The Impossibly Pretty Project

Stone House Cottage, Kidderminster
Stone House Cottage, Kidderminster

I find it impossible to achieve things unless I have a goal, deadline, incentive and I have got progressively worse over the years.  Over the last few years I have had some sort of yearly major project in the garden whether it was a new seating area, digging up the lawn, making space for the workshop – there has been something.  I have now run out of places to dig up and to be honest I am quite happy with the layout of the garden although the jury is still out on whether the grass path will stay grass or not (the cat would prefer grass) and at the end of last year I was twitching about a lack of project.  When I wrote a post at the start of the year, although I didn’t make any new year resolutions, I did say that I planned to enter more alpine shows and I think on reflection this was instead of having a project – something to aim for, some to achieve.

Hampton Court Garden, Herefordshire
Hampton Court Garden, Herefordshire

However, over the last month my mind has become increasingly full of images and ideas for planting the garden gleaned from books, television, magazines, talks.  Over the Christmas break I tackled the teetering pile of magazines and scrap booked images and ideas I liked and when I flick through the scrap-book there is a definite style and colour palette that appeals to me – I suppose this is what they mean by a ‘mood board’. But I really don’t like formulaic planting whether it’s a limited planting scheme with plants repeated or very linear, as I tried in the front garden. I don’t like what a friend of mine calls ‘planting by numbers’ which she says some designers are guilty of and which we both agree leads to a soulless garden.

Wollerton Old Hall, Shropshire
Wollerton Old Hall, Shropshire

Another friend introduced me recently as a knowledgeable plants-women.  I challenge that description as I know from the gardening clubs I go to how limited my knowledge it but I am passionate about plants.  I love the quirky, the pretty, wonderful foliage, interesting flowers.  I get a thrill out of seeing a plant push its way through the ground in the Spring or a seedling appear or a fern frond unfurl.  But I get distracted particularly with social media – ooh what’s that plant, where can I get it, where can I grow it and so I have a garden and greenhouse full of interesting plants but the parts do not make a great whole and this is the problem.  The friend who dislikes planting by numbers and I discussed this recently.  She too is  plants-women, very knowledgeable, and her approach is that her garden is her space to do as she wishes and if the plants look a little bitty then so be it and I applaud that attitude.

Bryan's Ground, Herefordshire
Bryan’s Ground, Herefordshire

However, and there is always an however, I don’t think this approach is working for me.  I feel constantly frustrated with the garden and so I have distracted myself with digging up more bits or entering shows.  I am frustrated because I strive for my garden to be a floriferous oasis, to be stunning, for the borders to look wonderful just like the magazines.  Of course these images have been created by people with a wealth of experience, sometimes with professional help, but also with passion and incredibly horticultural prowess and this I think is the key to it.  I need to garden better, to spend time in the garden, maintaining it, tending the plant, understanding how they grow.  A nursery woman I know always says that the remedy to most garden pests is to garden better i.e. if you grow strong plants they are less susceptible to pest damage and I think she is right.  I have recently been reading about a number of my gardening heroes all who have stunning gardens and all who are amazing plants-women but they have learnt their skills through hard work over a long length of time.

Bryan's Ground, Herefordshire
Bryan’s Ground, Herefordshire

So, a plan is forming in my mind, a sort of project – it doesn’t have a particular object as an outcome, it won’t be achieved this year, or probably for some years.  It is more an aspiration or objective and the other evening on the way home the phrase ‘The Impossibly Pretty Project’ came into my mind and days later I still like it.  The name can be taken two ways.  You sometimes hear the expression ‘impossibly pretty’ used in the sense that it impossible for something/someone to be as pretty as they/it are but also you could read it in the sense that the project will be impossible – although I hope not. The images on this post are of various gardens I love and enjoy and you will see there is a certain look that appeals to me which I suppose is something between a Cottage Garden and the archetypal English Country Garden.  I particularly like the herbaceous borders and this is where I get stuck.  I don’t want to create a herbaceous border in the true sense of the word but it is the herbaceous part of a mixed border that I struggle with.  I have the trees and shrubs but I struggle to work out how to make the perennials, biennials, annuals and bulbs to work together.

East Lambrook Gardens, Somerset
East Lambrook Gardens, Somerset

Whilst I like interesting foliage I will never be comfortable in an exotic style garden as if I list my favourite plants the list starts: Peonies, Iris, Roses, Daffodils, Primulas, Aquilegias hardly the components of an exotic garden.  Having created the Hardy Exotic Boarder which I like I have realised that the plants don’t excite me as much as the above.  I want to create a sense of enclosure, of privacy, and escapism.  As a basis to this I need to build up the shrubby planting around the boundaries but with the distant view of the Malvern still there.  Then I want to learn how to plant my borders properly and this is the real challenge.  I can grow plants but I am just rubbish at combining them.  I don’t think I do too bad with colours and textures and having a slight artistic bent I can understand that but it is how to get a fulsome appearance without the plants all smothering each other one way or another.  I think the key to this, as I have said, is being more hands on – staking properly and dividing regularly but also learning how each plant grows and how it will impact on its neighbours.

