Back to Basics

Pots of blue and lilac primulas

Pots of blue and lilac primulas

I have a habit these days of trying to catch up with garden magazines over a cup of tea in bed on a Sunday morning. This morning, for the first time in years, I had a copy of the Gardeners World magazine to read.  I have shunned the magazine as being full of the basics and instead have chosen to read other horticultural magazines such as the English Garden and Gardens Illustrated but over the last 6 months or so I have found myself flicking through them looking for something to engage with; they are full of amazing gardens but with little of the horticultural detail I have sought. I think my struggle to find the right sort of horticultural literature is indicative of the changes in my approach to my garden and horticulture which has crept up on me over the last year.

For some years now I have charged around the country visiting gardens, attending shows, talks and workshops many of which have featured on this blog. I have been lucky in receiving invitations to all sorts of events; helped, albeit briefly, build a Cheslea show garden; exhibited plants in shows, including RHS shows; had posts published on a national newspaper website; had a regular monthly slot on the local BBC radio gardening programme; been paid for a number of years to write a weekly blog on gardening; and recently had the blog mentioned in Women’s Weekly.  I have enjoyed it all but now looking back I wonder how I managed to find the energy and I know deep down inside that whilst I have been charging around doing all of this there has been a little voice in my head expressing concern and a dis-satisfaction at the standard of my own garden.

Lamprocapnos spectablis 'Valentine' emerging
Lamprocapnos spectablis ‘Valentine’ emerging

I know now that the energy came from a lack of fulfilment in my previous role at work.  It was not stretching me mentally and I seemed to have a lot of nervous energy and had seriously started to wonder if I was hyperactive.  Having my role change at work drastically, particularly over the last 6 months, has made me understand that I’m not hyperactive I was just bored.  I now have a challenging and demanding role which I am loving, although the learning curve is rather steep, which means that at the end of the day and particularly the end of the working week I am mentally wrung out and this is clearly being reflected in my approach to this blog and gardening.  I have said before that I don’t want to spend much time on social media any more and it’s because I don’t want any more stimulation as I don’t always sleep well.  So since Christmas I have made a conscious effort to avoid social media apart from in small doses and I try to make that early evening and it seems to have

Buddleja salviifolia flower buds forming
Buddleja salviifolia flower buds forming

What I do want to do is practical things.  I suppose as a result of being stretched mentally it is natural to want to do something with your hands and particularly something which doesn’t require too much careful thought.  So in the evenings I sew which I find calming and hopefully as the evenings get longer and warmer I will be able to potter outside.  Pottering in fact is my new gardening mantra and the driver behind this blog post, although I think I may have wandered a little.   My enthusiasm for my garden is as strong as ever but I no longer feel a need to conquer the world; I just want to be a very good gardener and plants person.  I want to grow good healthy plants and I want to create a garden that showcases the rather eclectic mix of plants I have accumulated to their best advantage and that is beautiful.  I want to get my orchids to re-flower, I would be thrilled if my tree peony flowered and if I can nurture the meconopsis blue poppies into flowering I will be elated.

What I don’t seem to have a desire to do is charge around the country visiting and seeing things.  I know it is good for a gardener to see other gardens to get inspiration and I am sure someone famous said something along those lines but I feel my head, the blog and my picture archive is full of inspiration – so much inspiration that it is now overwhelming.  Interestingly when I ran a little survey on this blog asking what sort of posts readers liked the overwhelming first choice were posts about my garden rather than about other people’s gardens and certainly no product reviews.  I found that quite striking and it has been at the back of my mind for a while – it was almost like being given permission to stop!

Cyrtomium fortunei seedlings
Cyrtomium fortunei seedlings

So going back to my morning reading I really enjoyed the Gardeners World magazine.  Yes there were the obligatory sections on taking cuttings but I hadn’t thought of taking Dianthus cuttings, which I plan to try this week, nor have I ever really had a go at basal cuttings so I will also be trying that on my Lamium.  I was reminded to sow some annuals when the ground warms up a little and I was heartened by an article encouraging us to forsake the straight lines of parterres and other popular design solutions in favour of curves – more of that another day (probably).  Importantly, for me, there were no articles on amazing gardens that I, with a small garden and not being able to afford a gardener, will never be able to aspire to – instead I felt encouraged and reassured with some new things to try, just enough to get me outside to enjoy the sunshine and shouldn’t that be what gardening is all about? I will of course go to the Malvern show, and probably Chelsea (particularly as I have a free ticket) and I have a garden visiting trip with friends to the east of the country in June but in the meantime I will potter and go back to the basics.


20 Comments Add yours

  1. This sounds like an exciting time of transition for you. Lately I’ve found myself wanting to spend less time on social media, too. Less time tethered to any sort of screen, actually. At any rate, I’d find it most interesting to hear about your garden, too.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Valerie
      Yes less time behind a screen or an iPad is definitely the way forward plus you discover you have so much more time to do things

  2. I think it has a lot to do with the competitive approach to just about everything nowadays, and I suspect that garden shows and magazines are responsible for ramping this up. I agree with you wholeheartedly: feature articles about amazing gardens (and even worse: houses) are thinly-disguised exercises in plugging the line “you could have this too if you….” I like to approach gardening as an extension of meditation, hopefully maintaining harmony with the natural world. Learning from others, especially organic gardeners and like-minded bloggers, is a great help. And that’s about enough!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Sylvia
      You are right there is too much pressure via social media and magazines, I prefer not to care what others are doing

  3. Renee says:

    I’m glad that it sounds like you’re having more fun at work, and that your own garden is benefiting from that… It seems like everything moves in seasons, which you do such a wonderful job of capturing in your writing.

