To write or to garden, that is the question

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am a passionate gardener, so my response to today’s Writing 101 prompt about what I do when not writing is easy.

The majority of my time is spent at a PC in my office at the University where I am an administrator so in fact I spend the majority of my time writing something or other at home or at work.

Gardening is my mechanism for de-stressing.  It allows me time to clear my mind either through day dreaming about wild and mad schemes for the garden or in complete contrast  focussing on something small and precise such as peering into a pot of compost convincing myself that that small green dot is in fact the sign that a seed is germinating.  At times of extreme stress I find that just 20 minutes pottering around the garden dead heading and watering calms and soothes and then I can come back to whatever it is that is troubling me with a clearer mind.

In recent years much as been made of how good gardening is for your health.  It is something that is beginning to be recognised as useful in the recovering of people who have experienced severe trauma.  But of course gardening is good for our physical well-being as well as our mental.  It is a good form of gentle exercise, gets you out in the fresh air and keeps you active.  It will never be a form of burning off lots of excess calories, well not unless you regularly dig over something like an allotment, but it keeps everything moving.  I am reminded that when I was visiting gardens in Ireland earlier this year we met a number of older gardeners, one who was 87 and had a huge garden, and each of them believed whole heartedly that it was their gardening passion which had contributed to their longevity.

But I am drifting off topic.  The specific question asked what I do to recharge, rebalance and clear my mind for writing.  Whilst gardening is key to this and so much else that is important to me I also embroider and read.  Reading means I encounter ideas that might inspire me and I experience writing styles which may influence my own writing.  Both gardening and sewing give me material for writing but they also give me the space between work and leisure time so my mind can readjust and find the voice I want for whatever I am writing.   So for me it is important to have a good balance in your life if you want to be able to write.





An Open Letter to the Worldwide Web

Image result for worldwide web

Dear Worldwide Web

Or if I maybe familiar www, I am writing to express my amazement and appreciation of the contribution you have made since you emerged in our world nearly 25 years ago.

My sons are oblivious of the world before it had a worldwide web but as a child of the 60s I am constantly amazed at how we managed without you.  I am befuddled as to how you do what you do but I am grateful that I can search your resources for cultivation information on some obscure plant, I can order a last-minute present for my niece without traipsing around the town looking for  inspiration, my mother can email her brothers on the other side of the world, my son can set out his wares in the job market in an innovative way and I can find a recipe for dinner tonight – all from the comfort of our sofas.  Through you the world has become smaller, we can meet people from nearly anywhere in the world, and most importantly nearly everyone can access information.

Information is power, through knowledge and education we can shape our world and make informed choices.  But sometimes the information is too much, it appears too quickly, we are overwhelmed by images of tragic and difficult events, we no longer have the buffer zone of distance and editorship.  We can react to images without always considering the broader context, and our views can be influenced by clever manipulation of what we see. There are some that abuse your resources, to prey on the vulnerable and who use it to cause unhappiness and hate amongst us.

I think you are one of most significant inventions of the last two centuries. Your creation has revolutionised the world as much or more than the combustion energy and discovery of nuclear power. But, the human race needs to learn how to manage your power and capabilities.  Like a child with a new toy we are obsessed and seek to find answers to everything in you.  We need to remember that most of the things we use you for we could do just as well, albeit it maybe slower, before you arrived and I am sure you will forgive me if I would still rather pick up and read a printed book or have a chat on the telephone with a friend.

Thank you for opening my eyes to things and people I knew nothing about but this evening I will be ignoring you and reading my book.


This was written as an assignment on Writing 101 – the brief was to write an open letter to so

Why do I write?

Why do I write?  Because I can’t help myself.  I need to let out the thoughts and whitterings that run around my mind.  As Sylvia Plath said:

“I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still”

I am a restless soul with a mind like a mad chirping bird that flits from one thing to another.  I try to calm my mind, to focus on one thing but its a struggle. Mental multi-tasking would be my super-hero quality but …. and its a big BUT when I have written, be it in a diary or on my blog, especially when I write from the heart my busy mind is calm.

I think the process of writing makes me focus on one thing, banishing other thoughts away, and sometimes I let it help me sort through tangled thoughts and muddled priorities.  I often don’t publish my most heart-felt ramblings but the act of writing them down is sufficient.

