. Covered in bees, wafting elegantly in the breeze, it is gorgeous every year. I am thrilled to have masses of dill. Broad beans are doing marvellously and have been the easiest vegetable I have grown by far. Just stick ’em in the ground and stand back.

The front garden is so dry that nothing is settling in properly, and some things are looking quite sad. But I cannot water them very frequently it seems wrong when we are so short of rain to use tap water on the ground. One plant I am terribly pleased with is Luzula nivea such a lovely, soft white flower that complemented Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ quite brilliantly.

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Foxgloves in June

August

12.8.18 At last, the Scottish summer we are used to has arrived. Rain, temperatures in the low teens, a cold wind… all in time for the Festival as usual. But I don’t care. The weather can do what it likes we’ve had our hot summer and it was wonderful. Most of the plants survived pretty well regardless. I shall forever remember the summer days of 2018 spent on the terrace with a cup of tea, just looking at the tall, green plants. Now many of my favourites have gone over the foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, geums, wall flowers all stopped, and the far back corner is a green mess of not terribly attractive foliage. It is a corner that does very well in spring and summer, but not very pretty at all after July.  I spent a lot of time on that corner last autumn, but I think some more work is needed.

Looking really lovely at this time of the season are the following:

Echinops: covered in bees, beautiful purple-blue drumsticks.

Crocosmia: I always dismiss it rather, but it does perform superbly in late summer and it is so reliable

Persicaria: so reliable

Thalictrum: high clouds of purple dots love them!

Calendula and cerinthe

Cosmos ‘Purity’ hooray!

21.8.18 The signs of autumn are everywhere: dew on the grass, the first cotinus leaves turning that incredible burnished fiery copper colour, the whitening berries on the Sorbus cashmiriana. That tiny sorbus is just about my favourite thing in the garden at the moment. So small, neat and pert, its branches heavily laden with huge clusters of pale green, soon to be white, berries. They hang down like too-heavy earrings. I just adore this little tree. It has been a pleasure every day of the year so far. The ‘Limelight’ hydrangea is looking good in the far corner by the house. In full bloom with its green flowers, it is most elegant. In other people’s gardens these flowers turn white in the sun, but I prefer the subtle colours of mine, which stay green, then pinkish. The Luzula has turned brown, though I forgive it because it was the loveliest plant in June.

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The back garden in July
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Cosmos ‘Purity’

September

3.9.18 I am sitting by the back door, which is open, and looking on the wet garden, hearing the splatter of rain and feeling the cold breeze on my ankles and it is lifting my page as I write … I see the pale pink Japanese anemone I planted last week, along with Lizzie’s Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and behind the crocosmia (so I can’t see it but know it’s there) a small Ceratostigma plumbaginoides that is flowering a very pretty blue and will bring much needed colour to that far corner. The poor sunflowers are waving violently in the breeze, so heavy are they with their large, wet flowers on stalks that are too tall and dare I say, too spindly. I think I shall go and rescue those sunflowers. There, I have just brought in two perfect, large sunflower heads. They are a yellow merging with dark bronze and just the sort of colour I should hate but I love them they are so cheerful. High on my list of annuals I should continue to grow, along with Cosmos ‘Purity’, calendula, nasturtiums and this gorgeous, cloudy gypsophila.

30.9.18 Today a bright blue day, for the most part, and I seized upon the whim to move some plants around that had been annoying me. ‘You need to move plants a dozen times before you get the position right’, said Christopher Lloyd, and he’s right.  By the way, if ever there was an argument for cryogenic preservation, he would have been it. I’m most delighted to have got that camellia into the ground. And that the scrappy bases of the echinops will be hidden henceforth behind geranium, acanthus and peony. A good sweep of the patio and all is well with the world.

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Planting my bulbs in autumn
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My little Sorbus cashmiriana and its white berries. Next to it is a potted Cotinus ‘Dusky Maiden’, its leaves turning to a burnished copper

October

7.10.18 Some plants in the back garden feel as though they are winding down, while others are still soldiering on despite the lack of sun and the cold temperatures. The roses are doing fantastically, beautifully. Moving them was most certainly the right thing to do. I would love to attend a class on pruning my climbing roses correctly. When? How? (Those questions apply both to the task of pruning and to my ability to attend a class as I’ve failed to find one nearby and have no money anyway). My dahlias are suffering from a lack of light and water and probably nutrition too. I am seriously considering buying in a big sack of organic horse manure and mulching the entire garden front and back.

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Those Cotinus leaves again…

November

27.11.18 Multiple unavailable weekends have kept me from the garden, but at this time of year it hardly matters. The weeds don’t grow; nothing grows, except the mounds of leaves. At this time of year, every year, I ask myself, to leave the leaves on the ground (the beds, I mean) or to collect them? Collecting them would be neater, and I could make leaf mould. But they are protecting the soil in the absence of any mulch. Today I took the veg waste out to the compost in the darkening afternoon. I pulled out the cosmos, now just stalks, and the hollyhocks, which were quite annoying this year. A few weeds too. I cut some roses for the house as many buds were there, and put them in a jug with some nasturtium plants, leaves and roots but no flowers. This looks pretty good. The acanthus is back with a vengeance, all glossy-leaved and boisterous, too much for November. All the window boxes need sorting out, and my snowdrops and muscari need to be dealt with. The afternoons are so short that it is hard to do anything that takes more than half an hour, or jobs that lead on to other jobs.

