This is me


Is it possible to have a slow burning Epiphany? Probably not but I do feel that over the last couple of months I have slowly but surely come to a moment of clarity and realisation about exactly who I am, what I want and where I want to go as a gardener.

As any one who reads this blog will know I have been stumbling around for probably a couple of years now.  I haven’t liked my garden let alone loved it, I have lost confidence and direction.  I have in previous posts assigned this confusion to the death of my sister and it is certainly true to say that as a knee jerk reaction I had an overwhelming sense that I needed to seize the day and embrace opportunities.  However, I now believe that this confusion was setting in before that terrible week in October 2009 and I attribute it to garden blogging.

Writing a blog is a wonderful way of engaging with other people who are like-minded but maybe not so wonderful if you are lacking in confidence or easily influenced, as I am or was.  Through blogging I have met lots of interesting, knowledgeable and creative people and I have felt a desire to be part of the gang instead of hanging around on the outskirts as I did in the school playground.  When I started writing a blog 4 years ago I had gardened for some years but I was only really starting to become  hooked and was going through a phase of compulsive plant purchasing and shoe-horn planting. 

For the first couple of years I thrived on being part of the garden blogging community but in recent years I have let myself be swayed by the opinion of others and this has led me to lose my way and become dis-satisfied.  I have worried about the design or lack of design in my garden.  There has been a strong argument in some areas that a small palette of plants is better than a mishmash and I have found myself seeing my planting as a disjointed collection of unrelated plants.  I have been entranced by pictures of exotic planting and have tried to emulate this but failed dismally and become disheartened.  I could go on.

However, amongst this confusion and lack of confidence I have started to find myself again, though that does sound a little clichéd.  I suppose it started in May when I was lucky enough to help for a couple of days plant a Chelsea showgarden, something which came about because of my blogging and twitter contacts.  It was a fantastic experience that I wouldn’t have missed but I found it hard to accept the waste of so many plants and the idea that plants were just a commodity, a thing to create something else.  This didn’t feel right.

Something else clicked when I made an unplanned visit to a garden in August.  For some reason this garden inspired me with how to change the design of my garden and how to move it forward to something that will work better.  None of the showgardens I had seen at four shows have had this impact on me.  I think there is something to be said for being in a garden as opposed to standing outside it looking in.

Despite the ideas the garden sparked I have still been vexed with the design of my garden.  I felt that I was just failing somehow but last night the penny dropped and the epiphany moment finally happened.  I’M A PLANTSMAN not a garden designer etc.  I love plants, I am fascinated by how they grow, where they come from, who discovered them, how to propagate them and I have Roy Lancaster to thank. I spent the evening listening to him talk at the local horticultural club.  He spoke with passion and humour about his many plant hunting trips and showed us photos of amazing Mahonias with red flowers, Abelias with long dangling flowers, huge Geraniums and many more exciting plants.  All had stories attached to them.  I was transfixed throughout the talk. 

I love plants and whilst  I want my garden to look great but I do not see why I can’t collect plants and have a fabulous garden.  There are many well known plantsmen/women who have stunning and renowned gardens: Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto to start with.  I think what I have realised as a result of wandering in the horticultural wilderness is that there are many avenues to take and you have to find what is right for you.  I have learnt that it is possible to plant a collection of plants and for it still to look great if you use an artistic eye when planting them; that I like hardy plants not exotic tender ones which are difficult for me to overwinter; that I get the most satisfaction from propagating or growing from a seed a new plant and seeing it grow and thrive. 

So this is who I am.  I will no longer let myself be vexed with whether my garden is well designed, about keeping up with the latest trends.  I will be  true to myself,  have  confidence in my abilities and beliefs and try to trust my instincts more.  I want to learn more about plants and plant hunters, I would love one day to be involved in the RHS plant trails and I aspire to go on a plant hunting expedition.  I will also carry on reading garden blogs but a wider cross-section instead of the small number I have read this year after all whilst reading gardening blogs as lead to confusion it has also opened many doors and broaden my mind.

PS: there is no photo on this post at present as I have written it at work in my lunch break and I cant upload images for reason that are beyond me!!


Author: Helen Johnstone

I live in Malvern, Worcestershire and am a very keen gardener. I started the Patient Gardener Blog in January 2008 as a way of recording what was happening in my garden and connecting with other like-minded people. I started a second blog PatientGardener 365 January 2013 in order to try and post a photo a day to capture what is growing in my garden or places I have visited

40 thoughts on “This is me”

  1. P.S. Agree completely with your sentiments. My mum has spent 30 years taking this attitude with her garden, and its an amazing place to be. Because there is no straight lines or no planning as such, every few feet feels like a whole new experience. She’s even left one part to grow completely wild with a scattering of wild flowers. Its my fave area by far.