    Also – those Buddleja salviifolia buds are lovely! What do the mature flowers look like?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Renee
      The buddleja flowers are a pale blue if I remember with a wonderful scent, I will post a pic when they flower

    2. Diana Studer says:

      yes. wafts of honey!

  4. I love your word “Pottering” and it describes so well my favorite times in the garden. Thank you for sharing it. Glad you’re working back to what feels good to you.

  5. I think it’s worth remembering that our enthusiasm for things – and the emphasis we want to place on it – is liable to change over time. We shouldn’t be surprised by that – but we often are!

  6. Jim Stephens says:

    So much of what you say is familiar. I stopped Gardens Illustrated because it didn’t seem to have anything new to say. There are many thousands of beautiful gardens around, all different, all with much that I like about them, but not mine. I enjoy mine as much for the never ending doing of it as much as for any vestige of a finished product. So I visit gardens and read blogs and occasionally magazines or books for the pleasure they give me and usually nothing more. And I blog about my garden and no one reads it and that’s fine too. There’s a fine line between being inspired and being made to feel inadequate; it’s a line I’m happy to stay well away from.

  7. Anna says:

    Oh those pots of primulas make a most attractive exclamation mark Helen. Terracotta wins hands down any day. On the subject of gardening magazines I picked up a couple of back copies of ‘Garden Answers’ from our allotment shed recently and was most pleasantly surprised by the content, having not seen a copy for years.

    I nearly bought lamprocapnos spectablis ‘Valentine’ a couple of weeks ago and could kick myself now for not doing so. The plant I saw was in a pot and although it looked attractive the foliage didn’t look as deliciously dark as the plant in your photo. Hope that you have more happy days pottering this year 🙂

  8. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Hi Helen – I was watching old programmes of Gardeners World the other night at my man-friends as he can record them and one of the episodes was Malvern Show! Not sure what year – reasonably recent I think. I kept looking out for you to wave to me!!! I saw the Malvern Hills and lots of lovely plants! Budlea – apparently has become a nuisance here in NZ – don’t know where!!!!! They have introduced a weevil to kill it much to growers horror! My sister in Christchurch has one and was covered in flowers. Yes tearing around all over the place doesnt always allow you to enjoy your own peace and garden!!! I discovered that over Easter with gorgeous weather, no-one here, just a lovely garden, warm pool and John! We actually did go to the movies and saw The Lady in the Van – fab of course. Otherwise we DID’NT end up in ques of cars going to lovely places when we had it all here. If we had wanted to go beach exploring we had a choice of 20 to go to just on the Peninsula!! Take a deep beathe and ‘Smell your roses’!!! x

  9. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Hi Helen again – re magazines. I have decided I can’t live without “NZ Gardener” as truly fab magazine! My budget made me cancel several good monthy magazines and I don’t miss them. They took up a lot of space and when I moved a lot of work getting rid of them! BUT every month I really look forward to NZ Gardener, yes beautiful gardens in them – but I always learn something! Seasonal recipes, a funny column and so much to devour! I do enjoy your garden and it has been nice visiting with you to others though!!

  10. nanacathy2 says:

    One of my goals for this year is to buy no magazines at all on any subject! Frees up so much time,. I only potter in the garden! Relaxing and fun which is what I like to do outside. I love the row of pots in your first photo.

  11. Patty says:

    Hello. I have recently taken a subscription of Gardens Illustrated after a visit to Kent area last fall. While in London I found the magazine and drooled over it many a time. I can understand (I think) your frustration with garden magazines especially as one who has gardened many years and knows a fair bit about horticulture. They stop challenging us after a time, and tell us things we have known for many years. Some times you have to put that magazine down for a long time before you can learn to appreciate the fabulous photography, and well written articles once more. I am glad for you that you are in that space again. Boil the kettle.

  12. Sounds like a good plan. I look forward to reading all about it

  13. I love to visit gardens, but I think I like traveling best for its own sake…the excitement of new places, people, and ideas. That said, I do feel a stronger pull towards home and garden in recent months and wish I wasn’t away so much in spring when the guiding hand of the gardener makes the most difference.

  14. Cathy says:

    You do your thoughtful posts so well, Helen, always a pleasure to read. Thnaks for sharing these changes in your life with us, and happy pottering. Did you decide against ‘Which? Gardening’? I must admit this is the one I see as a ‘treat’ to read, and either it grab it first or more likely save it till just the ‘right’ time – but we all want different things from our reading matter, and that is how it should be of course

  15. Brian Skeys says:

    I agree with you about the magazines and have just done the same thing. I have to keep reminding myself that gardening should be relaxing and therapeutic, good for the soul. I hope you will still visit your local NGS open gardens Helen.

  16. Andy Morley says:

    Hi Helen, its funny you should say that you wonder if you are “hyperactive” my son has ADHD and one of the only things which is guaranteed to help calm him down is helping in the garden, he loves potting plants ready for the summer, he also likes weeding!!!

    So if you need any weeding doing I can send him over for a small fee 😉


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