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Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) in the front garden in December. Sadly enjoyed by slugs, so better viewed from afar.
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Old hydrangea flower catching the pale winter light of December

December

2.12.18 Everything is damp and rotting, except Geranium ‘Rozanne’, which flowers on and on. I like the damp, rotting part of the year. You feel in control. I like putting the rotting stuff on the compost heap, although I am treading the line between clearing and leaving habitats. There has been a lot of wildlife in the garden this year and I want it to keep increasing. Mulched ‘Shropshire’ and ‘Tess’ but the other roses still to mulch with the horse manure I brought back last week. First I have to tackle what’s beneath them dead leaves, far too many wallflowers etc. Need to tackle the delphs area and sort that clematis out. I have a frame for it, if I can get it fixed to that impossible wall. First bulbs already showing their tips under the cherry tree. Best sight in the world.

9.12.18 More bright blue winter skies, temps in the low single figures, and it is most definitely winter now. I shifted some pots around, which I hadn’t touched since last year’s bulbs. Miraculously the bulbs are reappearing already. I wonder if they will be any good this year. I think a judicious feed could save the day. I have ordered my mulch … I have learned my lesson from previous years. [The mulching] needs doing before the snowdrops make their appearance. I aim to apply it this week.

27.12.18 Mulch done! I would have chosen it to be less whiffy. It should really have no smell at all, but it is only being used as a mulch so I expect no harm will come (I will scream if all my snowdrops come up with nitrogen burns!). I am in Derbyshire now, but I am hoping for sightings on snowdrops when I come back. There was already a good clump of Iris ‘George’ visible before I left. My planting design needs a total overhaul in that front garden this is a place-marker for that intention.

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An autumn garden reshuffle

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It was a good summer for the back garden. I enjoyed sitting out on the terrace in the hot sunshine, gazing in unabashed admiration as various pleasing planting combinations waxed and waned. How could any of the plants yet to come be as good as these tulips and forget-me-nots, I wondered in May, as the gorgeous twisted tulip petals relaxed into their fading farewells. But then the garden (with only a moment’s hesitatation) triumphantly produced geraniums, alliums, icelandic poppies and perennial cornflowers, peonies, foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, catmint, and its annuals (nasturtiums, gypsophila) in a glorious parade of bright, precious colours. Then the season shifted to late summer, and suddenly there were calendula, crocosmia, cosmos, achillea, dahlias, and persicaria, their flame colours now punctuated by a backdrop of green allium and poppy seedheads. Yes, I enjoyed the show very much.

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But come mid-August I noticed a niggling feeling that the garden was entering an early decline. Now that the best of the flowers were fading, there were no longer enough of them to distract me from the garden’s inevitable faults. Areas that lacked interest started appearing. The corner in which a host of white foxgloves and blue delphiniums had proudly stood last month now bore not a single colour or texture of note. It’s too small a garden for large patches of dullness. I went out and bought a Ceratostigma willmottianum for the bare corner, and planted it. Although it’s too small a plant to make much of an impression yet, I am hoping that it will look good this time next year with its gentian-blue flowers and red autumn foliage. But it wasn’t enough; other things were starting to chafe: an ornamental thistle that was smothering a rose, and nearby, the unattractive brown lower leaves of an echinops in plain view from the back door. There were some bearded irises that had failed to perform for the fourth year running, and a young sedum was being drowned by a surprisingly vigorous pineapple sage. (When will I learn to leave more space between plants?)

When I saw a beautiful billowing sedum while visiting Dr Neil’s Garden in Duddingston, it was the nudge I needed. How I wished my sedum looked the same: healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, and surrounded by wafting perennial grasses. I knew the very spot I wanted to try moving mine to, under the arch where it would catch the full benefit of the summer sun and provide personality to an otherwise lacklustre corner. Of course, moving the sedum meant moving a lot of other things first. That’s half the fun of it.

First to be dug out were some foxgloves to make space for the echinops, which I split into three or four smaller plants. Christopher Lloyd once wrote that an echinops does the same job as an eryngium, and since the latter is more exciting you may as well plant that instead. But I disagree –  echinops is less startling, more subdued and graceful, and grows more upwards than outwards, taking up far less room. Yes, there is the problem of its ugly lower leaves, but if you place it carefully they can be hidden behind the foliage of other plants. In its new position by the wall, mine would be disguised by some geraniums and a peony.

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The ornamental thistle came out too. You could almost hear the rose behind it breathing a sigh of relief. In fact, I breathed a sigh of relief too to see it come out. Now with a few spaces created in the border, I fetched a potted camellia that I’d been wanting to plant out for some time. There is no point in keeping a camellia in a pot unless your soil is alkaline, which mine isn’t. After trying the camellia in various positions and looking at it from all angles, I decided it looked the business in the place left vacant by the echinops.

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I took great delight in digging the bearded irises out. I’ve had one flower (admittedly a spectacular one) from these irises in four years. I reckoned that if the stupid things couldn’t flower in the hottest summer on record, then they’re hopeless cases and need replacing. In their place I planted a hydrangea that my mother had given me. I don’t have many shrubs in the border, and I’m looking forward to the structure that the camellia and this hydrangea bring to the garden.