  2. Helen – you have put into words perfectly just how I feel. It is so easy to get bowled over by other peoples enthusiasms but I have been determined to stick to my guns with my style of planting which is chaotic to say the least. I am just sorry that you had such a hard time whilst reaching your epiphany.

  3. Jono – thank you for your lovely comment, you wouldnt believe how much time I have wasted trying to get a picture to upload!! Now I shant bother.

    Elaine – I am glad it isnt just me but I suspect I knew I wasnt alone all along and I know that I have a terrible habit of being easily lead/swayed by people and not trusting myself enough

  4. Well said! I think that when we try to grow what we think we ought to, rather than things we love, our gardens lose a sense of ourselves. Enjoy the plants!

  5. As someone who’s read you from the start, I think what you’ve said here has shone through your blog all along. I’m glad you’ve realised it at last. I had a similar epiphany when I heard Mary Keen talk (without photos) a couple of years ago and I realised my favourite garden is mine.

    Roy Lancaster’s talk sounds fab – I hope we get him down here too one day. Look out for Dan Hinkley, another modern day plant hunter who’s worth going to listen to. I see he has a couple of books with Timber Press.

    1. VP/Janet – your comment has made me think all afternoon. I suppose my love of plants has come across as its something I am comfortable writing about whereas the other things I have been struggling with like design I have tended to avoid writing about as I am out of my comfort zone

  6. I haven’t found a word for me. I simply like to see things grow – any old plant will do!

    As for designers etc. If we all had their skills, there would be nothing special about them, nothing to admire, nothing to be inspired by.


  7. What a fab post Helen, everything you say about yourself, what you love, what sparks you, fits with what I have read in your blog over the year or so I have been following it. “To thine one self be true” and all that. I hope you realise your ambition of going on a plant-hunting expedition, and that your new sense of who you are – Plantswoman not designer – brings you tremendous satisfaction. Who knows, maybe you will end up introducing us to new plants breed or discovered by you!!

  8. You are indeed a plantswoman Helen, and as VP said above, this has shone through your blog from the very beginning. On both times I have visited your garden I have liked it very much – and the joy has been walking around and seeing the “gems” you have grown over the years … not to mention some of your gems finding their way up here to Wales.
    “Be true to yourself” is cliched – but accurate – although sometimes we loose our sense of self a bit …. for a little while.

  9. No need for pictures. I think it is wonderful that you are finding your own way and style for your gardening.None of can keep up with all of the ideas and trends going around anyway and especially if it is not “us” in the creating of them. Then it becomes a job instead of an enjoyment. Do your own thing and be thrilled in what you have created. That is what makes our gardens our own.Individual just like we are.

  10. Hi Helen, I agree with Janet that everything you say fits with the impression I have formed in the time that I have been following your blog. Your post is really thought-provoking (and indeed no pictures needed). I have only recently had the opportunity to really indulge in my love of plants, and am still very new to the whole online community which adds another dimension; sometimes to inspire, others to confuse indeed!
    I am learning though that I will always lean towards plants over design. While admiring the work of others, I would rather pick the plants that I love and fit/slip/cram them into the garden so that I can enjoy them than meticulously plan with limited palettes or varieties. Still hoping to create an overall garden that enchants and pleases us, I hope. Time will tell.
    It’s lovely that you have found more direction, though, and I really look forward to following your progress as you finetune your garden, and follow your inspirations. You often raise such interesting points too, thank you for sharing.

  11. Helen as I read I wonder also if your gardening courses have influenced the feeling of ‘doing what others think is right’, it must have been wonderful to hear Roy Lancaster I have only seen photos of his overflowing garden which is packed to the brim with sooo many different plants, I’m glad you have found a contentment in your garden and how to approach it,
    thank you for the name of the flower I like in the previous post, off to check out your link, Frances

    1. islandthreads – I have thought about your suggestion that the garden courses may have inflienced me and I suppose in some ways they have but I dont think as much as the gardening media and blogs

  12. Go Girl! Be yourself and enjoy your uniqueness – who needs to worry what others think, it’s your sanctuary.

  13. Hi Helen,
    I think it’s easy enough to get lost and find oneself being seduced by immaculate and beautifully designed gardens and I’m glad that you feel you’ve managed to find yourself as such.