What do I write about, well mainly my garden and gardening but I want to explore other types of writing.  I write a lot at work as well but these are reports so a different style of writing, very concise and dry – my mind flits a lot when I do this writing.

I started blogging because I wanted to connect with other gardeners and to be honest with gardeners more of my generation than the older generation that inhabits most garden clubs.  I wanted to find people who were plant addicts, who got excited when the seeds for some unusual or difficult plant germinated.  I have been writing this blog for over 8 years and it has held me in good stead.  It has provided me with a rock during times of extreme difficulty, a safe place where I could forget for a while the troubles and tribulations that were assaulting my being.  It has allowed me to see places and become involved in events that I would never had been able to without the virtual connections I have made. Writing has enabled me to draw out the real me.  A me that had lost its self-belief and confidence after a difficult and abusive marriage and other equally destructive relationships.  A me that felt guilty for being a single parent, a me worried about how society judged me, a me frightened of my own shadow.  Through this blog I have learnt to trust my instincts, to listen to my heart rather than my head and to believe in myself.  It has given me confidence and self-esteem.

But (yes another but) I feel a need to improve my writing, maybe to develop it, I don’t know.  My life is going through significant changes both at home and at work, it has led to a surge of tidying up, obviously due to a need to be in some sort of control, sorting out of cupboards, drawers etc and I think my mind.  I feel as though I am exiting from a grey oppressive place that I have inhabited more on than off,  I feel as though I am beginning to like myself, to accept myself and not feel as though I need to apologise so much for just being…well me. Liking yourself is not always an easy thing to do.

So as part of this unintended tidying up, sorting out, improving I signed up to Writing 101 (and Blogging 101) hence this post – my first assignment.  Apologies for regular gardening fans but the blog may go a little off-piste over the coming days but who knows you may enjoy it.  I hope I do.




What’s in a Name?

Thinking - kinda!

Thinking – kinda!

I have alluded occasionally over the last few months, maybe longer, that I have been making plans, sorting things out.  I suspect some would try to label my mind-set at the moment as ’empty nest’.  I disagree but I do think I am at one of those moments in life when you feel that things could change.  I don’t mean I am at some sort of cross roads metaphorically, or in reality, or that I have had some sort of revelation.  No, it is more a feeling that I am entering a new phase of my life and that if I choose to I can change some things.

I think it is true to say that some of this could fall into the ’empty nest’ category as both my sons now work and the youngest will probably be relocating to Devon in the next month or so but I have been in that situation for a while and I don’t feel a need to fill any void.  I have for some years now been in a position where if I fancy doing thing and work and funds permit I do it.  My life is also quite full with a job that can be demanding and can have long days and I am involved with two horticultural groups, serving on the committee of both and then there is the blog and that’s where the block really is.

I have been writing this blog for around 8 years.  I love it but sometime, like now, it feel onerous.  I have tried walking away from it in the past but it is like turning your back on a really close friend.  They are after all rare and you never know when you really might need them so it is best to solider on through the less fun times.  Recently I have become somewhat obsessed with the stats and my position in a league table.  This is not good, it is in fact quite unhealthy and taps into my competitive streak which rears its ugly head from time to time.  I have been working hard on the blog, leaving comments on others, responding to comments, trying to keep the content regular etc but the key expression here is ‘working hard’.  Blogging shouldn’t be hard work, it shouldn’t be onerous, you shouldn’t do it just to come further up a league table than someone else.

Why should you blog?  One of those questions that each blogger will give you a different answer to. I have always said that I blog for myself but I love it when it engages with others and this is still true today.  This is why it doesn’t work when I am chasing stats etc.  But now I come to another stumbling block which has crept up on me over the last few months and relates to the sense of change I mention above.  My blog is entitled ‘The Patient Gardener’ but my interests are diversifying and I want to, and do, other things so why don’t I blog about them more?  Is the blog name too prescriptive, am I letting it block my thought process, am I over thinking this – probably! When I first started blogging I got excited when someone left a comment, I got excited to find a new gardening blog, or I saw a plant I hadn’t seen before – but familiarity breeds contempt, well not contempt as that might be going to far, but you know what I mean – and I have lost that thrill.