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Finally to move the sedum. There was a large drumstick primula (Primula denticulata) that had to come out first, which I planted next to my peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. The sedum went into its place under the arch, and behind it I placed a little pheasant’s tail grass, Anemanthele lessoniana. Both sedum and grass were gifts from Cathy (Rambling in the Garden) so it seemed appropriate that they should go in beside each other.

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While working, I was able to appreciate the rest of the garden: the cosmos in full bloom, asters and astrantias, nasturtiums, erigeron and dahlias. Autumn days in the garden are some of the most glorious. The whole garden has an atmosphere of quiet and calm, of falling slowly asleep. The birds are still singing, but less frantically than in the spring. The light is more interesting, but of shorter duration. Interesting things are happening to seed heads, to the colour of leaves, even to the colour of flowers.

After my garden ‘reshuffle’ the garden once more became a place I wanted to spend time in, to wander around and enjoy the changing season. No longer was I troubled by those niggles and annoyances. (I should say that naturally there are ongoing niggles as in all gardens; merely less urgent ones.) I look forward to next year, when the fruits of my reshuffle will show themselves in an improved autumn outlook.

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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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‘Some Flowers’ of my own

With Vita Sackville-West’s ‘Some Flowers’ still fresh in my mind, I have chosen some favourite flowers of my own to describe. These aren’t going to be painters’ flowers, for I know nothing about painting, nor are they necessarily the best flowers of their kind for the garden, though I can recommend them to any gardener who has the right space and conditions. Instead they are some of my favourite flowers to photograph, flowers that have some nameless photogenic quality, a certain poise or elegance, when seen on film or screen.

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Narcissus ‘Thalia’

As I write this, four generous clumps of Narcissus ‘Thalia’ are decorating my front garden with their small, almost-white, downward nodding double heads. In fact, clumps is too indelicate and vulgar a word for such frail, elegant little ghosts. A glance down a dictionary of collective nouns for birds (there seems to be no such thing for flowers) gives me skein, flight, fling. None of these will quite do. I have some ‘Thalia’ in a vase above the fireplace, and I am standing before them, trying to work out what it is that makes them quite the most indescribably prettiest narcissus. I catch a faint scent coming from them that one might describe as the diluted scent of a florist’s shop. It is a dignified, subdued scent that seems fitting for an introverted flower that is so different from the others in its genus, the majority of which range from boisterous to cute. When photographing ‘Thalia’, I find it best to get a dark green background behind them so that the flower can stand out on its own. I like to capture the gentle waves of the petals, the intricacy of the veins, and a sense of fleeting time.


 

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Tulipa tukestanica

If everything you knew about tulips was related to the familiar, blowsy, colourful things bred in the vast fields of Holland that go by names like ‘Queen of the Night’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Belle Epoch’, you might be surprised to find out that a starry, delicate little flower about quarter of the size of a ‘regular’ tulip was in fact a tulip. But T. turkestanica is as genuinely tulipy as a tulip can be, and more so to a purist because it is a species tulip, one that grows wild on the sunny, stony slopes of Central Asia. If you search online you can see pictures of it doing just that, and very lovely it looks too among the scrubby grass and stones, for all the world like stars fallen ignominously to earth. In the garden it has certain charms that give it advantages over the more commonly grown tulips. It is perennial for a start, unlike most bred tulips, its numbers gradually increasing like a useful, proper bulb. In theory it should self-seed as well, if it likes you enough (it is not sure about me). As a photographer’s flower, its beauty lies in those pert cream petals, six of them, and the rich egg-yolk centre, which opens up when it sees the sun and closes gently in the shade. As they fade, the petals shrink and become papery paisley wisps, tinged with dusky pink. I grow it in window boxes mulched with grit and like to photograph it shining celestially against the dark window. I dodge about so that the drying laundry inside is no longer visible through the window, and try to capture the tulip’s repeating reflection in the glass.


 

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Clematis ‘Filigree’

Gardeners must develop a hard heart when visiting garden nurseries, a necessary thing if you don’t want your garden (and bank balance) governed by uncontrollable forces of desire. Chaos ensues when that happens, and chaos is not (usually) pleasing. But every so often, I see a plant and fall in love at first sight. The plant will have been skillfully brought into abundant flower by the scheming nursery workers and placed purposefully in my direct path as soon as they see me coming. Their tempting specimen is invariably too expensive, and completely unnecessary for my garden, and always lacks some essential quality like scent or hardiness. It won’t recompense its cost by self-seeding gently around; nor will it attract bees. But when I see it on the nursery shelf I give a little gasp of wonder, and clasp my hands, and look at the price label, and gasp again, and walk on two steps, and walk back, and place the prize in my trolley. Clematis ‘Filigree’ (PBR) is one such plant that came home with me through forces outwith my control. It is a clematis that is designed to tumble downwards out of a tall pot rather than twine up an arch or through a tree. Its large, crinkly, semi-double lilac flowers spill softly from the trailing vines, and glow in the soft light of a summer evening. The sight of it puts me in mind of a timeless, candle-lit terrace with gentle piano music, evening dresses and conversations in low voices between sips of champagne. For it is an elegant, almost aristocratic flower, staying just the right side of whimsical in its gown of silk and tulle. Of course it doesn’t smell of anything, the gorgeous, overbred thing. And I don’t recall ever seeing a bee come anywhere near it. But I forgive it over and over again, and have never regretted the loss of control that resulted in my taking it home with me.


