18th Feb – Redefining Perfection

Redefining perfection

I’m catching up on some neglected gardening magazines, and it’s interesting to see so many people talking about Wabi-Sabi as a trend for 2018. I remember discovering this Japanese concept when I was an enthusiastic art student nearly twenty years ago, and what an incredible difference it made to me during a time when I was really struggling with my instinct not to let any of my work see the light of day until it was ‘finished’ or ‘perfect’. I’m sure it’s just this instinct which stops most people from expressing their creativity.

One of my favourite works of art of all time was actually one that was destined for deterioration: Eva Hesse’s Contingent, made from latex (a perishing rubber) over cloth, and fibreglass. This is no Waterlilies. It will not hang in the world’s most iconic collections for centuries. But it became extraordinary to me, and was the first time that I began to relate lasting, meaningful ideas to materials, which has been at the very heart of my work and thinking ever since.

 

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Wabi-Sabi and its many related visual and intellectual ideas are something I return to whenever I find myself hesitating to the detriment of my natural productivity. This very blog is likely a reaction to a recent dalliance with creative procrastination. You have to throw yourself at creativity and at making, because if you linger for too long in the foggy precipice of ‘thinking’, you will never find your way back to the path.

Creativity is all about risks, because if it’s not risky or untested, it means it already exists: somebody else already made it. And besides that, I think there are far more valuable considerations to apply to the process of making and creating than whether it is ‘good’ or ‘correct’.

 

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Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken objects with gold. An object’s history adds to its beauty.

 

A garden is a wonderful teacher about how you define perfection, because if you seek a perfect, finished ideal in a garden, you are in for trouble. Everything you finish needs to be constantly maintained if you really want it to stay as you design it. Hedges must be cut and recut. Plants grow, shape and reseed any way they want, basically. If you want to control that, you have to work constantly. Beds must be redefined every season. Weeds must be cleared if that’s your inclination, and whenever one job is complete, it is never long before a dozen others fall into place in the gap you think you’ve made in your to-do list.
A garden is a living thing, not an ideal. It can be an idea, but it must be a fluid, breathing, dynamic idea, or you may find either it, or your own will, failing.

 

Green Box by Act Romegialli

 

But the most wonderful thing about a garden’s imperfections is that there is always beauty to be found – always a reminder that life (sometimes fragile, sometimes bursting into only fleeting beauty) is wonderful and valuable on its own merits. It doesn’t need quantifying or qualifying. Its existence is enough – more than enough. Perfection, if you like.

So, like the Wabi-Sabi artists of Japan who repair their broken vessels with seams of gold, we can celebrate the things which signify uniqueness, singularity, and a very specific moment in time and space which will never come again.

I think it’s a lovely thing to cherish.

 

kiyo hasegawa

Kiyo Hasegawa

Notes for Wabi-Sabi in more depth:

‘In the Wake of Basho: Bestiary in the Rock Garden’ Yury Lobo:
“In one sense wabi-sabi is a training whereby the student of wabi-sabi learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi-sabi can change our perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.”

Writer and designer Margaret Penney beautifully captures Wabi-Sabi:
“Wabi-Sabi actually is a two word combination. Wabi refers to the kind of beauty found in asymmetrical, uneven or unbalanced things. The asymmetry of a ceramic bowl is an example of wabi. Sabi is the beauty of aged things and speaks to the impermanence of life through the passage of time. An example of sabi is the lovely patina found on a rusted old metal wall.”

 


 

If you are interested in Japanese creative concepts in general, I can highly recommend The Art of Japanese Living, a BBC series with Dr James Fox.

 


 

Other Zen principles, relating to Wabi-Sabi:
Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity
Kanso: simplicity
Koko: basic, weathered
Shizen: without pretense, natural
Yungen: subtly profound grace, not obvious
Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free
Seijaku: tranquillity

I will no doubt write in the future about the Enso – as symbol, concept, philosophy and meditative practice, which has been very important to me over the years…

 

8th Feb 2018

Plotting, planning, projecting…

There’s so much to think about.

We look out at the garden in winter and feel a funny sort of ache – and it’s not just a pining for our sleeping plants, or to get out there and back to our beloved work, it’s also because pretty much all there is to see at this time of year are all the things we’ve yet to realise.

A garden in winter looks like 100% potential. Potential is an invitation to dream! And for those of us of a compulsive nature… there’s a lot to think about…

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When I talk about this garden as a challenge, I do not use the term flippantly. There are no small projects here. We are on the edge of wilderness, the wild plants here are old and tenacious. Introduced plants quickly turn feral if you’re not careful. Everything is always hanging on the cusp of going wild, so if you don’t mind your plant choices very carefully, the garden will rise up and eat you. So every season looks rather like nobody ever bothered…

And on the flip side of that is what I’m going to share with you now: the areas I have barely even started on. The places which will look at their absolute worst. I put myself up as a kind of cautionary tale of what might happen when your gardening ideas run up against nature at its most… argumentative.


