This is me. A woman grappling with serious who am I and how do I want live the rest of my life issues. You’d think I would know by now. After all I am sixty three! But the great thing about getting older is the way it surprises you. By turning out to be nothing like you expected. So I don’t have all the answers. I don’t feel particularly grown up. I haven’t settled down and stopped wanting to do new things. And I’m always learning.
I started last year with a grand plan. 2018 was going to be the year of the blog. It was going to be the year that I took the blogging process seriously, writing a weekly post about my garden, following other bloggers, commenting, engaging, doing the whole thing properly. And as part of this commitment I was going to learn to take better and better photos so I could show people what was going on in my part of the world.
But I have a confession to make. Which is that very quickly it all got too much for me. After a belting start I got struck down with the demon flu, and was then incapable of doing anything that remotely resembled putting myself out there. Taking photos, blogging, Instagraming, Facebooking, thinking about posts, planning new stuff for my garden. It all felt too much. The thought of doing any of it left me feeling breathless and burdened and overwhelmed.
And I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. Particularly when, once the beast from the east had had its wicked way with us, the weather turned glorious, packed to bursting with sun filled days, blossom more bountiful than I can remember, colour and warmth and brightness. So much to post about. What was not to feel happy and grateful for? Why the tight chest and anxious feelings?
It was the Ceanothus ‘Trewithen Blue’ that finally did it. But I can’t show you a photo of it. Because I didn’t take one. Even though it was crying out to me every time I walked past it. There it was in all its fabulous powdery blue, clothing the wall by the drive, billowing with gorgeousness. And I rushed past with my head turned away, hardly daring to look at it. The sight of it triggered anxiety, almost a feeling of panic.
And what a thing to be feeling anxious about. When there is so much going on in the world, I was getting in a state about blossom!
So I talked to a friend. We were looking at her beautiful garden, and I mentioned the anxiety I’d been feeling. And it turned out she’d been feeling the same.
We asked ourselves if it was our age. Turning sixty, time shrinking, life a finite thing, only so many springs left so better make sure we don’t miss anything, etc, etc, etc. And yes, we thought this might well have something to do with it. But I began to give it a bit more thought, and I realised that there was more to it.
Because here was the thing. I’d fallen into the trap of trying to hold onto the moment too tightly. Been searching for a way to make things permanent when they’re not. That’s what all the photography and Instagram and Blogging and writing was about. It was my way of trying to fix the things that I love in a place where they couldn’t be lost.
But the truth was that the more I tried to hold them close the further away they became. And the effect was to stop me from enjoying them while they were there. I was avoiding the Ceanothus because I knew its beauty wouldn’t last, and – because I hadn’t found a way to capture it that did it proper justice – I was feeling anxious.
I’m reminded of that quote about happiness being like a butterfly, how you can’t chase it, but have to sit and wait for it to come and land on your shoulder. My problem was that I’d been trying to catch it and trap it and pin it into a glass case for posterity. Which had precisely the opposite effect.
This was a bit of a eureka moment for me. (I have them from time to time!) It was the moment I realised that I needed to stop feeding the anxiety and start doing things differently. So I made a decision. I took a step back from all the stuff – the commitment to weekly posting, the blog following, Instagram checking, photo taking stuff. And instead I went out and stood under branches heavy with blossom, and breathed in and breathed out. Walked and looked and took the time to see. I started with the Ceanothus. Went and stood and marvelled at the blueness of it, the contrast of dark green leaf with flowers miraculously arranged into panicles, the structure and form and sheer perfection of it.
And I decided to make time to go round the garden and count ten things that made me feel happy. Without taking photos or planning posts or doing anything other than looking and feeling and being there.
It kind of worked. Getting ready to open the garden for the NGS in June rather got in the way. But I had a year away from being out there, and it was a year to reassess my relationship with myself and the wider world.
So now, at the start of another year, I’m going to get back to writing and taking photos, but I’m going to do it for me. When I feel like it. (Which is why I’ve written two back to back posts and may well not write another for months to come!) So that I’ve got a record to look back at of the things that matter to me.
It’s not that I’m giving up on all the stuff. I’m just going to do when it feels right. And enjoy the moment.