 

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Iris reticulata ‘Katherine Hodgkin’

It is hard to pick a favourite Iris reticulata or indeed I. histroides as I have never seen one I didn’t like. Among those I have grown and loved, ‘Clairette’ and ‘George’ have always pleased me, while ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ can often look like a piece of dirty litter that has blown into the garden. I have a patch of it that reappears every year about six yards from the bedroom window, and it always comes quietly when least expected, looking all the world like something blown in on the east wind. There it shivers, lost among the dead stalks and shrivelled leaves of seasons past, and unless you have a camera with you it is quite hard to see any merits at all. But take a look down a 50mm lens with a vast aperture, and suddenly this little speckled flower makes all the sense in the world. Did it creep out of a jungle with the leopards and tigers? What kind of crazy pollinating winter insect is it hoping to attract? What fictional flying creature searching for food in the bitter January wind could possibly be attracted by its wondrous blue guiding stripes and black spots on splashes of yellow? It’s a flower you just couldn’t make up. I ought to advise you to grow it in pots so as not to lose it among the dirt-splashed January garden; however, I don’t think it would visually fare any better, and would be much more bother and upkeep. May as well grow it in the ground and mulch around it with something very rich and dark, which you won’t remember to do anyway, and even if you did you’ll never remember at the appropriate time where the damn things are.


 

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Rosa ‘Tess-of-the-D’Urbevilles’

 

I am not sure if I could describe this David Austin rose any more skillfully than Vita Sackville-West described her velvet red Rosa gallica ‘Tuscany’, and if I did no doubt you would mock my attempts just as I very gently mocked hers (see Book Review: Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West). Perhaps I should let the photographs above speak for themselves as advertisements for Tess’s qualification as a good photographer’s rose. Like all flowers, these require a dark, quiet background, but a more gentle, glaucous or mushroom-coloured one. If you try photographing this flower in a vase against a pale wall, the primary effect of subdued luxuriance will be completely lost. Death becomes her, and it is worth not bothering to deadhead this rose’s final flowers. I grow her up a dark, damp wall beneath a dripping boiler outlet, and attempt to train her in to wires, a decryable position which she not only forgives but generously embraces.


 

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Galanthus nivalis

How can one photograph Galanthus nivalis? Let me count the ways. One of my favourites is from above, with a huge aperture of f/2.8 or more, the closed white buds like falling snow against the black winter soil. There are many alternative angles I’ve found: in a windowbox against a black window, or in swathes across a dark woodland, or with the winter sun beaming through the translucent petals. One of my most loved photographs of a snowdrops is one that had a bee hanging out of it, taken on an unseasonably warm February day last year. Being one of a very few flowers that are out in January, and given that emerging snowdrops are one of my favourite floral sights of the year (perhaps the favourite), it is not surprising that snowdrops get a great deal of my camera’s attention. Although you can spend a lot of time and money collecting wonderful varieties, for the camera’s sake you cannot do much better than a single nivalis against a dark background. By single I mean not the double ‘Flore Pleno’, which for my simple tastes can be a bit too much of a good thing, although of course they too have their rightful place in a cheerful winter garden.


 

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Erythronium ‘Joanna’

It is hard not to be smug when a flower that shares one’s name is so decidedly excellent. The story of ‘Joanna’ is a fun story that I have told elsewhere. Suffice to say that when I am a famous garden designer, I shall plant ‘Joanna’ as my signature plant underneath trees where no one is expecting it, rather as Miss Willmott used to scatter seeds of her ‘ghost’, Eryngium giganteum, in the gardens that she visited. Up it shall pop towards the end of March, with its lush, liver-spotted leaves, their waving margins catching the spring light as they drift outwards from the centre of the plant, whence presently will arise a small, unobtrusive but oh, so significant arrowhead flower bud on a slender stalk. This will open delicately to reveal petals, nervous, cream and yellow at first, then maturing to apricot as they upturn their ends like Turkish slippers, till they stand in a tiny glorious regiment of perfect poise. The verdant, smooth leaves provide the ideal backdrop to the pale flower. This is a plant that demands and rewards its close-up.


 

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Cosmos ‘Purity’

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love this flower. Could those big saucer daisies be any more useful as they trail about the garden in high summer and adorn countless vases with their impertinent faces? On they flower, on and on, until you think you’ll be sick of them (but you never are), quitting only with the second or third frost of autumn, and in a mild autumn looking quite unseasonal about the house as you start preparing for Christmas. One might think they’d be too ordinary to be included in a list of photographer’s flowers, but if you let the light shine through them and come up close to see the veins and ridges of those crisp white petals, you start to take them a bit more seriously. It’s like watching a comedian take on a grave role in a film: you suddenly see them in a new light. There is something Art Deco in the structure of those petals, which is counter-balanced by the tangle of feathery leaves behind. My seedlings were eaten by snails two years in a row, and I was quite bereft.


