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.

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.

A timely reminder

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening

 

I read last night and into the early hours and wept. It’s rare for a book to hold me in this way. Despite its title, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening is not a gardening book although the education of a gardener is the premise for the story. Nor is it about the author’s battle with breast cancer although this cannot be ignored. No, this book is about the human condition with all its frailty and contradictions. It is about a friendship that struggles to emerge but blossoms into something truly life affirming.

The writing isn’t sophisticated nor does it try to be clever. It is brutally honest but in a quiet understated way. The author, Carol Wall, confronts all our fears.  The fear of making a fool of yourself, appearing to be racist, saying the wrong thing, and worse not realising it, the fear of losing your parents and the terror of dying yourself. But through the author and Mr Owita’s evolving relationship the author learns and grows. She confronts her fears and in turn develops a deep understanding of her new friend and his family, who it transpires are dealing with their own demons.

Despite what might sound like a rather depressing storyline, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, is a joy to read. The characters are engaging from the first page and with their back stories slowly unfolding throughout the book we are drawn into their lives wanting to know more.

But the real message I took from this book was that the most important things in life are those that you cannot buy; the importance of real friendship, friendship and love which puts some one else first without hesitation and how we should cherish such friendships as they are very special indeed.  A timely reminder at this time of year.

I would like to thank Kathy over at Cold Climate Gardening for featuring this book on her blog as I would never have come across it otherwise on this side of the pond.  As ever the joy of blogging is the connections we make which lead us to discover all manner of things we wouldn’t normally come across.

 

Things that make me happy

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I have a weakness for books, for plants and gardens and for embroidery so to discover a book that brings all these together makes me very very happy indeed.

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I came across a review of this book, The Embroidered Garden by Kazuko Aoki,  in the latest edition of Stitch magazine and of course it was too late to ask for it for Christmas so, well.. I just ordered it for myself as an early Christmas present and I am thrilled with it.

I think my embroidery style is quite traditional.  I see a lot of very contemporary embroidery, mainly machine embroidery, which doesn’t inspire me very often but there is something, to my mind, very special about some ‘simple’ traditional hand embroidery.  However, this book seems to move it just a little along the path towards modernity because if you look very carefully at the front cover you will see that the hatching at the base of the arrangement is actually tulle which has been applied.

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I also love this project which is a modern take on the Victorian obsession with collecting and displaying butterflies but in this case no butterflies will be harmed in the process.  I think it would be fun to do this based on British butterflies and get it framed in a Victorian style frame and I love the butterfly brooch.

So I am a very happy bunny flicking through the pages and pondering what to have a go at first; in the meantime I must finish the cross stitch Christmas cards.

 

Banishing the Black Dog

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I’ve been out in the garden this morning to dutifully take some photographs for tomorrow’s End of Month View.  Whilst it is blowing a gale this hasn’t normally thwarted my enthusiasm in the past so to feel that I had to make myself go out added to my general feeling of melancholy at the moment.  The photographs I started to take really reflect how I find myself increasingly seeing the world.  However, and there is a big however self-realisation is a powerful tool against depression and melancholia. I am well aware of my tendency to let the black dog through the door and I generally recognise the signs of it creeping up on me but this only works when you have had time to think clearly and this luxury has been in short supply lately.

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My current struggle is more of a struggle with a complete lack of self-belief and confidence.  I have never been a confident person and find myself time and again deferring to others and then being irritated with myself.  I have been through phases of having to work hard to deal with this and find ways of working through it.  On a normal day to day basis it doesn’t cause me too many problems and I manage it OK but over the last year work in particular has been incredibly challenging and over recent weeks it has got the better of me and my demons have found cracks to sneak through and play havoc.    I hate feeling as I have felt recently.  I have had to battle with not bursting into tears in front of work colleagues, I have felt vulnerable, I have found myself physically grieving for part of my former role as  it was my security blanket.

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BUT I am lucky as I work in an environment where others seem to see something in me which I can’t see.  They have given me the opportunity to step up and take on significantly more responsibility and challenges not because they want to test me or catch me out but because they believe I am very capable.  I have been told by the big boss that they want to give me a chance to flourish, I have been told by the nearly big boss that I have been growing over the last few months since the box I was trapped in was opened, and that I underestimate the high regard my colleagues hold me in.  I have had a pep talk from the biggest boss about pushing out of my comfort zone, through my learning zone, and reducing my panic zone. I know it sounds all gobbledygook but the diagram he drew to explain made real sense.  Every one, it seems,  believes in me apart from me.

