Notes from the garden – 6th March

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There is nothing quite like a few stolen hours working in the garden on a chilly early Spring Sunday to make you feel heroic and pleased with yourself. The choice of task on such a day needs to be given careful consideration; this is not the time for slow and pondering chores but for those tasks that will warm you up and encourage you to stay outside just that little bit longer.

One of my favourite jobs at this time of year, although to be honest at any time of year, is sowing seeds and potting up tubers. This week saw me potting up half a dozen dahlia tubers, agapanthus corms and sowing sweet peas. These small achievements are particularly significant to me as they signal a step change in my approach to the garden. I am revisiting my original floral loves. Dahlias haven’t graced my garden for one or two years and sweet peas haven’t put in an appearance for possible five years. I love sweet peas they were one of my earliest love affairs with flowers. When I got married back in the 1980s I wanted sweet peas in my wedding bouquet but was told the end of May was too early so instead I have sugar craft sweet peas in a floral arrangement on my wedding cake. I  grew them successfully in a previous small garden when I lived in Berkshire but they have been a real battle since I moved to the Midlands. This year I am determined to succeed, just as I am with dahlias which should do better with more space in the Big Border when I have relocated the asters to the front garden.

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It was interesting to read the comments on the border which I am featuring this year as the End of  Month View. Many couldn’t see why it needed improvement but for me it is lacking a sense of cohesion, as is much of my garden. I believe the garden has suffered in recent years from my dabbling with various plant groups such as alpines and over zealous undirected plant buying. It just isn’t right and it niggles at me.  Whilst I have a good working knowledge of plants I don’t have much of an idea about design. Not so much how to organise the space as I think the layout of the garden works and I have a pretty clear plan for the front garden. What I need to learn is how to put plants together to get the effect I am striving for.

Crocus 'Pickwick'
Crocus ‘Pickwick’

I have tried planting in terms of colour, seasons of interest, exotic, cottage and nothing seems to meld the bitty components together. The garden is neat and tidy and pretty but it doesn’t excite and it doesn’t have that generousness that I admire in my favourite gardens. I  have read and listened to many a talk on succession planting etc but this isn’t what is missing either. I read two articles today in a copy of Gardens Illustrated that talked about planting. One was by Troy Scott Smith, head gardener at Sissinghurst which described how Vita Sackville West’s approach was to pile on the planting to create a  wow moment and not worry about later and the other article was by Arne Maynard on a planting scheme at Cottesbrooke where he talks about deciding on the atmosphere you want to create. Somewhere between the two there was an almost light bulb moment – I could sense the eureka moment just being beyond my grasp.

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I have decided to start by writing a list of all my favourite plants, things I have to have in the garden. Then I will organise those by season of interest and growing conditions and see where that takes me. Initially I can see something quite relaxed in the front garden with a late summer focus of asters, grasses and salvias with iris and poppies earlier in the year. In the back garden I want to focus on roses, peonies, sweet peas, foxgloves (all very cottage garden) but then move into dahlias and cannas (very dramatic and exotic) – I’m not sure how those two different styles will combine or whether I will have to sacrifice one for the other.

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While I plan I have started to tidy the garden and to make the changes I have already decided on.  Some ferns from the back slope have been potted up ready for the shady part of the front garden.  They have been replaced by a division of a persicaria which should help knit the slope together and provide a good under-storey to the taller shrubs. I also emptied out the old tin bath which was home to some zantedeschia last year – they have been planted out on the slope to add to the lush foliage I am trying to cultivate in that area – I will wait to see how water tight the bath is as I am hoping to try a small water-lily in it, something a bit exotic maybe.

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

10 thoughts on “Notes from the garden – 6th March”

  1. I share your love of sweet peas. I try to grow them every year in New Cairo, with limited success: usually they are just about to bloom when the hot windy weather comes and knocks them for six. This year I have dwarf sweet peas in pots, so will hope for better results.
    About your planting scheme: I don’t think cottage garden plants meld with showy types such as cannas and dahlias. I mix cannas with hibiscus and roses, and grow plumbago between to fill in spaces, with Arabian jasmine and then pinks and carnations in front. For prompts about colour mixing, I try to visit Kew in the summer to see how they are managing the border along the outer edge of the walled garden. (But things are changing at Kew and I don’t know if they will do this in 2016). Dahlias are wonderful plants, but not a feature of our garden in Egypt, so I have no experience with them.

  2. I’m all for seed sowing on a chilly Sunday morning. Particularly as, at the moment, my greenhouse is heated and my house, thanks to a fault, is not! Thanks for the St David’s day daffodil, by the way.