 

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Meadow Rue (Thalictrum)

A recurring theme in my photography is the effect of hundreds of bright dots falling like the blur of snowflakes, taken with a huge aperture so the effect steeply softens and fades with just a few of the buds in focus. I love snow, and dots, and the abstract effect they cause; and the meadow rue, Thalictrum, perfectly fulfils the snowy, dotty role for me in summer. (Closed snowdrops and the seedheads of asters help out during other seasons). This particular meadow rue had self-seeded in an abandoned bucket of earth next to my mother’s potting shed. She didn’t know the variety; she doesn’t have a meadow rue growing anywhere in the garden. It doesn’t matter what variety, though. All small-flowered meadow rues will do the dotty thing well. Mine quite pointlessly grows to a hundred feet tall and then falls over sideways, so as a garden plant it’s pretty annoying. But as a photographer’s delight, I couldn’t be without it.


 

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Rosa canina

This is the only plant on this list that I do not grow myself. A British native, the dog rose grows wild among the plants and hedgerows of my grandmother’s Derbyshire garden, which is where I first came across it. But you can see it everywhere you look as it adorns the countryside and steep motorway verges in early summer. Goodness knows but they should rethink allowing this plant to grow along verges because catching sight of it flowering in a hedgerow is distraction enough to make me drive straight off the road and into the aforementioned hedge. There are lots of lovely ancient species roses, wild, native or otherwise, most of which are a bit grander and less common. But at this moment in my life, it is the pale pink Rosa canina that captures my heart the most completely. Those petals, which are poised like ballerinas en pointe and look as though they will blow off in the next breeze, the dotty spotty anthers on invisible filaments, the merest, shyest suggestion of pale pink, the transluscence of the petals when backlit by the summer sun… Nothing could be lovelier.

No doubt that if you asked me in a few years’ time for a list of some favourite plants to photograph the list will have changed considerably. Perhaps I will have worked out how to get the best out of skimmias, ferns and bergenias. No doubt there will be plants as yet undiscovered by me that find their way into my shopping trolley and heart, find new ways to provide me with my beloved dots, or surprise me with their unlooked-for elegance when photographed closely in a shadowed room. I do hope you enjoyed this list and would love to hear from you if there are any favourite flowers of yours that always do well in a photograph.

Book review: Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West

‘This short book is personal, and therefore very arbitrary,’ begins Vita Sackville-West in the foreword to her book of essays on twenty-five of her favourite flowers. And at first glance down the contents page, the flowers she has chosen do appear to be haphazardly selected, heavily weighted as they are, for no reason that is immediately apparent, in favour of just a few genera with some oddities thrown in for good measure. In a list of twenty-five flowers that includes four types of old rose, three types each of primula and lily, and two types each of iris and fritillary, there isn’t much room left for the many other flowers that Sackville-West must have grown and loved. ‘What, no hardy geranium? No aster?’ you might well wonder as you begin to read, while also privately thinking, ‘What, so few of my favourites?’

But read on regardless, for you will shortly come to learn of the reason for Sackville-West’s choices. She has chosen ‘painters’ flowers’, though not the broad-brush flowers of the big border, not the flowers seen as an impressionist’s mass of blue or white from a distance. ‘The flowers I have chosen depend chiefly on their loveliness of shape, colouring, marking or texture,’ explains Sackville-West. ‘They are flowers which require to be looked at very intimately, if their queerness or beauty is to be closely appreciated. They are flowers which painters have delighted, or should delight, to paint.’

And it is refreshing that she has not restricted or restrained herself within self-imposed (or publisher-imposed) rules to widen the selection, a freedom that adds to the sense of casual. Don’t be fooled by her chatty, effortless style, which will transport you through the book as though riding a scudding cloud. Here is a mind alive with wit and information, and both are imparted as lightly as possible in a style that is by turns business-like, romantic, gossipy and indignant.

Always interesting and thought-provoking, she describes the many uses of mullein tea, which rose is the true York-and-Lancaster rose, and a memorable account of coming across a group of wild crown imperials growing in a dark ravine in Persia. But of course it is the descriptions of the flowers we are here for, and despite her admitting that it is ‘indeed very difficult to write about flowers’ we need not worry that she’ll fail us. Each is given its fair value in colour, texture, and the way light shines through translucent petals, while great care is taken not to descend to ‘purple’ language. A group of Verbascum Cotswold Varieties are fondly said to be ‘dusty, fusty, musty in colouring … as though a colony of tiny buff butterflies had settled all over them.’ Only about the Rosa gallica Tuscany does she get away from herself: ‘The velvet rose. What a combination of words! One almost suffocates in their soft depths, as though one sank into  a bed of rose petals, all thorns ideal stripped away.’ She brings herself back to earth by pointing out that ‘We cannot actually lie on a bed of roses, unless we are very decadent, and also very rich,’ and then apologises for her ‘fanciful way of writing’ before running away from herself again when looking closely into the ‘quivering and dusty gold of its central perfection.’ Don’t you just love her?

The edition in my hand is printed under the National Trust’s imprint, and gorgeously illustrated by the botanical painter Graham Rust. For some reason best known to themselves, the NT decided to print the book’s title not on the actual cover, but on a large sticker that looks most impermanent and strange, rather like a ‘3 for 2’ sticker commonly found on books stacked on tables in the entrances of commercial bookshops. It was just asking to be peeled off, which of course I started to do in a moment of distraction while on the phone. Sadly it would not peel off and so now I have a half-peeled sticker on the front of this otherwise handsome book, which in the spirit of things have tried to disguise with Some Flowers.

