17th August

We are all custodians of our little patches of earth.

At the end of the day, whether we own them, rent them, or just work on them, we will not be here forever. I hear people talk about gardening legacies, and it strikes me how short a legacy can be: vast structures disappearing in a matter of decades, to be rediscovered like treasure troves just a scant generation or two later, or the sprawling cities of the ancients, just a few feet beneath tangled jungle.

Ten years in the wilderness is a lifetime to something as malleable and erasable as a garden.

The stories of these plots far exceed our own in both directions – far into the past, far into the future. It strikes me sometimes: this place is billions of years old, they say there were lions here once. Before them, great towering caps of ice. Perhaps one day it will be a flooded wetland – playground of millions of sore-throated whooper swans, or patchwork tribes of yet-to-be evolved ducks and waders.

 

David Parfitt

Painting by David Parfitt

Or perhaps, if my plans go as I hope, it will be a forest of mighty oaks –a haven for beast, fowl and all manner of creeping and slithering thing.

Field work

I go diligently about the field at the end of the plot, picking up molehills. It really makes you think. Especially when you overfill your bag – forgetting it’s still clay you’re carrying, because those little moles with their pudgy demon hands have kindly filtered and sifted it for you into pyramids of fine earth, and you forget how heavy it is. I think about the scale of my body struggling to drag bag after bag through the grass, and I think about their tiny bodies – fiendishly strong. The tonnes they must move in a day, their little minds set on what they do: experts of the dark. I think about them, and I’m glad to know them. I’m glad they do what they do, which so helps me out when all I need is good solid earth that I don’t have to cut out like slices of thick, impossible fudge.

mole by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

Sketch by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

After collecting as much as I can be doing with on a hot late summer’s day, it’s onto looking for saplings. We have a lot of oak saplings that never make it past ten inches or so – falling either to the field mowers or the deer, and I take their care seriously, even though I know they’ll outlive me to that strange scale again – where nothing makes sense from a human’s perspective.

I’ll be the one setting them up in pots, trimming their leaves to encourage their roots, but it will not be my generation, or even probably two or three that will really be able to relax about the fate of the tree. I will have to take good care of it – watch it for oak diseases, protect it from hungry mouths, or clumsy feet. All the while knowing they never used to need us at all, and there’ll come a time again when these trees certainly won’t miss us.

Majesty 2006 by Tacita Dean born 1965

‘Majesty’ by Tacita Dean 2006

But I want there to be oak trees in that potentially people-less future. It matters to me that these little saplings reach their future, which never really did have anything to do with us. Their ancestors have been great naval warships, and the beams of vast important houses, but they were always meant to be trees, and I only want them to be trees.

As long as they keep finding the light, I’ll keep taking them out of harm’s way, and I’ll put them back when they’re too big for mowers and deer.

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…

moss-1839826_960_720

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?