I love my garden, I enjoy ‘working’ in it but I am struggling to get enthusiastic about always blogging on this subject. I have been looking for something recently, I haven’t been sure what, but I have felt that something needs to change.  I have even looked at moving house but realised that I love my house and garden too much to move – the neighbours have put their house on the market this week and I had a quiet tentative cheer!    I have started walking and my interest in wildlife is returning.  Also having played around with different crafts I have found myself enthralled with embroidery again and getting absurdly excited when I find an embroidery blog, they are few and far between, and positively stroking the cover of the Inspirations magazine when it arrived from Australia full of projects and plans.  Whilst I am going on a garden visiting holiday this year, and I have been on them before, I don’t feel an overwhelming urge to go on more.  I love visiting gardens but there is so much more to the world and I want to see it.  I have a list of places and things I want to see and strangely there are few gardens featuring:

  • Cuba
  • Iceland including the Northern Lights
  • Highland and island to see Golden Eagle and Otters
  • Whale watching
  • Peru
  • Southern Italy
  • Sicily
  • Isles of Scilly
  • Costa Rica
  • Halong Bay
  • Anka Wot
  • China – the Terracotta Army and Forbidden City, as well as the rice fields
  • Petra
  • Istanbul

and that’s just off the top of my head.  I am in a position to start planning these trips so why not?  I have found some companies that do trips specifically for solo travellers, which aren’t aimed at people looking for partners and which don’t charge a single supplement.  I have two solo trips coming up over the next two months which will test how I get on.  This weekend I am off to the South Coast to visit West Dean Gardens, Great Dixter and Sissinghurst.  I am staying two nights on my own in a B&B so that will be the first challenge.  Then in July I am going on a trip to visit gardens in Ireland.  It is an organised trip but I have to find my own way to Dublin, not that hard I know, and it will be interesting to see how I get on spending a week with complete strangers but people who have a similar interest. I am feeling more content with life as though I have served my time over the last 20 something years bringing my sons up on my own, penny pinching, working hard and now its time to rediscover the things that really matter to me (aside from my sons of course!)

So what I think I am struggling with is sharing all of this on a blog which for the last 8 years has focussed on gardening and gardens.  I have tried having a separate blog for crafts but it was just too much.  Do I carry on with the same blog name or should I come up with a new one?  What would that be – The Whims of an Empty Nester – sounds a bit sad really! Or The Patient Gardener and other musings – too long? Or What Helen Did Next – sounds possibly more interesting than it might be? Would a new name attract new readers but also lose some of my regular readers? Would moving away from a niche mean that its harder to attract regular readers, build up the community of readers that I have been reading about today – does this matter? I don’t want to turn my back on writing about gardening I just want the blog to reflect my life better rather than one aspect of me and I am stuck on how this would work



My Garden This Weekend – 26th April 2015

 Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Valentine'

Lamprocapnos spectabilis ‘Valentine’

Today the forecasters predicted low temperatures of around 10C and wind and maybe rain.  Now I would certainly have welcomed the rain since it hasn’t really rained all month and whilst the established plants are fine those I have been planting out over the last month are struggling.  However, the reality of the weather is that we have had an amazingly beautiful spring day with temperatures reaching around 18C this afternoon.  We had rain overnight, not enough to make much difference to the water butts but at least it was some.  I was meant to take my mother out to buy a lilac for her garden as a birthday present but she was so convinced by the weather forecast that we went and bought it during the week meaning that today I was free to play in the garden.

2015_04250061The focus of my efforts today was to address all the seedlings that have been germinating and need pricking out.  I am very good when it comes to sowing seeds but the looking after them once they have germinated, certainly beyond the initial pricking out, leaves something to be desired. I am trying very hard to do better. It is that time of year when space is at a premium and I am conscious that in a week or so I will be sowing the tender annuals such as zinnias.  Both the cold frames are full on the top shelves although the bottom halves are empty since this is very shady and not ideal for seedlings but good for storing tall plants over winter.  Anyway, as ever it started out with some organised pricking out and then the greenhouse got yet another reshuffle.  The temporary shelf was replaced with a wider one – its amazing what wood you have to hand when your son is a cabinet maker.  Whilst this was a distraction I finally took cuttings of the aeoniums and malmaison carnations which I have been meaning to do for weeks. I am really hoping that with a little care I can get the carnations to flower this year. I have started to pull some of the larger plants out during the day to start hardening them off so hopefully it won’t be too long before the space issue is no more.