    I’m a designer at heart; but lack the skills in terms of gardening. And thankfully I’ve realised this all along. And like many others, I like to do what I want, when I want and don’t let myself worry about latest trends (I also don’t believe in ‘rules’ and just like with art I refuse to follow them such as with watercolours and so on). And as someone else rightly pointed out, we can’t all be designers otherwise they’d be out of a job! 😀

  14. The old addage “be true to yourself” stands out here Helen. It’s your garden and your peice of England. My garden has no style, form or thought for that matter. I grow what I like and if it doesn’t look right one year I move it. I frequently get tired of writing about my garden and go completely off piste. I love what you write because it truly comes from the heart. xx

  15. (Pictures are better on radio, and we want to think about what you wrote). I haven’t the budget or the opportunity to run after this season’s must have. My green self prefers to grow in my garden more of what is happy here – and those happy plants are marching in the door. The most designed bit of my garden is the And Roses, where I used 4 beds to sort out my plantswoman collection. Works for me. We’ll enjoy following your garden with you.

  16. Lona is spot on…if your job was to be a garden designer, then keeping up with the trends/perfect design would be something you must keep up with. But in your own personal garden, the best thing is just to enjoy it! Otherwise your hobby turns into a job – complete with frustration and a sense of overwhelming dissatisfaction. I remember hearing a quote once that rang something along the lines of, “Did you ever see an truly ugly garden? You might see a garden that is not your taste, but there is always something beautiful to enjoy.” Enjoy your garden! 🙂

  17. Helen what a dipping into the soul piece of writing. I spend hours alone outside musing, looking at ants and taking points from nature to develop that sense of self. So many different roads that gardening, plants and horticulture can take you down. PS I endorse your CFShow thougsh.

  18. Think that it has all been said 🙂 Your passion and infectious enthusiasm for plants themselves has always leapt out of your blog Helen as long as I have been reading it. You are also very observant and see the not always obvious. Would like to hear Roy Lancaster speak – seems so long ago since he has been on our television screens.

  19. I am definitely a mishmash type of gardener. I buy what I like and just jumble them all together. OK, it doesn’t always work, but isn’t that part of the fun? I agree with your sentiments. You can only be happy with your garden if t IS your garden.

  20. Go Helen! I Love it. What a good epiphany to have. I am like you in that I like plants but I will say I feel the blogging world has made me “step up” my gardening. I’ve tried some new things I wouldn’t have if not for visiting around the web. Even if I don’t like it, I think it helps me grow. I know my garden won’t impress too many people but it makes me happy so that’s all that matters. Your garden is lovely and you always “attack” it with incredible energy (or so it seems) and I admire that. I know I’ll continue to enjoy watching it evolve. Stay strong!
    ps. I don’t know if many Americans decorate their garden with pumpkins, etc., or not?? It’s something I like to do especially in the back because I can see it from my kitchen window when I’m doing dishes. 🙂 Selfish, right?!!!

  21. Very thoughtful essay. When asked I give design advice to my nursery customers, and I do believe that doing certain things will enhance a gardener’s satisfaction with their garden. However, I always end by saying that they should never lose sight of the fact that it’s their garden and they should do what makes them happy.

  22. I agree with you completely. The person who decides if your garden is successful or not is you, no one else. And how you judge that success is up to you too. That’s what makes a graden individual and personal and that’s what makes it fun, too! I hope you will have much fun from now on.

  23. Helen,
    I can definitely relate to feeling like my garden style is either all wrong, lacking in something… or I am just not sure what. And also struggling with how to relate to the garden blogging community. There are so many wonderfully gifted gardeners to learn from, but I sometimes feel my own gardening/thinking/creative time suffers. I have been forced to accept that in all areas of my life, I am in progress. Making peace with that fact is a battle!

    I am glad that you can see more clearly your creative response to creation. And I hope that you are more free to enjoy what you are making – the beauty that flows out from you, just being you.

  24. This is a rushed comment, Helen as I have to make sandwiches and dash off to work. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your post and absolutely agree with your sentiments. I’ve often wondered about hiring a designer for the Priory but quite frankly I’d rather carry on with my bumbling style, planting stuff I like and then moving them if they don’t work. And I really don’t want to plant stuff that I’ve been told to or don’t even like (though I am trying to move away from the mishmash style – at the Priory at least). I’ve only started following you recently but enjoy your posts and following what you’re up to – so please don’t be too upset or put off by some idiot on twitter/email. Keep calm and carry on!!

    I will if you will.


  25. How wonderful, I felt a bit weepy after reading that. I too consider myself a plantswoman rather than a designer. I currently have a big plot that has lain neglected for almost 10 yrs and I do recognise your description of feeling vexed with design over choosing the plants you love.