In two weeks time my garden opens to the public for the first time as part of the NGS. Two things in particular are keeping my awake at night. One, that the absolute gloriousness of the garden right at this particular moment will have come and gone by the time we get there. And two, that the ****ing slugs will have eaten everything by then and there will be nothing left to see but a few slimy stalks.
But I’m trying to live in the moment. Because at the moment, the moment is pretty darned good.
It took the garden I created for my sister to appear in this month’s Period Living for me to finally get my act together. Her house and garden conversion won the Best Renovation Award as part of the magazine’s 2017 Readers’ Homes Awards. Mention was made of the garden along with photos (although it poured with rain on the day the photographer came so the outside shots are a bit soggy!) And I get a name check. And would have got a website address included.
Except for I didn’t have one. Website that is…
But now I have. And this is it. Or at least the link above will take you there. And it’s all my own work. Words, pictures, creation of website using nifty WordPress template. And of course the gardens. There may not be many of them (yet!) but the gardens are all my own work.
A few weeks ago I started work on a new garden. All very exciting. But it has reminded me that I never got round to writing a post about the progress made in the garden I worked on last year. So here is a quick catchup to give you the full story.
Let me remind you of where it all started. Remember the gorgeous 17th century cottage belonging to my sister, (see Time for a Cunning Plan) which needed a new garden to go with the new extension that added a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and saw a transformation of the original layout.
It all looked pretty chaotic when I first arrived on the scene.
Front Garden 1
Front Garden 2
The courtyard garden!
Work in progress
View across new wall to garage
Bit of a mess!
New bedroom wing in progress
Ah… the courtyard garden!
But slowly the courtyard garden began to take shape.
Marking out the plan
Digging out the beds
Even more digging!
Laying the paving
More paving laid
We started the planting in January.
The planting begins
Ilex instead of box balls
Start of structure
Green shapes against brick
A post stands in for the prunus…
Planting for shade against the house
The yew hedge – which will eventually act as an evergreen wall around this part of the garden – went in in February.
The pergola got built.
The Big Green Egg (that I have been wanting to put into a garden ever since I saw their stand at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago) arrived and was put into place.
My sister (who happens to be my twin) is a cook, food writer, star of screen and stage (stage was the village pantomime when we were sixteen… but the tv bit is more recent! See her blog for more details.) Food is in her DNA, so an outdoor kitchen was an absolute must.
We created an orchard area, planting it with apples, crab apples and damson to go with the wonderful old quince tree, accessed through an archway which will eventually be draped in one of my favourite roses, Rosa Adelaide d’Orleans.
This year has seen the addition of a small vegetable and cutting garden.
By last summer the courtyard garden was looking in pretty good shape.
Things in the cottage garden on the other side of the house were looking a lot better too.
Although not when we started!
The task for the area at the entrance side of the house was very different from the courtyard area. The courtyard garden is the more formal area, with a variety of functions which required careful planning of the space. The plan for the garden on this side was more relaxed. Before we started, this area felt more like a corridor than a garden. By the time the weather had had its way with us it was a corridor of mud.
The requirement was to provide a seating area to make the most of the morning sun, create a lawn, make the space feel wider with a ‘journey’ through separate areas, and give the eye something to enjoy from inside the house. A particular challenge was to take account of the spring that runs through this side of the garden and gives the house its name. Planting choices had to include plants that were happy to have their feet in the damp.
The terrace reused the old brick from the original seating area, and the space around it was redesigned to provide a lawn surrounded by beds filled with more relaxed planting than in the courtyard garden. The intention is that eventually the lawn and terrace will feel tucked into the planting. A gap between the beds at the top end of the lawn leads through into a wilder area where the trees sit in longer grass with spring bulbs at their feet. A path lined with stone leftover from a wall taken down by the drive leads up the side of this area to the gate into the churchyard.
Here are a few before and after images so you can properly appreciate the transformation.
Bit of a mess!
View from the kitchen door
So there you have it. It was such a gift to be able to design a garden for my sister, even more so because I get to see how it is developing and hear how much enjoyment she is getting from it.