 

I have 4 very specific projects this year:

1.

What can only be described as a thicket of Buddleja and Snowberry. I regard both these wonderful plants with the greatest respect – the bees and other bugs love them, the birds make nests in the snowberry’s twisted boughs, and in the brown mirage of dullest winter, those pink-white froths of berries make all the difference, and they’re a staple Christmas table decoration. But this particular part is so old and overgrown that the centre of the thicket is in fact quite dead.

This was such a mess last Summer!!

It stands in by far the sunniest patch of the garden, growing fatter and fatter, and taking over precious space.

So, alas, it must be tamed. It’s not going completely, but in its space I want the new vegetable patch, and fruit trees. The sun gets so hot in this little trap that last year I couldn’t work out there in daylight hours. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s quite true.

So my plotting here is first a thorough clearing (I have done this before, and the roots of these two plants are, to put it mildly, tenacious. It’s not quite horseradish scale, but I’d say it took a good three years of re-sprouting each season for me to finally clear the whole lot). I will try to take the healthy stands and replant elsewhere since they make such a wonderful screen, and we are be-neighboured on many sides.

I’m also in the lovely work of plotting a new vegetable and fruit garden for when this plot is cleared.

2.

The Awkward square: this is a rather special patch of the garden. It used to look like this:

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That’s honeysuckle, brambles, a bay tree, a damson tree, all left to wilderness – to the frogs and toads and birds. But it blocked out the light.

This was more than a gardening job, I might write about it one day.

But for now, I’ll tell you the basics. From the kitchen window, you can now see out. The damson trees are still formidable, the bay tree still stands, I cut a path last autumn – rediscovering a winding, lovely old crazy-paving path that was laid by a family friend back when I was a child, who isn’t with us anymore and is deeply missed, now it leads down to a bedraggled bed, and viewed under the arch of the tree’s boughs, framed by its tilting trunk, it makes a nice window view – but none of it’s yet working harmoniously.

I planted daffodil bulbs around the tree’s base, and some plants like foxglove and giant allium under the window so their purple heads will hopeful bob up just into sight, and I’ve rescued the honeysuckle to train, and have other scented climbers in incubation, as it were. But my main ambition for this awkward sunken square is something a little tricky…

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Yes, moss. This will either be a stunning success or an unmitigated disaster, but the vision I’m toying with images of spring bulbs, native wildflowers, summer perennials, scented climbers and a wild moss ground cover. I’ve no idea if it will work because this little square suffers from both flooding AND drought, depending on the season. But I’m going to try…

3.

The compost suite. I can’t even talk about this, It’s been talked about for so long. All the problems in this plot of land have to do with letting nature do as it may, and trying not to be destructive, but the gardener in me is not actually a passive custodian of wild things, because the gardener wants to make things and shape things too. This clay land can be unforgiving, but it can also be an embarrassment of riches, but you must have organic matter, and you must have it on constant supply if you want to make a clay patch work for you. I’m hearing a lot about a no-dig strategy, but I wonder how much money is then spent on top soil or the equivalent, because here, that cost is by far the biggest cost in the garden.

So. Big plans.

4.

The gardener’s retreat.

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This is a complete indulgence, but this old shed which houses machinery, and some old furniture and some very old artwork of mine – and of course two cantankerous geese in the side house, and a log pile and crippled old lean to on the other side – is my little side project. No-one knows what I hope to do with this, but I hope to do it before the summer. The lean to will be a potting hut, and a neatly organised store for pots, recycling materials, any wood I find which I will always find use for. The shed itself would make a wonderful home for a design table…

I’m sure I’ll get caught out before I manage it but winter is all about dreams.

Grab a hot drink, and start dreaming

Such a beautiful moment, a rare gift of pure, guilt-free indulgence, when the garden is sleeping and its barren beds and occasional hardy shrubs offer you something of a virgin spot. It is yours to shape, it is your manufacture of paradise. Whatever you dream of – soft edges, wafting flowers, tall hissing grasses, or bright water – this is one area of your life where you can probably have just about anything you want.

Sometimes plans start with a very specific job, like my list above. That list of must-do’s sits alongside a bigger plan for a more cohesive experience of the space outside, and I suppose that’s where we get into Garden Design territory.

I’ll always be considering these three things when I stat wok again this year:

  • Convenience
  • Views
  • Immersive experience

I want my new veg patch in the sun, and not so far away that I can’t maintain or access it in a daily-use fashion, but I also don’t fancy looking out at it all the time – a veg patch can go through periods of not looking that attractive. I like creating specific views from specific windows in the house, so I’m going to have to think hard about where this veggie patch goes.

