Back to basics…

It’s that time of year. Weather frightful. Rain hurling itself at the window. Wind wailing in the eaves. But, as far as I’m concerned, it can do what it likes.

Because I’m on a mission. The Jane King, DIY, get to grips with, find the confidence that’s been lacking, go back and have another go, mission. And the aim of this mission – to redesign the planting for the four central beds of my garden. I’ve put novel writing on hold and I’m channelling the gardener in me.

When I started with this garden in the early days, I knew less than nothing. I bunged plants in with little thought to how big they were going to grow, what shape I wanted them to be, how they would look when they were grown up. Some turned out ok. Others haven’t worked quite so well. Now, with time and space to draw breath and contemplate, I’m having a rethink.

These are the beds I’m working on.

Exhibit A…

Where do I begin???
The Where Do I Begin Bed

This is my biggest challenge. North-west facing, heavy clay, and more ins and outs to it than the Hokey Cokey. I’ve already drawn up and thrown away at least three plans. (The first of which I showed you in my last post.) So it’s still very much work in progress.

Exhibit B…

The White Mischief Bed
The White Mischief Bed

I went all Vita with this bed and decided it was going to be my white moment. It hasn’t worked. Which is why I’m having a rethink.

Exhibit C…

The Never Satisfied Bed
The Never Satisfied Bed

This was supposed to be my hot border. Didn’t really work. Time to reconsider.

Exhibit D…

The Rewrite Bed
The Rewrite Bed

This bed has had more rewrites than my first novel. (The Greenyards Legacy – you have read it haven’t you? And if you haven’t… WHY NOT?) Now I’m going to do it properly.

So you might think that – HAVING DONE A GARDEN DESIGN COURSE – I would have all of this planting design stuff under my belt, that I would be able to rustle up a cunning plan with my eyes shut. You would be wrong.

The amount of time we spent during the course on the principles of putting together a planting plan was minimal. Which left me contemplating the prospect with fear and trembling. Where to start? What to do? There are a million and one plants out there. Which, what, who am I going to choose? And how, when, where am I going to position them?

But with the help of two really excellent books, (The Complete Planting Design Course by Hilary Thomas and Steven Wooster, and Colour Your Garden by Jill Billington) I’ve gone back to basics. I’ve sharpened my pencils and I’m putting my ideas down on paper. I’m dusting off and rediscovering my Vectorworks skills, plotting and replotting plant combinations, drawing up plans… and then rethinking and starting over. I’m learning that, where the planting is concerned, it is important to view the garden as a whole, not, as I have been doing, as individual beds. I’m discovering that small gardens need a different approach to large. That there is an approach to planning the front, middle and back of borders which I’ve been failing to consider. And the light is beginning to dawn. I can do this thing. I have got what it takes.

Who knows where this will take me? But one thing’s for sure – my garden is going to look bloomin’ fantastic.

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I am NOT a garden designer….

You know all that ‘I am a garden designer’ stuff that’s been going on in these pages over the past couple of years? Well, I’m going to let you into a secret. It’s all bollocks. And I’ll tell you for why.

Just because you do a garden design course for a year doesn’t make you a garden designer. Or at least it doesn’t make me a garden designer. What it does make me – or rather what it did make me – was slightly insane.

It’s taken me a year to realise this. But now, with a new year beginning, it’s time to set the record straight. Because –

I AM NOT A GARDEN DESIGNER.

There I’ve gone and said it. And boy, oh boy, does it feel good. Cos here’s the thing…

The reason I chose to do a garden design course (as I explained when  I signed up) was because friends had been asking me to help them with their gardens, make suggestions, offer advice. Which I was keen to do. But before I waded in I felt I could do with a bit more knowledge. I wanted to feel more confident that what I was suggesting was the right thing to do. I wasn’t looking for a full blown, start at the bottom and work my arse off career. I’d been and gone and done that thing once before in my life. I really didn’t need to do it again.

Added to this I had just been through a bumpy couple of years, with loads of family stuff going on, and I wanted to do something for me, something rewarding, enjoyable, challenging. What I was looking for was the life enhancement and fulfilment that I believed would come from learning about a subject I loved. Which is why I signed up for the garden design course at Hampton Court Palace.

So…? How was it? Challenging? Yes. Rewarding and enjoyable…? Hell, no.

The palace was fabulous. The people were lovely. The course was… a frickin’ nightmare. It was. I’m not exaggerating. And it all started out so well.

I loved the early stuff; the sketching, the garden history, the plant knowledge. But, after the first couple of weeks, it all went pear-shaped. To become a garden designer there is so much you need to know. If you’re going to go into someone else’s garden and start shifting earth around, knocking things down, building things, planting things that are going to live, die, grow big, take over… you really need to know your onions. (No pun intended.) You need to be an expert in design, know all about construction, about plants and planting, the climate, all that insurance and liability and who’s responsible for what stuff. You need to know how to sketch and draw, how to design using a computer. You need to know how to set up and run a business. These are vast subjects in themselves. Two days a week for a year can’t begin to do them justice.