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While I have been busy over the past 6 months dealing with the transitions, covering essentially 3 roles until a few weeks ago, and wondering what on earth the answer is to countless questions I have also been unconsciously putting up my self-protective barriers.  I have always done this at time of stress and unease.  I’m a natural loner, a real introvert, and I retreat even further when I feel threatened or vulnerable and I realise now that this is what is really behind my withdrawal from social media, first Twitter, then Facebook and latterly my blog.  Perversely due to my struggle to find anything in the garden to blog about, mainly I think because of my depression, I tried to find other inspiration which led to the attempt to do the blogging challenge which in blogging terms pushed me over the top!!

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Yesterday, I went to the HPS group and was cross with myself, yet again, for not joining in the group discussion about a plant I grow which few do.  Mr Brown told me off, nicely, but he is right.  So it’s up to me now.  I have to pull myself together and start believing in my abilities and stop worrying that I will make a mistake, or look stupid, or upset someone.

Last night I went back on Twitter, very hesitantly as it can be a challenging place for someone of a fragile nature, but I was welcomed back and had a good chat with a fellow plant nut, something I missed. This morning in the garden after seeing the decaying roses and leaves I started to notice the new growth including the bulb above, which might be a Scilla autumnalis, and today I have written this post.  I have written it to tell myself off, to rationalise the emotional maze I am stumbling through at the moment and to try to make myself move forward.  Readers of this blog have always been incredibly supportive and I am not looking for more support or crying out for help – as I have said above I am not short of that both at home and work.  I suppose I am just throwing down a marker to myself that I need to move forward now.

 

Aversion Therapy – NaBloMoPo

There are two ways to look at most things in life – either you take a positive approach, the old glass half full approach, or a negative approach, the glass half empty approach.  Being a positive kind of soul, often on the verge of turning into a middle-aged (now there’s positive) Pollyanna I like to find an upbeat spin to most things.  So I will not be saying I have failed with the NaBloMoPo challenge – although I have.  Instead I am going to tell you how trying to write a blog post a day has been a bit like some form of aversion therapy for my blogging habit, albeit unexpected.

I was doing Ok until last week.  Last week was a crazy week.  We had our award ceremonies at work so I spent 4 days hosting VIPs during 8 ceremonies: transporting them backwards and forwards between venues which meant something like 16 coach trips; eating seemingly piles of couscous salad and tartlets and other things which I can’t even remember now; attending two dinners; and making more small talk than any one person should be expected to.  This meant that at the end of each day I was collapsing through the door brain-dead and on the couple of evenings when I might have had time to write something there was definitely nothing there to be said.  So the blog was forgotten.

Now a strange thing happened.  It didn’t bother me that I couldn’t write a blog post and even stranger this weekend I couldn’t be bothered to write one even though I had plenty of time and my head had cleared.  This is very strange indeed as for the past 8 years I have blogged religiously 3 or 4 times a week, and sometimes more.  When I have been away I have missed blogging.  I have often said that I have done it so long that it is part of my routine, it’s a habit – but it seems not.

Why this change?  I don’t really know. There is an element of work being very challenging of late leaving me exhausted but I am also spending more and more time on other things apart from gardening.  Dont get me wrong I love my garden and I am still fascinated by plants but I don’t feel a need to write about it all the time any more.  I have been playing around on the blog experimenting with writing about other things and its Ok but if I am honest doing the NaBloMoPo really made me feel that I was writing for the sake of it and any enjoyment I might have got was lost so why do it.  When I started blogging all those years ago it was primarily to connect with other horticulturally minded people and I have done that which is great but I have also in the last few years met lots of people in the ‘real’ world through the various groups I have discovered.  These groups have led over the last year to me being involved more in horticulture such as my role as recorder for the RHS Symphyotrichum trial and I think my need for horticultural input is being met more, these days, in this way than on-line.

I doubt I will stop blogging, and I will definitely finish the End of Month meme this year but I have a strange sense of being liberated from something which is quite wonderful.