And I’m really excited to start on my next project, which came out of my new client seeing the work I had done at Spring Cottage.
So it looks like I may be turning into a garden designer after all!
So I’m a lightweight! You don’t have to tell me! The weekly posting promise I made at the beginning of the year has gone tits up. A few days away, a run of the kind of weather that life was invented for, and there’s just too much going on outside for me to be sitting at my computer writing about the garden when I could be in it. So I’ve got a bit of catching up to do.
It’s also hard to do justice with words and photos to the miracle that is taking place outside my window. I am trapped in a state of frustration at my inability to capture the constantly changing scene that is taking place in my garden. From day to day there are new delights. And the truth is I can’t keep up.
But nobody likes a quitter. And this morning it’s raining. Which the garden desperately needs. And it gives me time to write rather than do. So here goes.
At this time of year I’m ‘dropping the b’ and turning the name of one of my all time favourite plants into the word that best describes the feeling I get when I do my garden shuffle. If you read this blog on a regular basis you’ll know the plant I’m talking about because it gets a fair bit of space devoted to it within these pages. But it’s now, when the slow build of early spring is gathering pace and the garden is really beginning to sing, that the Euphorbia is really beginning to look its best.
At the moment it’s the Euphorbia characias wulfenii weaving its way through the garden that draws the eye, giving structure and coherence and energy to the borders.
But there is also the Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae bringing light to the difficult corner under the bay cones in the border by the drive. And the Euphorbia palustris I fell in love with at Beth Chatto’s garden, beginning to get going in the long border. There’s the Euphorbia myrsinites spilling out across the paths in magnificent contrast to the deep red tulips whose name I’ve forgotten but who keep coming back each year.
And not to be left out, there’s Euphorbia ‘Redwing Charm’, its twinkling red eyes bulking up to fill the tricky space under the Osmanthus burkwoodii.
Euphorbia… Euphoria… it’s impossible to resist.
And it’s not just the Euphorbia that is prompting this feeling. The euphoria is being given a boost when I look at the borders where I can see the new shoots of all the planting I put in a couple of years ago when I carried out my great garden edit.
Last year it was hard to get a feel for how it was going to go. Some things thrived, others didn’t. New shrubs looked underwhelming, and the balance I was aiming for was a matter of faith. This year I can already see that I’m getting closer to what I was hoping for so I’m feeling really excited.
The other thing prompting euphoria is that for the first time in quite a few years whatever it is that digs up my tulip bulbs has stayed away. It has been a source of intense pain to me, seeing my beds dotted with neat little holes marking the spots where all my hard work in late autumn has been laid to waste. Year after year the tulip activity in my garden has been patchy, and yet I go on planting and hoping that this year might be different. Well this year is. In November I planted my bulbs deeper than ever and mulched with a thick layer of spent mushroom compost and it seems to have done the trick. Tulip fever here we come.
These days of warmth and action, interspersed with days of gloom and grey are what spring is all about, the teenage time of year when it’s impossible to predict what is going to happen next. Apart from the certainty that we’re moving towards something better. The challenge for me is to live in the moment and enjoy the detail, and not get swept away by the thought of what is to come.
My failure to write posts for the past couple of weeks means that some things have come and gone without getting the attention they deserve. The Narcissus February Gold on the banks in the field garden, which this year ignored their name and did their thing in March, shone in the sunshine.
Narcissus Jenny, one of my particular favourites, is still being graceful in the front garden although past her best.
The hellebores continue to deliver under the Viburnum opulus by the drive. The new Prunus cerasifera I planted in the field garden a couple of years ago established itself sufficiently to make a proper contribution as blossom bringer to coincide with the the daphne and lonicera in the main garden.
Scilla spread through the beds in the far corner, bringing its intense blue to the party.
Those pesky muscari are finally proving their worth under the espaliered apples.
And the rhubarb. The rhubarb deserves its own post.
This week I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the issue of whether it might be better to live in blissful ignorance. This has been prompted by the whole online photography course thing, and realising that, before I took part, I happily went out into my garden and snapped away with my iphone, and felt really pleased with the results. And now I’ve come over all professional, and I’m thinking about backgrounds and where the light is coming from and which lens to use….