Wollerton Old Hall, Shropshire
Wollerton Old Hall, Shropshire

Although I have read lots of books on the subject of gardening and planting including Christopher Lloyd, Margery Fish, Beth Chatto and David Culp I think I need to learn from the actual gardens I love.  This has obviously been something deep in my sub-conscious for a while as I have already booked myself on a days planting course at Great Dixter, when I also plan to visit Sissinghurst and a couple of other gardens which I think will inspire me.  I am off to Dublin and Cork in July on a trip visiting gardens many owned by plant lovers so they should give me ideas to address my magpie tendencies and I have a few other trips in mind during the year to key gardens.  I have also started a list of gardens for next year to continue my education.

It is nice to feel as though I have a direction and a purpose. I’m not trying to replicate a specific garden or border but to plant my borders with the plants I love in such a way that they are shown to their best advantage and the whole things looks fabulous and charming.  In the back of my mind are the gardens on the recent ITV series Britains Best Back Gardens many of which were remarkable, floriferous and should the passion of the owners – this is what I am hoping to achieve.


30 Comments Add yours

  1. I can’t call myself a gardener. I’m a lady who has planted things. When we moved to our new home a year and a half ago, I was so sad to leave my haphazard garden. I missed my crocus, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths that were the first to bloom. I missed the plants that I forgot what they were but they’d bloom. My 10 year old wysteria that NEVER bloomed decided to explode in color the summer we left (I was so mad!) the tree that I thought was a crab apple in our yard for all those years suddenly began throwing down baseball sized macintosh apples! OH nature…she is a cruel wench.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi LF
      Nature can be cruel but we also need to be patient to allow plants to establish

  2. Please don’t be too despondent with your way of gardening. You have a fairly small garden compared to those you pay to visit and you are a collector of lovely plants. There’s no way you can properly emulate those gardens unless you have more space. You can’t do ‘drifts’ of plants which is what larger places can do because you want many different species and varieties. The photos in magazines are generally misleading in that they only show one moment intime whereas you are living with your space every day. It’s good to evaluate things but not so good to keep moving things because they will never get that established look. It’s a problem for many of us, maybe it’s what keeps us gardening…….trying to attain a perfect plot.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Christine
      I’m not despondent just feeling a need for a style to bring things together. I’m not planning much plant movement more additions

    2. Yvonne Ryan says:

      How wise Christine. Yes Helen you have not the easiest back yard with its slope. You do very well and as a typical gardener are never finished! Just spend more time on your lovely seat and watch the bees and butterflies. We have monach butterflies coming out if the horrible paper wasp hasn’t eaten the caterpillars! Also a lot of bees and bumble bees. I counted 10 on a Tahitian Pouhutukawa (a small shrub) scooping up the nectar off the red flowers.

    3. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Yvonne
      How lovely to have Monarch butterflies, they look so beautiful in the pictures I see of them

  3. Linda says:

    Brava! I think the hardest part of gardening is figuring out what we really want. If we can do that, then we will get there eventually. This was such a thoughtful post and just what I need in my cold and snowy garden environment at the moment. You have helped me to slow down and think about what I have and how to merge it and my vision. I will be looking forward to posts on your Dixter experience and garden visits.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Linda
      I think I have been looking for a style. Hopefully it will help me if I have a sort of framework. I am sure there will be posts about Dixter and other gardens

  4. Diana Studer says:

    my mind is wrestling with – a long list of plants I want to add, and reminding myself there’s only SO much space here.
    I don’t remember seeing your view of Malvern?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      I must take a view if the hills but it not an easy shot

  5. I find it most frustrating that I never quite achieve the garden that I see in my minds eye….thinking of what was one of my favourite gardens (now no longer open to the public) Glen Chantry in Essex.The planting there was awe inspiring, dense planting,great colour, but no plant seemed to swamp it’s neighbour,the latter is my bugbear. Sometimes I can’t believe that 19 years ago I managed to create my garden from scratch (it was an old orchard) whilst working full-time. For the first ten years it looked pretty good and even featured in a couple of magazines…but somehow it then started to get away from me. Now retired I am desperately trying to reclaim it .

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Sue
      Just found my first comment in spam – no idea why it was there. The plants swamping each other is also something I struggle with and when I give them more room I end up with plants dotted around the border with lots of bare earth – I havent quite found inbetween

  6. It’s definitely true that gardening is a journey that never ends, as we strive to achieve that elusive garden that we see in our minds eye. I started my garden from scratch ( it was an old orchard) 18 years ago,and for the first 10 years it looked pretty good..not perfect,and even featured in a couple of magazines…then it started to slip away from me. Now retired, I am determined to bring it back from the brink.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Sue
      My garden has been more or less from scrath being just grass and a couple of trees. Bringing your garden back to its former glory sounds like a good challenge for your retirement – enjoy

  7. rusty duck says:

    I can relate to this. I’m the inveterate impulse buyer, walking round nurseries and plant fairs picking up what I like rather than going out with a list gleaned from a properly thought through planting plan. But drawing ideas from great gardens is a good way forward, you’ll have plenty of opportunity for that!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi RD
      This is where the ‘problem’ lies although I dont think it is a problem really as it makes us happy. My biggest struggle is with the slope going up from the house and planting tall perennials as you end up looking at their legs whereas in a flat garden you are looking at the flowers straight on. I dont want to end up planting lots of short dumpy plants so I need to find a way of planting to hide the legs behind other shorter plants, and this is what Im not very good at.

