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.

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