Eighty years have passed since the book’s first publication, and some of Sackville-West’s flowers have since become much more common and popular in ordinary gardens: the witch hazel, the meadow fritillary, the iris reticulata, zinnias. Some, like the Gerbera daisy have come through fashion and out again on the other side. The flowers have become popular because gardeners hang onto Sackville-West’s every word, and they hang onto her every word because she writes with such restrained beauty and sense, disguised as casual conversation. I urge you to rush out and buy this book, and then after you have read it immediately order everything else that Sackville-West has ever written, which is what I intend to do.

Sackville-West, V. (1937) Some Flowers. This edition (2014), London: National Trust Books.

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9 Ways I’ll Improve My Gardening in 2018

Happy new year! No, I’m not Chinese, but I have come to realise that I forgot to wish you all a happy new year at the beginning of January, partly because I was too wrapped up in revision for my RHS exams, and partly because I was in a rut with wanting to write a post about my gardening year in 2017, but didn’t know where to start. The reason I didn’t know where to start was because 2017 had mainly been characterised by not gardening, or at least, not enough, and that wasn’t going to make for very good reading. New Year, then January, slipped by in a flurry of snow and studying. Now that the exams are over, it’s far too late to start talking about 2017 (what a relief) so let’s move swiftly on and look ahead to this year. This year, my garden is going to be very beautiful, and here’s what I’m going to do differently this year in order to achieve this:

Be tidier (but not too tidy)

When I confess to you that my garden is a mess, I am not just talking about a few stray seed heads or the inevitable pile of plastic pots that all gardeners accumulate in dark corners behind sheds. My blind spots include: discarded plant labels lying on paths; empty plastic compost sacks blown into hedges; piles of topsoil that I have no idea what to do with; the four-foot stalks of last year’s Salvia ‘Amistad’ left on the terrace because there’s no room in the compost bin; empty seed trays collecting stagnant water; uprooted Everedge lying like dismantled bear-traps on the grass. When I wanted to find my root trainers to sow my sweetpeas, I had to scour the privet hedge for the inserts (I found all but one of them). None of this is beautiful to behold. But this year I will be tidier. I vow that I will be able to take photos of the garden from any direction without having to crop out the ugly parts. Conversely, it should hardly need pointing out that healthy gardens are not too tidy, nor heaven forbid, sterile. Gardens with wild areas, where nettles grow, and insects hibernate in old logs, and the seedheads are left on for the winter birds, are gardens with reverence for the ecosystems that make them what they are.

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Avoid plastic

You can’t have missed the current debate around plastic, unless you come from another planet, perhaps one that is not mad enough to have designed single-use items out of a material that lasts for ever. Plastic garden villains include: pots and trays, compost sacks, plant labels, polypropylene ‘fleece’ (a sad misnomer), netting, modules, plant supports, rabbit guards, bird feeders, the ‘lights’ of a cold frame, the protective packaging around plants sent by post, and even the plastic cover around gardening magazines and seed catalogues. As well as hanging around undegradable for hundreds of years, clogging up waterways and damaging wildlife, plastic is ugly, and gardens are for beauty; therefore, ought plastic to have a place in the garden? We gardened successfully for centuries before the invention of plastic; could we return to a life without it? The June 2017 issue of the RHS’s The Garden magazine (which arrived in its polythene wrapping) carried an article written by Sally Nex about her attempt to eliminate plastic from the garden, which inspired me to try doing the same. Like Sally I have started with wooden seed trays and terracotta pots as well as copper labels; I will report back with more ideas as they come.

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Improve winter structure

Eager to cram in as many delicious herbaceous perennials as one can discover, it’s easy to forget that for six months of the year the garden is essentially bare of herbaceous perennials. This is undoubtedly a lesson that many beginner gardeners learn to their cost as they gaze out at the garden of a frosty January day and see only the sad emptiness of a garden without bones. My experience in this regard has shown me that a garden ought to be designed primarily with the coldest months in mind — the gaps can always be filled in later. Luckily, it’s not too late for me to correct my early mistakes, and there’s a variety of ideas that I can add to my garden to get it looking good in winter: patterns of topiaried box and low hedging, arches, and neat edges along elegant or intriguing paths.

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Educate myself…

Well, I am already deep into this one, having followed my Certificate of Practical Horticulture straight into the RHS Principles of Horticulture Level 2 course. The improvement in my horticultural and botanical knowledge has been intensely satisfying — but talk about the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to learn, and there always will be. I intend to carry on learning as much as I can, firstly by trying to attend further a further course once my current one is completed (I haven’t decided which yet), and by reading my steadily multiplying collection of gardening books as I go. Then there are gardening shows, magazines, the blogs of other gardeners …

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… And do things the proper way

When I do things the proper way, the way I have been taught on my various courses, taking care and paying attention to the small details — using the correct type of compost, labelling my seed trays, pruning each plant at the appropriate time in the appropriate way, and so on — the garden rewards my efforts with better-looking and happier plants, improved yields, healthier soil, more diverse wildlife: a better and more beautiful garden. I have noticed that since applying the techniques and skills that I have learnt on my practical horticulture course, my seed germination has become much more reliable, my cuttings root successfully, and I waste fewer plants by keeping them happy and healthy. A seed tray that has been filled and tamped properly and evenly sown with an appropriate quantity of seed not only germinates more successfully but looks good too. Sometimes doing things the proper way seems to take more time, but this time is often saved elsewhere later on.