So it was mad. It felt as if there was too much to learn crammed into too little time to learn it. Which for a raging perfectionist like me was complete hell. Added to which it seemed to me that we spent far too much time on the superficial stuff, and not enough on the nitty gritty. I wanted more substance and less packaging. For me it was too much about the presentation and not enough about what we were presenting. We were concentrating on, and being assessed for, drawing pretty pictures, when I wanted to learn about what makes a great design, how to manage space and utilise mass and form, the philosophy and guiding principles for putting together a planting plan.

I dropped out, went back, and dropped out again four weeks before the end. I came out of the experience feeling less able rather than more. And I lost myself in the process.

So do I regret doing it? Well I don’t believe in regret – and good stuff has come out of it. This blog for one thing – which led me back to writing. Which in turn encouraged me to have a go at self-publishing The Greenyards Legacy. Which in turn has encouraged me to have a go at writing another book. For this I am eternally grateful.

But if I knew then what I know now, would I have done the course? The answer is a resounding no. It’s entirely personal, but it seemed like a very expensive way of finding out how little I knew about garden design. Given the chance again I would find more practical, hands-on ways of learning how to be a garden designer. If being a garden designer was what I wanted to be. As it is I’m leaving it to the experts, and I’m going to stick with writing.

Will I carry on with this blog? I’m not sure. It depends whether I’ve got anything to write about that I think people might want to read.

Which means that this is yet another one of those watch this space moments. Only this time I don’t know if I’ll be back.

So now what….?

You know how it is when you’ve got a really good friend you’ve been meaning to ring….

The thing is that you haven’t spoken for a while and there’s a lot of catching up to do. So you keep putting it off until you’ve got enough time for a really good gossip. But the longer you leave it the more there is to talk about. And before you know it weeks have passed and you haven’t made the call and she (or he) is beginning to think you’ve forgotten all about her and don’t love her any more.

Well that’s what it’s been like with this blog. There’s been a lot going on, and I keep sitting down to write about it. But then there isn’t enough time. So I leave it and promise I’ll go back to it. But I don’t.  And now, how did that happen, a month has passed and I’m coming to the end of my course, and spring is here in all its fabulousness, and I’m all set to embark on the next stage of this journey called life (ooer, sorry about that…. I’ve just come over all Frank Sinatra).

Anyway, loads has been happening, and it’s exciting, and I’m just going to have to write a few posts in quick succession to bring this blog up to date. And then I can go back to the weekly updates that have been working pretty well for me – and hopefully for you – until it all went tits up and I stopped writing regularly.

So….

Where to start?

Well first there’s the career. You know what I’m talking about? That thing you’re supposed to embark on when you get to the end of a course that has been preparing you to offer a service that people will (hopefully) pay you for. Well next week I’m going in to the KLC studios at Hampton Court for my last day, and it might sound a bit mad but I hadn’t really given much thought until now about the bit that comes next. And now it’s here, and it’s all a bit new and scary, and there’s a part of me that’s thinking that maybe I’ll just go back to writing my unpublished books and forget about the whole garden design thing.

Except for life isn’t letting me duck out of this one. The garden in Hampton that I went to see a year ago is still waiting for me, and I’m going back next week to remind myself of what needs doing. I’m helping friends to plant up their front garden in Kinston; getting on intimate terms with pleached hornbeam. My sister wants me to come up with a cunning plan for her garden in Broadstairs. And hopefully there are more people out there who want some help with their gardens and like the idea of a bit of old dog knowhow. So I can’t stick my head in the sand and pretend I was just doing this course for fun. It’s time to get out there.

Which I’m really excited about. Because now that the year is finally ending (after a fair amount of ducking and diving) I can’t wait to get started. Although it hasn’t always felt like it, I’ve learnt a lot. And now I want to put it into practice.

So watch this space. From hereonin this blog will record the ramblings of a newbie garden designer.

BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT I AM.

My Eureka Moment….

So – to borrow from the Olympics – I’ve negotiated the rails, executed a couple of backside 360s, a pretty spectacular frontside 720, and the finishing line is in sight.

Project 5 is presented and put to bed, and we’ve had a few days to dust the snow off our bobble hats and clear the ice from our goggles. Tomorrow we pick up the brief for the final part of this mad, bad and dangerous to know….

….garden design course.

Ok, so I know it’s not a dangerous sport. But it hasn’t half felt like it! In the course of the year I’ve laughed, cried, decided that garden design most definitely wasn’t for me, dropped out, and dropped back in again. I’ve cursed, thrown things, had several nervous breakdowns…. But I’m nearly through. And the last few weeks have been a bit of a revelation for me. Because I’ve realised that…. you know what…. I can actually do this thing.