AND IT’S DRIVING ME MAD.
So I can’t help thinking about how – before I started looking into all of this stuff, finding out about apertures and exposures and f-stops and such – I was perfectly content, and looked at my photos with a sense of pride and pleasure which at the moment is escaping me. Because now it feels like much more of a challenge, and I’m aware of how much I don’t know, and I’m frustrated by how much there is to learn. And would it have been better if I hadn’t started the whole thing in the first place?
Breathe Jane, breathe…
Because, of course ignorance isn’t bliss. And I’m conveniently forgetting that I signed up to do the course because I wanted to get more proficient at something I really care about, which is taking better photos of the plants and garden I love. And the better I get at it, the more pleasure I will get from it.
My sister told me this interesting thing about the four stages of competence. You may know of it already. It goes like this:
This is the stage when we don’t know how to do something, and either don’t know or don’t care that we don’t know how to do it. In order to move on to the next stage we have to recognise we can’t do the thing and realise that it’s a useful thing to be able to do. Otherwise we just sit in blissful (or not!) ignorance.
This is where we realise that we can’t do something and recognise that we really want to. This stage is often all about making mistakes and realising that there’s much more to the thing than we realised when we started. Which makes it the most painful stage. Which is where I am on the photography front (and lots of other fronts) right now!
This is where we are beginning to understand and know how to do something. However, doing it takes a lot of hard work and concentration. It doesn’t come naturally or easily. Phew!
Unconscious competence Hurrah! This is where we all want to be!! We’re so adept at the skill that it becomes second nature and we do it without thinking.
But do we ever get there?!?
Well ,of course we do. But you know what they say about practicing making perfect. And I have to keep on reminding myself that getting there is as much part of the experience as the arriving. (Which reminds me of one of my favourite poems by C.P. Cavafy introduced to me by one of my daughters – click here if you want to read it.)
All of which is a very long lead into the purpose of this post which is to give you my (slightly late) weekly update on what is happening in the garden. As is so often the case with the wayward month of March, last week we enjoyed days of blissful spring mixed in with days of murky gloom. Blissful spring saw me out in the garden with the macro lens taking a photo of what I have learnt from Steve at Glebehouse Garden is Crocus Pickwick.
It also saw me potting up my dahlia tubers, having gone a bit mad on the ordering front this year after falling in love with Otto’s Thrill and Cafe au Lait and Chat Noir and… and… and… You get the picture? (What would I do without Peter Nyssen, bulb and plant supplier of the very very best kind!) And let’s not forget Jescott Julie and the Bishop of Llandaff, who have been tucked up in newspaper together under the stairs for the winter!!
And there are viola glowing in the sunshine. And winter flowering honeysuckle – Lonicera fragrantissima – whose scent spills out of its corner behind the garage in waves, and whose scent also fills my entrance hall, but who drops its flowers in an infuriatingly negligent manner which makes me slightly lose patience with it.
And last but very much not least are the goldfish on the bird table. (Forgive the poor photo but taken through the window with the iphone in a state of great excitement.) I’ve had a seed feeder hanging ignored in the tree for months with absolutely no interest shown in it by any bird apart from those using it to queue for the peanuts and fat balls in the other feeders. I was on the phone to my daughter a few days ago when out of nowhere two… yes that’s two!… goldfinch (finches? finchii?) turned up.
Shows the level of excitement in my kitchen. So incoherent am I that my daughter thinks I’m telling her that there are goldfish on the feeder! Now to her that does sound exciting!! She’s a little disappointed when I explain. But not me. I am thrilled!
You know what they say about March? In like a lion, out like a lamb. Well, if the last few days are anything to go by, the end of March is a treat in store.
I’ve got to be honest and admit to taking the coward’s option and staying firmly inside while Storm Doris has been doing her thing. And it was with an element of trepidation that I ventured out into the garden when the sun finally dared to show itself. From what I could see the damage was not too great, but the bits of the garden I can’t see from the house include the veg garden, and the amount of timber strewn across the lawn made me a bit anxious that the greenhouse might have suffered a direct hit.