    2. rusty duck says:

      This is exactly the problem of the sloping/terraced garden. It is trial and error, not helped by the fact that plants rarely grow to the height suggested on the label!

  8. Looking carefully at the photos you have chosen, I can see you working successfully towards this style. All views (except one) have strong structure, lots of blousy flowers and varied textures, and a compelling sense of intimacy. Each of these elements is suited to your space. Find your summer and autumn compliments to your spring favorites (peonies & etc.) and you are well on your way.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Marian
      It struck me when I was looking through photographs that I have lots of ones with paths running between borders just like at home I just need to work on the planting either side. You are right the summer and autumn planting is where I really struggle although I do like crocosmia and Japanese Anemones.

  9. Brian Skeys says:

    Hi Helen, I think like many of us you/I don’t have a big enough garden for all your/my ideas and plants we would love to have in our gardens. This can be very frustrating. I envy your course at Great Dixter, it and Fergus Garrett are truly inspirational. Don’t buy anymore plants while your there!!!!!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Brian
      So true – part of me thinks I would love a big garden but then I struggle to keep on top of the one I have so I would have to give up work before I could have a large garden and then I wouldnt be able to afford it!

  10. This is where something like Pinterest comes into its own. I have a totally ‘non planned’ garden and every year start out with good intentions of making a proper plan to redesign but never get around to it. I will watch with interest your new project come into fruition. Go for it!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Ronnie
      I have had to stop looking at Pinterest as there were just too many ideas for my brain to compute!! 🙂 It isnt really a redesign just an approach/style to help me think more clearly about where I plant things

  11. It sounds to me as though you “knew” all along what you were going to do and hadn’t told yourself yet, as it were!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Rachel

      Thats exactly right – it kinda of crept up on me!

  12. Helen,
    I’m an amateur plantsman and, like you, I struggled in getting plants to ‘fit’ together. So now I have developed a few guiding principles.
    First, I have a ‘wants’ list. This is a list of all the plants I would like (and it never gets any shorter!). Some I need to track down, some I need to find a place for, and others will probably never make it into the garden, but it would be nice if …. So I know what I’m looking for when I visit a garden centre or a nursery or anywhere else selling plants.
    Never make an impulse purchase without mentally deciding where the plant is going to go. How many times do we wander round the garden with a pot in our hands, trying to find the right spot for our new purchase? 95% of the time, it sits in the pot until it dies.
    Colour theming borders. Now this sounds very organised and artificial, but it is surprising how a limited range of colours knits a planting together. This can be a single colour (a white border), a range of similar colours (cream, yellow, and orange, plus brown grasses), or a small number of colours (for example, white,blue and yellow).
    The other method I use is to research plants that would fill a particular position say 2 feet tall, with flowers in early summer for a sunny position. again, this helps when faced with a bewildering array for sale.
    Hope this might help.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Andrew
      Thank you. I have always avoided colour borders thinking they were a little kitsch but recently I have found myself drifting in this direction. I am also getting better at deciding where a plant should go before I buy it but there is still the odd plant that strays into my bag!

  13. Hi Helen,Apologies for posting twice!..the first post didn’t appear so I posted an altered version ..which did work,then they both appeared . How strange.

  14. Anna says:

    Commenting on this late Helen as I’ve been away visiting my mum. Look forward to hearing how your project progresses – a garden always seem to be a work in progress. Are you visiting Helen Dillon’s garden when you visit Dublin and Jimi Blake’s? I think his sister has a fabulous garden too but I can’t remember her name.

  15. Chris says:

    Isn’t it interesting how we garden where we happen to be. We live on a few fairly dry, scrubby hectares in SE Qld where in reality the eucalypts and the bush wattle are probably fairly ordinary. Over the years I have become increasingly interested in trying to establish a house garden that doesn’t “encroach” on the land around and yet has sections I love looking at – I’m far from achieving this, so hard to deal with clay soil and droughts, but there are bits I just love. An amazing thing is that I also look at my eucalypts and wattles and they fill me with joy. The gums have been stripping their bark and that is so beautiful, even though the land is rough and unkempt. I love your garden Helen because it is so different from mine and because of the passion you bring to designing and caring for it. We all find joy in gardening no matter where we are in the world, and I read somewhere that gardening enables us to acknowledge and celebrate each day. I certainly find that to be true.

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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