    And don’t listen to Vita. She couldn’t appreciate a garden under acres! She once said that however small your garden you had to make space for at least half an acre of some plant or other (I forget what). We will all look at a garden and proffer our so called “expert” opinions. You’re living with and in it every day. Make it what YOU want it to be. Play about and one day you’ll wake up and suddenly it will all come together.

    Try sitting out in the garden in the early morning or the early evening as the light’s “iffy”. Look around for a while. Get an image fixed in your head. Then shut your eyes and “listen” to the garden. It’ll tell you what you should be planting where. Seriously, try it.

  3. H Helen – I also have not had sweet peas for 3 years and have missed them. I definitely am going to plant some in late Autumn as they do better than planted in Spring. I am still battling the concrete clay here so will plant in a large recycling bin by a fence. Oh – I think I can smell them already!! I have a Tropicana canna lily planted where I want flowers to pop up and is too overpowering. I chop the orange flowers off. I will move it where it will go ok with ‘ugliosa’?? blue salvia which doesn’t mind the dry and waves and doesn’t break in all wind. Still very warm here – yea – and swimming in 27 degree pool!! Long may it last!! Farmers in parts of NZ not liking the drought tho’! We have had rain also so that was good for us!

  4. Helen, I like the idea of the ‘eureka moment’ and the unfolding story of how you’re feeling your way towards a vision for the garden is so interesting. I think John’s suggestion is spot on. It reminded me of listening to Dan Pearson talking about planting design on Radio 4 last year. He said “when you believe in something, it starts to sing”. Perhaps going back to what you first loved (and believed in?) plantwise may be the key to unlocking the melody.

  5. Thanks for the update, Helen I love reading about your garden. What a pity you couldn’t have sweet peas at the end of May. My Mum was married 10 June and had sweet peas for her bouquet – what a difference a few weeks can make! The Pickwick crocus is so pretty. I too had a beneficial, but chilly, gardening session yesterday morning – although I was exhausted by the afternoon.

  6. I think you’ll find your eureka moment will come. The trick is not to chase after it! Do whatever you already know you want to do, and you will find your eureka moment will come bounding up saying “Me! Me!”. Trust me, it happens!

  7. Starting up with a “new” (but old and established) garden means I am only looking at the general lay-out at present and will be planting completely at random until I know what is here already; it’s quite fun and I hope it will give some interesting results… I’m planting wild garlic among the hydrangeas, lily-of-the-valley under the hedges, scilla in the lawn and basically anything I want anywhere I feel like. But I think with the right shapes and lines in a garden, really you can get away with anything as long as you love it.

    As for dahlias… I haven’t grown them for years, but I will be sowing a random seed selection this year – a mix of cactus and pompoms – so I hope to get perhaps 60 plants out of it; enough to provide me with cut flowers until the first frost! The colours will be all over the place, so I might just stick them in a separate bed together so they can form a rainbow effect, rather than risk individual plants clashing with their surroundings.

  8. I find that I’ve accidentally created (or I think it was accidental!) some successful areas of planting in my garden (which was completely changed two years ago and so I think of it as my ‘new garden’ even though it’s the same one!) and others are bitty and I can’t put my finger on why – I shall be following your progress and process avidly!

  9. Hello there Helen, sorry this is so late but I’ve just picked up and this is an issue for most gardeners I think, in this age of retail therapy. Balancing our desire to play and experiment with the wish to create a whole vision is so tricky.

    My plant loves are very like yours, I’m currently plotting a semi-wild area which will shift from looseish wildling Spring/early summer planting (foxgloves, sweet rocket, paeonies, “weeds” like red campion & white valerian) to dahlias &more exotica later. Sadly few roses as our rabbit population rule them out. The transition is the hard part! I think having threads of repeated plants (even in a small space this can be done) helps hugely. As well as my beloved weeds I’m using salvia “Indigo Spires”, purple opium poppies (Laurens Grape), penstemon “Midnight” (purple), common linaria purpurea… get the idea. A bit cross I didn’t think of ordering “Purple Flora” gladioli, oh well.

    It’s taken me years to accept that it’s OK to pass on or (whisper) throw out a plant when it’s been a mistake. Some treasures are best displayed in pots, they can be grouped (think Great Dixter) for effect near your house or maybe a gate without interfering too much with the borders. Or – Helen Dillons technique – placed temporarily in the border – big plastic pots can be concealed quite easily amongst summer foliage. I’ve discovered cannas in full growth are miraculously tolerant of both near-drought and prolonged submersion, which means they can sit in a pot-in-saucer/bucket arrangement all season quite happily.

    John Kingdon’s got it right, you just need to feel what the place needs then be guided by that. Have you read Education of a Gardener (R.Page)? It’s my bible and always reminds me what’s what!

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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