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Try new seeds

Although I never get tired of my old favourites (Cosmos ‘Purity’, cornflowers, Ammi, ‘Café-au-Lait’ dahlias) it’s good to try new varieties and discover new favourites. Last year I successfully grew heartsease violas for the first time, cheerful little faces that kept my spirits up throughout autumn and winter. This year I’ll be trying sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Claret’ and ‘Double Dandy’), poached-egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii), Dill, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Sahara’, two new sorts of gypsophila, and two new dahlias, ‘Linda’s Baby’ and ‘Penhill Watermelon’.

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Protect my soil

A healthy garden begins with a healthy soil. Preventing the erosion and capping of topsoil by protecting it with mulches, ground-cover plants or green manures is one of the simplest things to be done to keep a garden healthy and beautiful. I started this year as I mean to go on, by mulching my herbaceous beds with heaps of delicious home-made compost. This will protect the surface of the soil and feed the soil organisms, providing nutrition for roots and organic matter for moisture retention. My raised beds are mulched with mushroom compost, which again protects the soil and provides organic matter and good weed suppression. But there are still areas needing improvement, places where I ran out of mulch, spots that have been neglected: an area of bare, compacted soil underneath some trees, patches that shouldn’t have been walked on (but were). Taking care of soil means being kind to earthworms too, and this will be of even more importance since last week’s discovery of two small New Zealand flatworms near my compost heap (a total scream-mask moment).

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Keep better records

Detesting plastic as I do, I’m not the best at labelling my plants. My record keeping is patchy at most, because it’s not easy to write things down on paper while wearing muddy gardening gloves, especially if it’s raining, and because I enjoy planting things spontaneously, grabbing the nearest suitable pot and kidding myself that I’ll remember what tulips I planted in six months’ time, an effect that is ruined by pernickerty record-keeping. And often a lovely surprise awaits: a terracotta jar of ‘Apricot Beauty’ suddenly appearing in April is no bad thing. And I can usually tell what my seedlings are by the leaves. However, records help us to learn from our successes and failures, and can be a pleasure to read back to oneself after a year or so. On top of blogging, I have started keeping a handwritten diary of the garden: what I tried that day, what I did, what was in leaf or flower or died or looked awful or sprang like Lazarus from the bare soil. What the weather was like, what birds were singing, what it felt like to be out in the garden on that cold morning.

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Just garden!

In the end, all these improvements will come about only if I step outside and actually garden. Life is very good at getting in the way: emails that need sending, laundry to attend to, husbands that want something (almost always involving having to stop whatever I’m doing to admire a piece of carbon-fibre cycling equipment). Then there are the excuses: weather awful, too cold, wrong sort of leaves on the ground, don’t know where to start. By prioritising gardening wherever possible I am hoping that the garden will respond in kind, and I have been inspired by Laetitia Maklouf’s ‘Five Minute Garden’ because there is so much you can do in five-minute bursts if that is all you have time for, and those seemingly insignificant bursts will eventually add up to a great deal of improvement.

So these are the things I will be doing better in 2018, in the hopes of a new, improved garden and a better gardening year over all. I’d love to know what you will be doing this year to make your garden a better place, or to hear about any changes you made in the past that had a fabulous impact on the health and beauty of your garden.

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The forgiveness of a garden

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I have been revising solidly for weeks. The weather has been most kind: too rainy to go for walks, too frozen to plant my new Sorbus cashmiriana, which has been waiting patiently in its pot, propped back against the wall with a sack of potting compost (or ‘growing media’, if the RHS insists.) Thanks to the weather, there has been almost no temptation to leave my desk for the entirety of January. I have been surrounded by piles of notes and endless labelled diagrams of plant cells and transverse sections of root, stem and dicotyledonous flowers for months, with the rain and snow lashing down and the garden ignored below a blanket of mud and leaves.

I am studying for the RHS Level 2 exams, and the first four exams are today. This semester’s topics have been Botany, Soil, Pests and Diseases, and Propagation, and I have wholeheartedly enjoyed each one, spellbound by the enthusiasm of our tutors, the arresting facts, and the ‘Oh, that’s why…’ revelations.

Yesterday I finally reached that blissful stage of revision I like to call the ‘Whatever will be will be’ stage, where you are reluctantly hopeful you can pass and you are ready to stop revising and just get it over. I looked up from the past-paper I had just completed, and saw through the window a fat ray of sunlight hitting our front garden, beckoning me to come and inspect the emerging shoots and buds of early spring. Having vowed to revise all day, guiltily I put down my pen, donned a coat and bobble hat, and wandered outside.

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The front garden was, at first glance, sparse of life. This was unsurprising, since during the autumn every single plant from the front garden was dug up, heeled in and replanted for the Great Maze Reshuffle (I promise to update you on the maze in due course). Similarly in the back garden, most of the refugees that no longer had a home in the front garden are still finding their (frozen) feet. It’s been a cold winter, colder than any I’ve yet experienced here in Edinburgh. Nonetheless, on closer inspection there were signs of spring everywhere. Green tips abounded: the beginnings of tulips, snowdrops, muscari, iris, alliums, crocosmia (rather too many of those) and some brave gladioli. Primroses and snowdrops were out in the window boxes, and tiny new shoots were appearing on the roses. In the front garden maze, my Iris ‘George’, which I divided and replanted beneath the cherry tree (also replanted) were up and almost out. In fact, two blooms had already made their showy attempts, only to be knocked down by rain, cat or other tragedy. I fetched scissors and rescued them, along with a snowdrop, a fading Helleborus niger flower, some variegated ivy and a sprig of wonderful smelling Sarcococca confusa that is flowering beautifully despite being heeled up in a temporary sack of earth.