The only reason for this post is to reassure regular readers that I haven’t completely fallen off the planet.

Will it flower?

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I am quietly thrilled with the plant above. “Why?” I hear you ask, “It is but a small orchid with no flower!” “But look at the small shoot that has appeared between the leaves and is growing rapidly upwards – it could be a new flower shoot”.

I have never ever managed to re-flower a Moth Orchid, it’s just one if those challenges I have failed at and the plants generally end up on the compost bin. I stopped bothering buying them as I was so fed up but back in the spring I was tempted to have another go. Surely it can’t be that hard, my aunt has one that never seems to stop flowering and she says she ignores it most of the time.

Then back in May when I visited OurGarden@19 I was reminded that Irene is a whizz with orchids and has quite a display.  She kindly gave me some tips about feeding them regularly and watering and that I should cut the flower stem when the flowers have finished down by 3 nodes.  I have failed with this last instruction as each of the 4 plants I have seem to have finished flowering and within a short period the stems go dry and brittle. Maybe I am leaving it too long and need to cut it down before there are no flowers left.  But I have been feeding the orchids and there have been new leaves on all of them and now this shoot so fingers crossed.

End of Month View – October 2015

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October has been a kind month to this gardener.  We have had generally dry weekends with milder temperatures than normal allowing me to spend some quality time in the garden.  My efforts have been small but widespread and really have been little more than planting out bulbs and some perennials.  I have spent as much time looking, peering and pondering.

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As you can see the Field Maple, I think that is what the tree is, is dropping its leaves.  There were nearly as many a week ago and the tree has still more to drop.  I love autumn leaves; they always take me back to my childhood  and jumping into large piles of beech leaves in my parents’ garden.  But I can’t leave these leaves as they make the steps too hazardous.  I also don’t agree with the whole slow gardening approach which argues that you should leave the leaves in borders etc to rot down and feed the soil just as happens in nature.  This does not take into account that we, well I, garden my garden more intensively than happens in nature and the decaying leaves act as an overwinter home for all sorts of slugs and pests.  It always amuses me that those who extol the virtues of slow gardening loudest are also the ones who complain most about slugs!

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The milder temperatures mean that a lot of deciduous plants are still looking very green and even attempting a second flush of flowers.  Many of my roses have more buds on them than they did in early summer although I think it is unlikely that many will actually open.  I have started to cut back and tidy the Big Border.  I generally work through the borders on a regular basis cutting back any plants that are going over and once I have an area that is pretty tidy I give it a good mulch of home-made compost.  Due to the number of bulbs in the garden this is probably the best chance I will get in the year to mulch as come early spring there will be too many bulbs pushing through the ground to work round.

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The top of the woodland border has really come on this year.  Most of this area was dominated by an Acer which sadly died just over a year ago.  There are quite a few shrubs here now but they are all still quite young and will take a while to bulk up so I have been planting the rest of the border up with other woodland favourites including epimediums, hellebores and honesty.  I am hoping that next spring it will look very pretty. I will also get to see whether I had relocated some snowdrops here or not!

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The bottom half of the woodland border is more established having been planted some 3 or 4 years ago. I am pleased with the foliage textures but it needs a bit of tweaking; I’m not sure what exactly but something.  I will have to look back over this year’s photographs to try to identify why my instinct is telling me this area needs some attention.

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And finally the grass path which has survived my ponderings of removing it and is now enjoying the unusual prospect of being a fixed element of the garden.  Over the last few months I have added a number of grasses to the garden particularly either side of this path and they have brought some sort of cohesion to the planting as well as providing movement and airiness.  I need to work on the border to the right of the path.  The planting between the grass in the right hand corner and the small prunus is distinctly lacking.  In the spring it is full of hellebores and other spring delights, followed by hostas and I would like to add something to bring interest to overlap with the end of the hostas.  Something to ponder over the winter.

So that is my garden at the end of October.  If you would like to join in the with the End of Month View please do, the more the merrier.  You can use the meme in any way you wish.  I tend to take photographs of the same views during the year, others like to do a tour of their garden, or use the meme to follow a project.  Whatever approach you take all I ask is that you link back to this blog in your post and leave a link to your post in the comment box below.  It will help us find each other and pop by for a look-see at what is happening in your garden.