This brings me to views. I live with other people who are very into green. They like looking out on calming, shifting shades of it, and don’t want that interrupted with colour. Therefore, I have some very real restraints on my compulsion to plant and grow. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does require planning. I have big plant aspirations this year, but they still have to fit with other people’s experience.

The immersive experience is how I like to be in the garden. I’m a fan of hidden surprises: I cut pathways through hedges, I fashion surprise space you wouldn’t know were there until you explore. I like to plant this way too, with native woodland plants accenting whatever I plant so that you always feel like you’ve wandered into a particularly magical part of the natural landscape. It’s not always been successful – weeds quickly overpower this planting style, things can go wrong and I’ve planted for a design in Spring that looks very odd in Summer, etc etc.

I’m also thinking very carefully about the senses for this immersive experience of the garden– you can’t fight the weather in England, you have to work with it, so for those rainy days, I want broad, robust leaves that describe that gentle drum in a woodland of water falling on greenery. For the windy days, I want grasses, and things that release their scent best when getting a bit of a battering. And for those strangely blistering summer days we’ve been having in recent years, I want shady spots to sit and basking plants to look at – generally cool colours; lavenders, Thyrsiflorus Skylark, alpines (the candy-striped blue Lithodora White Star is a charmer, with its highly visible star shape sprinkling about on a hot day), etc.

There is also the matter of making the most of what you have.


My one top tip:

If there’s one thing that makes ideas easier to realise in a three dimensional space, it’s got to be drawing.

A rough plan is good, but a detailed plan can make the difference between something looking a lot more sparse than you thought it would, and something that flows and settles well. A basic understand of drawing to scale – even i it’s only circles and oblongs – will go such a long way….

Practice drawing

Lots of people don’t bother trying if they already think they can’t, but drawing for function seems to encourage even the most artistically-phobic to put some time in with pen and paper. Sometimes you go into great detail, other times it’s a matter of instructive lines. I think of the act of drawing plants as sharpening observation. When we sit down and really look at a plant, we start to make discoveries, about its seeds, or roots; which insects frequently drop on it; which may be living their microscopic lives within the hairs of its leaves, and all this information comes back to us when we don’t even realise we need it.

Leonardo,_Blumen.JPGLeonardo Da Vinci – the nature detective!

When we observe very closely, we follow the natural inclination towards curiosity, problem solving and attention to detail. These things are exactly the stuff that experienced gardeners are made of. And it’s doubtful I’ll ever absorb the kind of deep, instinctive knowledge from books in the same way that naturally becomes ingrained when I really get to know plants.

So drawing will certainly help visualise a design more accurately – scale, volume, pattern – but drawing will also help the molding of what every gardener probably hopes for:

You graduate from remembering, into knowing.

Drawing your plants is also a very nice way to occupy restless hands during the winter – especially when it’s snowing!

I’m making portraits of my Mystery Iris for posterity, (though my primroses have shown up my rustiness, where the simplicity of irises is a tad more forgiving…)

Does anyone else have any whopping projects waiting for them when the weather lets up?

4th Feb 2018

Just Sunday browsing through gardening blogs, a post on irises reminded me of something.

I had a mystery plant pot left under a table at the end of last year that I couldn’t identify except that it was a bulb, and I thought about laying it to rest, but put it on the table instead. I forgot all about it, then about 2 weeks ago, this stunning, violently blue vision popped open – such a colour it looked superimposed! Stupidly, I didn’t think to take a photograph (sometimes you enjoy life too much to remember to document it!), and it’s changed colour now, though I won’t say it’s lost it’s POW.

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We’ve had tall iris in the garden for years because they do alright in our wet clay, but I’ve no idea where this little mystery came from!

Now it’s gone more purple, I think it’s a dwarf harmony, but it really was a shocker when it first opened.

Lesson learnt – even if you’re feeling a bit cluttered with sleeping pots, sometimes it’s best to just wait and see…

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I do love a surprise…

1st Feb 2018

DIY plastic-free pots
It’s very heartening to see that plastic is a huge public issue in the UK these days – and I daresay most gardeners have at some point or another been struck by just how much plastic there is in the garden now compared with even twenty years ago.

 

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Experienced garden mavens will tell you clay and terracotta pots make better, stronger plants anyway, but for those of us on a more restrictive budget, there’s got to be an alternative to the hundreds and hundreds of plastic pots that stack up.
Here’s one alternative to consider right from the start.

 

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The benefit of making your own seedling pots from recycling newspapers is that not only are individual units easier to dot about your windowsills than great big trays, and when the time comes to harden them off outside and get them into the earth, you can plant the paper in directly. The paper rots away of course, but in the meantime they might get that little extra time before hitting the earth cold.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing in every case for a strong, healthy plant, but I figure there’s no gain from stressing young plants unnecessarily. Plus, I’m still always looking for extra matter to mix in with the nutrient-rich clay.