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I was humbled by the forgiveness of a garden that, though bare earth six weeks ago, already offering up flowers for the house. Everywhere were signs of neglect, but I knew that the garden would keep on keeping on until I had time to pay it the attention it needed. A potted Skimmia japonica with raging chlorosis blooms relentlessly away in a corner. Seeds are as yet unplanted but they’ll catch up. That Sorbus will be just fine in its pot for one more week. And with any luck the weather will continue its kindness until next weekend so that I can enjoy my first gardening session of 2018 in fat rays of sunshine rather than snow and rain.

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In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and if you follow this link you can visit her page to see what this weekly challenge is all about, as well as find links to vases of flowers and foliage grown in the gardens of many other garden bloggers across the world.

Many of the photos on this blog post also appear on my Instagram page, where you will find a great deal more of my garden photography and regular tiny snippets of gardening life.

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Book review: Lessons From Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Madame Ganna Walska was a Polish beauty of enormous charisma, charm and energy.  Her initial career was in opera, but her particular talents lay in two quite different directions: firstly, in making prudent marriages (she married a succession of men of huge wealth); secondly, in exotic, exuberant, and extravagant gardening.

After divorcing for the sixth and final time, Walska set about creating ‘Lotusland’, her vast garden in California. ‘She filled the garden with rare and exotic species, falling in love with their beauty but never knowing their names,’ writes Matthew Biggs in his delightful book, Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they can teach us. ‘Wanting plants that always looked good, Madame… was more interested in their art, style and beauty.’

Her garden was funded, of course, by her acquired marital wealth. Biggs quotes a story in which Walska drove around the neighbourhood in search of choice specimens, and whenever she saw something she wanted in someone else’s garden, she had her chauffeur knock on the front door, offering to buy it. If the person refused, ‘a case of champagne was delivered; that usually changed their minds.’ She would go on to sell almost $1m of jewellery to fund her various collections, including a garden of 900 cycads representing half the world’s species, many of them incredibly rare.

Madame Walska’s accompanies thirty-nine similarly spellbinding four-page histories, written in chronological order starting with the fifteenth-century Japanese artist Somai who created Ryouan-Ji, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the contemporary plantsman and plant hunter Dan Hinkley. Most of the gardeners one would expect to find here are present and correct: Paxton, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Chatto, Oudolf; and there are several whose names I recognised, perhaps from cultivars (Edward Augustus Bowles, Ellen Willmott), awards (James Veitch) or other subjects (Thomas Jefferson, Claude Monet), but about whom I knew much less. Then, like Walska, there were many I had never heard of at all, including the plantswoman Rae Selling Berry and the creator of the garden in the ruins of Ninfa near Rome, Princess Leila Caetani.

The gardeners are satisfyingly varied: there are those like Walska or the businessman Henry E. Huntingdon who built their gardens from great riches. Then there are those who gardened on behalf of the rich, like André Le Notre of Versailles, or Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth. Some gardeners had other jobs and gardened for relaxation (Thomas Jefferson, Sir Thomas Hanbury), others gardened obsessively to the exclusion of all else (Ellen Willmott, Madame Walska). The artist gardener is well represented in Claude Monet, Gertrude Jekyll and Jacques Majorelle.

I was unfamiliar with the writing of Matt Biggs, accustomed as I am to hearing his cheery voice on Gardeners’ Question Time. His writing style is as soothing as his subjects, telling their stories in clear, well written, well researched paragraphs, and it carries a quiet joy in its theme. Like many RHS published books, Lessons is printed on good quality mat paper: a satisfying book to feel and hold; each gardener is accompanied by a little portrait along with botanical illustrations of some of those plants best associated with them: Deschampsia for Piet Oudolf, Gentian for Geoffrey Smith, Asters for Gertrude Jekyll, Geranium for Margery Fish. Every gardener has a page of ‘Lessons’. Geoff Hamilton teaches us that ‘things don’t have to be perfect… Gardening is all about enjoyment; don’t take it too seriously’. Beth Chatto tells us to ‘accept the existing conditions, choose the right plants for that location’. Vita Sackville-West ‘disliked excessive tidiness’ (me too, Vita). Madame Ganna Walska has advice for us in conservation and sustainable gardening, though no specific instruction is given on the acquisition of husbands.

But while the lessons Biggs extracts from his subjects are mostly practical tips and ideas, a greater lesson was emerging for me. The unifying characteristic of these great gardeners, the thing they all had in common, was an overwhelming drive and passion for plants, gardens and nature, a strong desire for self-education, and a work ethic that set them apart. Whatever your background, your education, your income or your starting point, so long as you have courage, a will to work and conviction in your own style, there is room for you and your story among the stories of all the gardeners who have ever lived.

Biggs, M. (2015) Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they teach us. 1st edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

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