I’ve also been lazy about going out to check the new sowing in the greenhouse, preferring to focus my gardening attention on the indoor window brigade who are shooting up nicely. (Although now I’m worrying that they are going to turn into leggy blondes rather than the nice compact little folk I’m hoping for!) But once in the garden it was a relief to find everything in reasonable shape, although of course the weeds have not been put off in the slightest by the weather and are having a high old time. I’m already experiencing the onset of the hairy bittercress anxiety that is an inevitable companion to the spring and summer months.
But the Euphorbia wulfenii are unfurling their heads,
Arnold is delivering big time on his Promise,
the Tete a Tetes are glowing like lanterns.
So I decided to ignore the voices in my head telling me to get on with the weeding, and take some time to wander round and have a go at taking photos with a wide angle lens to try and give a sense of the garden at this time of year.
I do struggle with the bigger picture. The natty little close ups of my favourite plants that I’ve been practising seem so much simpler; the wider shots invariably include the bits I don’t want. But I’m going to switch off my critical eye to walk you round the garden.
Starting at the front. We live in what used to be the farmhouse, with a dairy attached on one corner which has been converted into three more homes around a courtyard. The house faces out across the fields to the southwest, with a strip of garden, lined with hornbeam and native hedging separating us from the lane.
When we moved here sixteen years ago the front door was at the end of the house, leading into a very small narrow hallway. Four years ago we moved the front door to the centre of the house, converting what used to be our dining room into a proper entrance hall.
When the door was at the end of the house the front garden was rather under-appreciated; we walked past but rarely into it. One advantage of moving the door was that we now walk through the front garden on a regular basis. So I planned the planting with this in mind.
(This photo was taken from an upstairs window a couple of years ago. The rather pale looking viburnum on the right has died and been removed since then. And the other plants have filled out more. But for a space that is difficult to photo as a whole at least it gives some idea of what it looks like.)
I see the front garden as the entrance hall to the entrance hall. I had in mind a garden that you open gates to go into, that feels as if you are leaving the outside world behind as you enter into a separate space. I wanted a more formal feel to it than the back garden, a garden that keeps its character throughout the year, acting as a staging post for the inside of the house. You will see that I’ve kept the emphasis on evergreen shape, shade and texture. There are balls of Buxus and Pittosporum Golf Ball, lollipops of bay and Viburnum Tinus. Clumps of Euphorbia wulfenii define the entrance to the porch and front door, the domed bracts chosen to mirror the evergreen mounds.
Scent is important – delivered by vase shaped Sarcococca, and tapestries of Trachelospermum jasminoides climbing the walls either side of the porch.
Hebe rakiensis underscoring the bay trees at the lower level continues the mounded theme with ferns and sword shaped iris for contrast.
By the side of the house another painted gate opens into the back garden. Here I’ve continued the evergreen structure from the front but in a more relaxed style, so that it anchors the planting to give it definition. An intensive edit conducted a couple of years ago meant that I moved and took out and changed a fair bit, trying to achieve year round structure and harmony. I’m pretty pleased with the way it’s shaping up and can’t wait for the summer to see how the perennial planting I introduced into the centre beds is bulking up.
It’s taken time but I’m finally learning to accept the fact that a big chunk of this garden is more shady than not. We’re at the bottom of a slope that faces northwest, tucked in against a wooded area with very very big trees that cast shadows across the garden even in the height of summer. I’ve wasted a fortune planting sun lovers and praying for them to prosper. Now I’m embracing the shade dwellers and keeping the sun worshippers for the cutting bed.
View across the garden from the kitchen window
Looking up to the seating terrace
The long border
Euonymus on its way to clothing the kitchen wall
Across to the far hills
Mention of the cutting bed happily leads me to the field garden, named the field garden because it used to be… yes, you’ve guessed it… the field. When the field garden was more field than garden it was pretty boring. Now – although it’s still very much work in progress – it’s one of my favourite areas.
I’ve planted yew to define the lawn and disguise an unattractive bank. I’ve separated the sloping orchard, vegetable and cutting garden with wings of yew and mixed native hedging. A couple of years ago I planted three hornbeams, (getting ready to be cut into boxes on sticks when they fill out), to lead the eye to a seating area under a newly planted prunus. At the same time as planting the hornbeams I planted three Malus Everest either side of the path up to the gate. It’s an area that can become very soggy when there is heavy rain as water runs this way off the field so I’m hoping they are going to survive. Last year I planted narcissus and camassias on the banks and under the hornbeams.