(I’ll make a note about compost in the future – both for clay gardeners like me who know the whole extra wedge of budget that goes into preparing the earth, unless you have your own rotting organic matter source on hand!- and for regular composters who are looking for the perfect recipe! And I’ll especially focus on peat-free alternatives to mushroom compost etc.)

Now, I do have a specialist tool for these pots. It was given to me as a gift, and it was years before I actually used it. This must save hours of labour overall – and each little pot takes a couple of seconds! Here’s the one I use:

 

 

Useful tips!

  1. Don’t wrap the paper too tight round the barrel – I’ve wrecked a few trying to get them to come off!
  2. Leave enough at the bottom so you’re not left with a gap! I’d leave too much rather than too little – you can always scrunch it right down with the tool!
  3. Remember to put them on something! These are still paper, so watering will get messy… (I know plastic is tempting as a tray base, but ceramics are just as good – and head to a vintage market or charity shops and you have an excuse to get something beautiful!)

Free Gift…

If you gift your own plants for birthdays or Christmas, you can make something really sweet this way with different coloured and textured paper – and be very extravagant with ribbons, jute, string – dried flowers…

 

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Handmade is good for the soul. And the environment, usually.

 

A Note on Tools…

I’m not sure how much this tool would have cost, but  think it’s an investment, and I suspect most gardeners like good tools. Making paper pots without a tool isn’t exactly difficult, so you never have to buy a product to make the change from plastic to recycling.

But if you know you’re better off with the right tool, it’s worth it to make the change over – and it does speed up the process about ten times. Just make sure you don’t buy a plastic one!!

I’m going to make a reference list for myself every time I find a good use for something recycled, (plastic water bottles cut in half make 2 pretty decent cloches for small tender plants!), if you have any ingenious recycling gems, please share, and I’ll put the list together for everyone!

 

25th January 2018

National Arboretum - 02-23-10 - Seed Herbarium (5)

The job I most look forward to in the darkest depths of winter is going through seed packets. I never throw anything out – I have a packet of candela di fuoco ‘long radishes’ that’s just turned 11 years out of date, but I’m going to sow-it-and-see. I know it won’t do anything, probably, but if nothing else this is an allegory to a lesson I learnt as a fumbling beginner: the sooner you find yourself a system, the better.

I’m currently using a cloth-covered divider file with a blue ribbon tie that I found for next to nothing in a charity shop (along with a hefty tome called The Story of Gardening: From The Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Hanging Gardens of New York, which funnily enough, though the handwritten inscription on in the inside cover says it was a gift given in 1934 – it is the inspirational spark for a project I plan for the garden this year. Old is not the same thing as obsolete, thankfully!)  I designated a month to each pocket and each month is full of packets of seeds that need to be sown that month.

A dreary day in January is often brightened in short order by looking through indoor sowing options: fragrant dill; silvery grasses (the effervescent Agrostis Nebulosa which looks like a bursting firework captured mid-explosion); gorgeous night-scented stock (transporting you to those balmy summer nights); Lavender; the full purple-spectrum delphiniums, and of course, the ubiquitous Busy Lizzies. I’m not a fan of the Busy Lizzie, but as I mellow in age and find myself inexplicably forgiving Beagles and Spaniels of their former crimes of being ‘boring dogs’, I’ve also lost my disgust for some of the more… garish flowers of our suburban gardens. After all, Busy Lizzies look gag-worthy in some people’s hanging baskets, but did I mention it’s dark this January?

The Winter Workstation
by The Compulsive Gardener

The Winter Work Station
Your little box of paradise when you can’t be out in the real thing. Primroses always remind me of breaking my front tooth – but that’s a whole other story…

 

I could spend hours with my seed packets, the ones I’m most excited about have got to be in the pocket of May. May has the bee-wooing scatter collection! May has oriental vegetables like choy, and May has poppies and May has my flower dreamboat: the Nigellas.

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Love-in-a-Mist – I swoon just writing its name. They call it an easy plant, a beginner’s favourite, old reliable, but there’re no words in any language that can cheapen the sublime perfection of this gorgeous wierdo. This cornflower re-imagined by Richard Dadd.

Ooh, that reminds me, Cornflowers….

 

I think I’ll make a note about collecting and storing your own seeds at the time, so I can take photos. I’ve never really done this in the garden before, because I’ve been happy to let whatever’s out there self-seed, and I get donated so many packets I can’t keep up with them, but I think I’ll try this year. I’m after abundance, on a budget of zero, after all! I have very big plans for the garden this year…

Next week I’ll share my homemade plastic-free sewing pots.

Until then, I’d love to know other gardeners’ winter jobs and rituals!