It took Project 5, set at the beginning of this final term, to show me the light. Our brief was to come up with a design for the private garden of the Chief Executive and Information Department Staff at…. drum roll…. the one and only, wonderful Hampton Court Palace. My favourite place…. How lucky was that…..

It wasn’t an easy brief. Oddly shaped garden, split into three awkward areas with limited access, which needed pulling together and turning into an inviting space to tempt the staff outside to use it, while delivering year round interest for those inside looking out while they worked. They wanted fragrance, cottage style planting, places to sit. All this had to be achieved without obstructing the view of the building from the outside. So quite a challenge.

But you know what…. I did it. I came up with a concept, design and a planting plan that really worked. That had cohesion and flow and functionality. That I would have been happy to see turned into reality. And that has given me great confidence.

Ok so the presentation of the concept was…. well let’s be honest…. it was pants. Because I came up with the concept, layout and planting in reasonably good time. And then spent the next couple of weeks doing battle with the technology.

Computer aided design – three words that strike fear into the depths of my soul. I lost entire planting plans never to be found again. Spent days trying to work out why I couldn’t get the plants to appear with their names. Prepared lists and schedules in one part of my computer that I simply couldn’t find out how to transport into a place where I could print them out. Things appeared in one shape and size on my computer screen and came out of the printer looking completely different. It was a nightmare. But in the end I managed to produce a master plan and a planting plan.

Master Plan/Hampton Court Project

So I’m getting there. Slowly, in my own time. There is light at the end of this particular tunnel. I won’t get a good mark for my presentation. But that’s fine. Because now it’s just a question of polishing up my skills. You can learn this stuff, this computer generated, bells and whistles, walk me through a 3d model of your design, technology. It’s not rocket science. (Ok so maybe it is. But it’s rocket science for mere mortals like me.) The important thing is coming up with a good design in the first place.

And I can.

Who knew….

I’ve got a confession to make.

This post was supposed to be all about the lightbulb coming on, by George I think she’s got it, moment that I had this week. The ‘you know what, I think I might actually be able to do this garden design thing’ discovery.

But telling you about how I got on with Project 5 will have to wait for another couple of days. Because first I’ve got to own up to a guilty secret.

You know all this weather we’re having….

Well I think it might be my fault. Actually not entirely my fault. My husband Graham has got to take his share of the responsibility. But the finger of blame is pointing straight at us.

I really had no idea, didn’t think, it never occurred to me. When I got myself organised at the start of December, ordered the hessian online, found the string, I thought I was doing the right thing. Just shows you how wrong you can be. Wrapping my tubs to protect them from the icy grip of winter seemed like such a good idea at the time. For the last few years they’d been naked and defenceless, cracking and crumbling as the relentless frosts did their worst. This time it was going to be different.

Then Graham went and got winter tyres for his car….

So there you have it….

What can I say except for I’m sorry. We should have thought. Tubs wrapped in hessian AND winter tyres. Of course it wasn’t going to get cold this year.

All I can say is that I promise we won’t do it again.

And for next winter we’ve ordered a WaterCar.

Back at the Palace….

So I’m back.

And you know what…. it feels great.

There I was on Wednesday morning. Panicking in traffic on the M25, crossing the Thames with the irregular outline of the palace against the sky to my right, parking the car, heaving bags and cases and presentation boards out of the boot, staggering through the security barrier. It was good to find that the old place hasn’t changed much while I’ve been away. But then it has been there for several centuries so I suppose it was unlikely to get up to much in a few months. The mellow brick, the clustered chimneys, the ring of the flagstones under my feet as I walk through the dim corridors, the smell of woodsmoke from the Tudor kitchen as it gears up for the day’s visitors, the way the light falls in the courtyards – all still the same, all still wonderful in the pinch me I can’t quite believe that I’m here way. I’m happy to be back again.

What is different is that, when I climb the stairs up to the KLC studio, the sign-in list by the door has got eight names on it rather than eighteen, and the faces when I go in are new and different. Annie is there for the Crane Park presentations, but no Humaira. Instead Juliet and Philippa and a new bunch of fellow students to get to know. It doesn’t take long though. We’re all in the same boat.

So at last I got to present the dreaded Crane Park Project and hand in the dreaded Construction File. And I’m so glad I did. Because they were both a huge amount of work – and I’ve been hard at it since Christmas finishing off what I started in the summer – so it would have been an awful waste of time not to hand them in and…. get them marked.

Hmmmm…. that’s the bit yet to come. Not looking forward to that bit quite so much. Still it’s done. And it’s a great feeling to have got the other side of both projects.