The border along the patio which I really sorted back in March is looking so much better now. By removing all the bluebells the lily of the valley has re-emerged and its fresh leaves look very pretty.  Sadly there aren’t that many flowers and I wonder if this is because the plants have been swamped for years; time will tell.  The four meconopsis poppies are still in existence and have grown slightly, hopefully if we have the rain they forecast later this week they will put some real growth on.  2015_04250021

But the thing that has been occupying most of my thinking is the front garden.  I was going to say I have a love/hate relationship with it but that would be far to generous – I hate it.  I always have and it has defied all my attempts to engage with it and make it something I am proud of.  Maybe that is a little harsh since obviously it’s not the garden’s fault that I don’t like it but I do despair particularly with the area at the very front by the birch.  I have added loads of organic matter and mulched it over the years but as soon as we have some dry weather the clay in it turns to rock and it is pointless trying to weed or plant or anything.  I have blamed some of my apathy on not enjoying working in the front garden as it’s not very private but both the laurel (not my best idea) and beech hedges I have planted have grown and provide a degree of privacy. I squared off the lawn a few years back to provide some formality and have tried an approach of planting an edge of alchemilla mollis, bergenia and as you can see ballerina tulips but whilst I love the tulips I think this style/approach isn’t me. When I was weeding here earlier in the week I found myself telling myself off.  The front garden is the size of many a small garden and here I am ignoring it whilst I am desperate for more space for the plants I love in the back garden.   It dawned on me that part of the problem is that my favourite plants are woodland plants and I enjoy planting shady borders. Whereas the front garden is anything but shady and I need to embrace a new range of plants and a new approach to make the most of this space.  2015_04250020Where to start? It occurred to me that I needed to consider plants that could cope with baking in the clay in the summer so I started to re-read Beth Chatto’s The Dry Garden which was quite inspiring.  The thought process lead to the notion that really I should just dig up the lawn and be done with it.  Lawn is far to grand a term as it is mostly moss which goes dry and yellow in the summer. I think I find the strong shape of the lawn quite limiting for some reason, I much prefer the more relaxed approach I have in the back garden.  I also looked at the recent book on A Year in the Life of Beth Chatto’s Garden which is very photogenic but lead me to conclude that a dry garden wouldn’t necessarily work given the wet clay in winter and to be honest I struggled to see me working with this style of planting.  Then by chance yesterday, I won Dream Plants for the Natural Garden in the raffle at the local HPS meeting and this coincided with a thought that maybe I could finally get grasses to work in the garden.  So the current thinking is to go for a naturalistic approach.  I want to add a small tree and I can visualise some Stipa gigantea catching the morning sun, then….. well that as far as I have got.  My block at the moment is that there is no reason for anyone to go in the front garden.  The front door is roughly in line with the side border where the tulips are so anyone coming to the house walks up the driveway and to the door.  I have toyed with putting some sort of path through the garden but again it would be too contrived and no one would use it.  I think there needs to be some sort of path or clearing if only to assist me with working in the space but I just can’t visualise it yet.

I don’t plan to do anything drastic until late summer/autumn so lots of time to think and plan and draw up lists of plants.


Happy Easter


As I said back at Christmas I am not a religious being and so I don’t celebrate Easter.  However, I enjoy the long Easter weekend as it is an opportunity to spend time with my sons and mother.  Having four days is a luxury, you can embark on a proper project, you can take time doing something rather than trying to fit it into a weekend, you can sit and stop and just listen.  2015_04030016

I keep a garden diary although the entries tend to be sporadic.  I was reading back through it last night and it was very interesting to see that I was saying some of the same things back in 2012 as I am today such as I want to spend more time focussing on gardening well.  It also recorded my decision to give up the allotment, a decision I have never regretted and my initial enthusiasm for alpines and showing and then my gradual loss of interest.  There are plans I have carried out such as the new seating area and others that never moved beyond a whimsy in my diary such as the mad lozenge shaped grass stepping stones when I was persuading myself to give up the lawn.  2015_04030014

I can sense my battle with grief back in 2012 and 2013 after losing my sister in my descriptions of extreme tiredness which I now recognise as the bereavement process. I also noted how my tone changed as I discovered some new gardening clubs and started to make real gardening friends. My local HPS group has been a lifeline to me over the past 7 months since losing Dad. But throughout the diary is a recurring need to learn more and a clear love of plants and how they grow. Anyone who questions the healing nature of gardening has obviously never spent a quiet evening as the sun goes down slowly working through a border, weeding, and listening to the sound of the birds.  You lose yourself, the stresses and strains of life float away.