The veg garden and greenhouse are my favourite bit of all. Here is my sunny space, the place where I go to enjoy warmth when the rest of the garden is still stuck in winter. Here rhubarb is accelerating, tulips are showing and the Hesperis matronalis and Matthiola incana that I’ve been shielding from the bunnies for as long as possible in the cold-frame are waiting for transfer to their final position. The espaliered apples I planted to act as a backdrop to the beds a few years ago have reached to the ends of the wires. Next door’s garden waits to be hidden by the mixed native and beech hedging I planted a couple of years ago. Annoyingly I lost a Victoria Plum tree last year. It had been carefully positioned to go with the apples and pear and leaves a hole I can’t fill as I would like because of the risk of the same thing happening. So I’ve got to rethink a bit before I replant.
The last view to show you is from the top of the bank where I can look back across the garden to the downs.
It won’t be long before this all looks very different. It’s one of the great joys of a garden, isn’t it? That it’s constantly changing. So maybe I will aim to do the same thing through the seasons.
I mention this because on Monday, at around about midday, I was suddenly aware of being happy. And it occurred to me that it’s not often that I am aware of happiness at the moment of feeling it.
Monday was one of those rare perfect days we sometimes get in early spring, when the sky is a clean clear blue, the temperature blissfully warm. I was in the greenhouse, seed sowing. The doors were open, the automatic vents in the roof had risen silently of their own accord as the warmth from the sun worked its magic; there was the smell of potting compost and fresh air. I was sitting on my new, very exciting seat/compost bin, bought for the princely sum of £14.93 from Amazon, scooping seed compost into pots from my new, very exciting potting tray also bought from Amazon for £12.95. And I was happy.
Monday was the day when broad beans were sown into root-trainers, aubergines and cucumbers and tomatoes were settled into their pots and put into the propagator on the windowsill, together with sunflower seeds for the cutting garden. Antirrhinum, papaver and nigella were scattered across trays of compost and covered with black plastic a la Sarah Raven. This time last year I was busy working on another garden so, with time for my own garden in short supply, I went down the plug plant route for my veg. And very good it was too. This year I’ve got a bit more time, and seeds hanging around from the year before, and I’m experimenting with a few different ways of germination on the basis that, as with so many garden tasks, there seem to be a number of different approaches, so it’s a suck-it-and-see situation. Messing around with these things on Monday made me happy.
Added to which, this week in the garden my new hamamelis is blooming.
The February Gold daffodils I planted a few years back are getting ready to live up to their names, the new bulbs I planted last year in the long grass of the field garden are appearing in their dozens, there are tulips showing their leaves in the cutting bed, hellebores by the drive.
Everything is stepping up a gear. More reasons to be happy.
Another day this week with more than its fair share of happy moments was Sunday, when I went to the Snowdrop Fair at Great Comp. I had thought the snowdrops in my garden were looking pretty darn good.
Until I saw the spectacular scenes in the wooded acres of this well known garden and nursery. Dysons Nurseries at Great Comp are famous for their salvias, but at this time of year it’s the snowdrops that are doing their spectacular thing. But more than the snowdrops, it was the great drifts of the spring snowflake, that took my breath away.
I hadn’t been aware of this particular Leocojum vernum with its delicate double bonnets. I am now. Came home with a couple of plants to start them off in my own garden.
I also bought one snowdrop plant to put a bit of wind up the chaps back home and remind them not to be complacent. This is Galanthus ‘Mrs Thompson’ – which according to the label can have 3, 4 or even 5 ‘outers’, and increases well. Which as the sole representative of this particular plant in my garden it’s going to have to do!
I flirted with buying Galanthus Seagull, but the £20 the bulb cost wasn’t in my purse. Probably a good thing. I was getting carried away.
My other purchase was a stunning Helleborus x hybridus double. To go with my rather varied selection of hellebores in the bed by the drive.