Because you know something…. I’m feeling really pleased with myself. Because in the course of doing these godammned, are you kidding me, you cannot be serious, this is a crazy amount of work, projects, I found out that I’m capable of an awful lot more than I ever thought. Which is what this course is all about.

So for starters there’s Vectorworks, the movie. Well not actually a movie, it’s a computer aided design package thing. Which when I started out was like trying to learn a foreign language, where nothing made sense, and when I did learn how to do even the most basic thing I had forgotten it by the following day. Well you know something – I did sixteen construction drawings with it. And used it in the Crane Park project to draw up an admittedly basic plan. And I discovered how great it is for doing planting plans. I didn’t do all the fancy stuff that some of the others did to such great effect. But hey I’m an old dog learning new tricks. What do you expect?

Then there’s Sketchup. Another computer design tool that had me a bit stumped. But hurrah for Sketchup for Dummies. So aptly named in my case. Because I used it to help me with my 3d perspective sketches. And it was a bloomin’ miracle. See….

Crane Park sketchup drawings colour version

This is a very basic rendering of my plan – which was based on the Shot Tower at Crane Park as the centre of an explosion with shock waves radiating out from it.

The other thing I did which I have never done before was make a model. This was the thing that finished me off in the summer. But luckily I took photos before I chucked the whole thing in the bin. So I was able to use it in my presentation this week.

IMG_1276Compared to the models that some of the others made – particularly Delphine’s which was a thing of absolute beauty – mine was…. well pathetic would be a fair description. But I did it and it kind of showed me something about the site and my idea. So not a complete waste of time.

And there were the watercolour illustrations of my concept.

Scan 2 And the sketches of my ideas for the burnt wood bridges and benches and fences throughout the site.

And then there was ‘The Dossier’. The leave behind folder to go with the presentation. I used Ipages to do it. That’s Ipages to the uninitiated. I hadn’t heard of it either. It’s a wonderful tool for pulling together images and words. And it allows you to put together a presentation which looks…. well see for yourself.

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 10.57.25

When I gave up work fifteen or so years ago we were still handwriting documents, giving them to our secretaries, who typed them up and gave them back to us. We corrected them, gave them back, and finally we had them in our sweaty little hands. But only words, no pictures. And no clever stuff like colour and different fonts and sizes and moving bits around the pages. So this is like magic to me….

So I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. And it all came together this week. And now we’ve got our next project. Which is an absolute peach. Because it’s at the palace. It’s the private garden outside the offices of the chief exec and other members of staff. How awesome is that.

So hurrah for garden design. And boo to the old me who wanted to give it all up. There’s life in the old dog yet….

Back to the Drawing Board….

Literally….

Because I am. Back at the drawing board I mean.

I thought I was done with all of that stuff. Wind back a couple of months and there you have me shutting the door on my little office in the garden and vowing never to go back in there again. I packed up the drawing board, put away the pens and the layout pads and all the stuff that goes with trying to be a garden designer, cleared up and threw sackloads of rubbish away. My unfinished novel was calling to me.

But the moral of this particular story is never say never….

The unfinished novel is still calling. But it will have to wait a little longer. My final term at KLC, which should have started last September and finished in December, commences on January 15th. It’s an odd feeling – going back after a few months off, to the same place but to different people. My fellow students from Diploma 6 are all done and dusted, embarking on their careers as…. well as whatever they are embarking on. And here’s me going back to school again.

I did have a moment’s…. well actually several moments’…. panic last week when I went to dig out all the work I did in the summer for the dreaded Crane Park Project which has to be presented on the first day back. And couldn’t find it. Had I thrown it all away? Please, please, please don’t say I had….

Well thank goodness I found it. Because if I hadn’t the thought of doing it all again was enough to make me…. well who knows what I would have done. Best not to go there….

Now you have me shut away in my office, discovering that all my pens have run out of ink, remembering what a nightmare it is trying to draw measured perspective sketches, struggling with the challenge of mastering the computer aided design programmes which still baffle me. With the wind and the rain howling outside my window. Was going to back to all of this really such a good idea?

Well you know what…. it was. Because it’s great to get the old grey cells working again, great to be scared, great to face new challenges. With more time and less panic (and Sketchup for Dummies!) I’ve actually managed to master (to a very basic extent) the art of drawing a 3d model of my design for the area round the Shot Tower in Crane Park. People who are comfortable with designing with computers would probably laugh at my pathetic attempts. But I feel like a million dollars.

So I’m presenting my work on the first day of term to a new cast – the students of Diploma 7. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s a bit daunting. But I’m determined to be more relaxed and less anxious about this last term of mine. I got so tired and emotional by the end of the summer that I had stopped enjoying myself. So I’m going to try and take it a bit easier, be kinder to myself. And we’ll see how it goes.