So to all my readers whatever your religious persuasion I would like to wish you a happy Easter break and may you find it a recharging and relaxing time, hopefully with your family and loved ones.


The Future of Plant Hunting?

Crug Farm exhibit - Chelsea 2014  All the plants were grown from seed collected by them in the wild

Crug Farm exhibit – Chelsea 2014
All the plants were grown from seed collected by them in the wild

I started to write this blog post by saying that politics and policy have little impact on my gardening world but as soon as I wrote those words I realised what a nonsense they are.  Of course politics and policy have an impact.  You only have to look at the rhetoric you encounter when you mention peat and using it in the garden to realise that even when we potter in our gardens we can’t escape Whitehall, the EU or campaign groups.

In fact horticulture seems to have featured a lot in the News recently with the controversial Garden Bridge in London and Boris Johnson’s controversial ping-pong approach to funding and the reduction of funding for Kew Gardens, one of the most revered botanical gardens in the world.  Last year there was concern about proposed EU legislation that had the potential to reduce the range of seed available to gardeners by insisting that any plant distributors wanted to sell seed  had to have the seed registered, at no small cost.  This would obviously significantly impact on the growing number of small seed distributors in this country and it seems that the vehemence of the UK and Dutch gardening world may be stopped or delayed this legislation coming into force.


This week I learnt about the The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation (Nagoya Protocol).  At my local HPS meeting Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers was telling us about the protocol which has arisen out of the  UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which all countries, except the US, have signed up to, ratified in the UK in 1994 (I’m not 100% sure if it is indeed all countries). The Convention was drawn up to protect biodiversity and to ensure sustainable use of genetic resources.  Under it the native plants (or animals, insects, etc – for the purposes of this post I will use the term plants) of a country are that country’s property, the country has sovereign rights, and this means that any commercial benefits deriving from them are the property of that country. You can see the logic behind this if you consider the possible financial gains from the production of a native plant should it be discovered to have some amazing medicinal use. The Convention has been hard to enforce and so the Protocol has been agreed with the legislation coming into force in the UK in October 2014.  Under the Protocol you need to have the country’s government’s permission to sell/benefit from the use of that country’s plants.
When you start to really think about this the ramifications have the potential to be hugely significant to a mere amateur gardener such as myself.  In recent years I have bought wild collected seeds from an Eastern European seed collector and I have bought plants from a number of nursery men/plant hunters which have presumably be grown from wild collected seed.  The UK’s floral diversity can be directly attributable to centuries of plant collectors exploring the world, our native flora has been diluted for so long it is hard to say what is actually a native UK plant.
Chatting on twitter with some plant hunters and a representative of Plant Heritage it seems that the consequences of the Protocol in the UK are not yet clear.  There are useful summaries on the RHS website and on the Plant Heritage blog.  Current expectation is that the enforcement of the protocol will be dealt with by the National Measurements Office (I didn’t know we had such a body) and it is expected that there will be a light touch.  However, it is possible that if you plan to sell non-native plants you will need to be able to show that they were available commercially prior to October 2014 and if not you will need to have, or be able to refer to, the documentation and records to show that the plant’s native government gave permission for the plant material to be collected.
For me this seems to herald a curtailing in the not too distant future of the tradition of plant hunting which some of us gardeners follow vicariously savouring the results with those special acquisitions. It also means that some overseas suppliers may have to curtail their export of native plant seed outside their country if they are relying on collecting it in the wild.  As to the impact on the various seed exchanges which include wild collected seed – well the jury is well and truly out on that one.
During my twitter conversation it was even muted that as the Protocol stipulates that you cannot share information about the native plants then this could be interpreted to mean that anyone delivering a talk on a plant hunting trip would be in breach of the protocol.  How on earth would anyone police such a rule, it seems completely unenforceable to me!?
It will be interesting to watch the horticultural world to see if there are indeed the repercussions that some are worried about. If there are then we may find that the diversity of plants we have access to stops – would this be such a bad thing, I really don’t know but it makes for an interesting conversation when you get some passionate plants people together.