    I felt like that today when I liberally spread feverfew (one of my fave perrenial weeds/herbs/flowers) around the garden. I wondered whether I should try to order what I was doing but then I remembered that I LOVE the bright white daisy heads and scented leaf and so I thought ‘stuff it!’ and carried on.

    Thank you for a lovely blog post.

  26. Helen, you and I are kindred spirits on collecting plants. Here is the thing about gardens (my two cents). Gardens MUST please only the gardener. That is my mantra and I tell you I stick to it no matter the conventional thinking of massing and this and that. My garden pleases me-though not all the time but I work on that. It is part of the pleasure of gardening. Someday the conventional wisdom will be to plant as many plants as possible in the smallest amount of space. Hey, I can tell you what is happy about that kind of planting (many plants). The wildlife and insects and birds! The more plants you have the more diverse the garden and in my humble opinion, the more healthy it is. So plant away and make it YOU! P.S. We’ve been blogging and talking for pretty much the entire four years. I just realized I just hit that mark last month and didn’t even post about it.

  27. Ok Helen… let’s cut to the chase… design is a word… just a word. Our gardens are our gardens because we grow what we like to see in them. Please don’t get hung up on garden’ design’. This is coming from one plantswoman to another 🙂
    Yep… you can go the right plant… right place avenue. Grant you… you’d lose fewer plants during winter or drought there. But where’s the imagination then?
    My choice of plantings may be different from yours but does that really matter? Why should you be swayed by what others in the blogging community say?
    The way I see it, garden planting is no different from art. It can create moods, make statements and all the rest… you found part of that by helping at Chelsea. However, in your own garden it is your connection with your plants and yours alone that make it your garden. If the colours, textures or continents don’t match perceptions you feel you should have… then please think again. Absolutely… 110%… go with your instincts and enjoy YOUR plant full of garden 😀

  28. I think you expressed your sentiments beautifully. A garden should reflect the gardener who tends it. You are right to follow your own path. It is the only way to have the garden you desire. I applaud your courage and determination to stay on your own path.

  29. Thanks for such an excellent and thoughtful post Helen. There is a lot of discussion about design vs plantsman/women; we all design our gardens some more consciously than others and some more deliberately and systematically than others. If pushed to label myself I would call myself a plantswoman first with no ambitions to design – then I look at my garden that I have clearly designed and wonder what that actually means.

  30. Loved this post. Growing plants and gardening should be about pleasure. it should be a part of our lives that isn’t touched by the stresses and strains of the rest of our lives. There are all sort of rules out there about garden design and that’s fine but they often take the fun and joy out of gardening. I have a small space in which I garden and it is crammed with as many plants as I can grow. Ultimately its your garden and you shouldn’t feel the need to adhere to any design rules that constrain your gardening pleasure. I would much rather see a garden bursting with plants that is clearly loved than a garden with few plants and that follows design rules but doesn’t look like anyone actually spends any time tending it.

  31. Excellent post, suspect it will strike a chord with many. Thank you for sharing. Pretty much everything else has already been said ☺

  32. Very interesting indeed – and thank you. Thank you because while I’m a relative newbie to blogging, I’m already noticing that I’m getting tempted away from what I think my garden is all about. Other people’s gardens are gorgeous, their plants are fab, but when it comes down to it they’re not always appropriate for your own environment – or your own sense of self (or your garden’s sense of itself!). Sometimes it’s easy to forget ‘This, above all else, to your own self be true’…

  33. I once wondered why I was rubbish at garden design and strangely unconcerned about my failings in that department. Eventually I realised it was the plants that mattered to me – and whether I had a space to squeeze them in. Any good design results were entirely accidental and I am completely content with that 🙂

  34. Helen, your thoughtful posts always cause me to slow down and really ponder…they are truly “food for thought”. I love that about your blog.

    You’ve got a great conversation going here and I have to agree, while there are many great suggestions and ideas out there in the blogosphere, what you decide to create in your own garden is up to you. No guilt. Just like at the grocery; there are many choices but we don’t take them all, we pick and choose. We are all a work in progress and we learn as we go…sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. No worries…just trying to enjoy the journey. 😉 You go with your Plantsman self!!

  35. So beautifully and honestly said Helen! I haven’t much different to add to what others have said, but to say I am glad for you.; really glad. xoxogail

  36. Cat told me about your post, Helen, and I can see why it resonated with so many people. It is all too easy to compare ourselves and our gardens with the fabulousness that’s on view in the blogosphere, and to lose sight of what we love about our own gardens and our own interests and talents. Good for you for clarifying what it is you love about gardening. I hope you get to go on a plant-hunting expedition one day!

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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