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.

Oops…

So…

After the big announcement in my last post about NOT being a garden designer, I’ve got a confession to make. Because I think I might have been a bit hasty.

I’ve just spent the last few hours doing planting plans for my garden. I’ve taken photos, done some sketches, brushed the cobwebs off my CAD design skills, pulled out a few plant guides, and hallelujah…

You know what? I love doing planting plans… I really do. Which is pretty amazing considering that trying to do them as part of the ****ing garden design course I embarked on a couple of years ago nearly finished me off, made me think that I was the most useless person this side of Uselesstown, and turned me into a garden hater.

But it’s amazing what a bit of rest and recuperation can do. I realised things were beginning to turn around when I was able to look through the window at my garden without a feeling of dread; when, after deciding that topiarising my yew hedge into football supporters was a really bad idea, I went out and had a look at the uncut growth and saw Chelsea fans waiting to emerge;

Yew hedge in waiting
Yew hedge in waiting

when I heard my greenhouse calling to me in a welcoming tone, rather than sitting petulantly in the corner of the garden threatening me with all sorts of dire consequences if I didn’t get out there and get going.

The love of my life....
Last summer! The love of my life….

I think it was when Chris (the pruning expert you really need when your climbing plants have gone awol), arrived this morning to give me a hand with rejuvenating the roses and wisteria on the pergola, that I finally knew I was back in business.

Serious pruning
Serious pruning

I was out there in the wind and the rain, loving every minute of it (I KNOW!). And, when it finally got too cold and too wet to carry on, I came in, went straight to my desk, and started plant planningTa-dah!

Ta-dah!

And now I feel like writing about it. So maybe I am a garden designer… Of a sort. I know I said I wasn’t sure if I was going to carry on with this blog. But that was before. And this is now. And writing is what I love doing. And so is gardening.

So…

Watch this space!

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.

The downside….

Ok….

Bit of a bummer….

I’ve discovered an unexpected downside to doing a garden design course. Which is that my critical eye has got more critical…. Now when I look at my own garden I’m seeing what’s wrong with it, rather than what’s right. And I’ve got a worrying feeling that the only answer is a bed by bed overhaul. I think I might have rather a lot of work ahead of me.

The good news is that the basic structure looks as good as ever. How lucky was I that before I properly appreciated what a really good garden designer could achieve I had a really good garden designer as a friend. Thanks to my mate Judes there is absolutely nothing wrong and absolutely everything right with the way the garden is laid out so the backbone is there. And luckily, thanks to her, I realised pretty quickly how important it is to provide a framework of trees and shrubs. So the structure is all there too.

It’s the bits in between that I’m thinking could do with a bit of reworking. And I’m starting with the front garden. To be fair my front garden has been work in progress for the past – shameful to admit it – over two years. Which is when we moved our front door from the side of the house to the middle.

We’ve lived in this house for coming up for fourteen years, and the thing that never worked terribly well for most of that time was the front entrance.

Fourteen years ago we moved in….

It was tacked onto a corner, from the days before we moved in when the house was smaller, with the porch leading through a front door into a narrow corridor. So that people came in and were surprised that there was more house than they expected.

The dining room window is the one in the middle....
In those days the front garden left a lot to be desired….

And it’s going to sound really sad, but I spent years trying to come up with a solution. Move walls here, put doors there, make this room smaller, that room bigger. Nothing seemed to work and I ended up thinking that we would just have to live with it the way it was. Until Christmas three years ago when I had one of my Eureka moments (they come if you wait for them) and realised that the thing to do was to lose the dining room, because it was never a very nice dining room, and we were always happier in the kitchen; turn what was the dining room into an entrance hall; turn the existing entrance ‘corridor’ into a downstairs loo; turn the existing downstairs loo (never great because of a difficult sloping ceiling) into a rather wonderful cupboard/walk in larder. And hey presto. A reworked house that worked the way it should have always worked, but just never did. Hurrah!

Except that when you move a front door from the side of the house to the front, the front garden needs reworking too. And it coincided with me being tied up with family stuff, and then I started the garden design course…. And time got taken over. And it slipped away the way it does.

So suddenly it’s two and a half years later, and the front garden still looks like it did when the builders left but a bit tidier.

Except for now I’m a garden designer. So that’s not great…..

But finally, a couple of weeks ago, I get round to looking at it. And it’s my first chance to put some of the stuff I’ve learned into practice.

Posh huh....
Posh huh….
Box balls in waiting....
Box balls in waiting….

So I did. And although you might not be able to see it yet, I think its going to work. I actually did some sketching to help me work it out. And I planned it properly. When I walk through it now I’m really pleased with it. More than pleased with it. I’m really excited about it. Because when it’s all grown up I think it’s got the potential to be a front garden I can be proud of.

Give it some time....
Just give it some time….

And these days that matters.

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 to CAD….

So here goes….

I’m coming clean, putting up my hands and owning up.

You know all that stuff I wrote at the end of the summer about being on a break, taking a breather, spending some me time before going back to Hampton Court for the final term after Christmas. Well I was lying. Had no intention of going back. Was embracing quitterdom with relish.

I was tired and emotional and I had had enough. I never wanted to see another 3D model again, couldn’t contemplate a CAD drawing without wanting to throw my laptop out of the window. And the thought of embarking on a perspective sketch – well this is going to sound overdramatic…. but it made me feel physically sick.

So for the last couple of months, while I’ve been editing my book and working in my garden and generally having a pretty wonderful time, I’ve been thinking that at some stage I would have to confess to this blog that I was a gardening school drop out, that I wasn’t going back, that my relationship with garden design was well and truly over.

But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And thank goodness I didn’t. Because you know what…. I’ve changed my mind.

Last week I went back to Hampton Court for a talk to the KLC students by the wonderful Andy Sturgeon. My intention was to kill two birds with one stone, to meet one of my gardening heroes, and use it as an excuse to tell everybody that I wasn’t going to finish the course. But they say ‘never say never’…. and they’re right. Because Andy showed us some of the gardens he has designed and it was like he had a special message just for me. There was the Chelsea garden which I had used in the mood board for my interview and his spiral garden which I had used for my Everest concept garden. It reminded me of how much I had learnt in the first two terms and how much I had already achieved. How could I thin about giving up when I had come so far?

So I’m going back in January to finish what I started. And I’m really excited about it. I’ve got to finish the summer projects: my Construction File needs 13 more CAD drawings (yes 13!!!!) and I’ve got to go back to the Crane Park Project which has quite a bit more work to do on it. But I’m looking forward to it. Which goes to show what a difference a few months off can make.

I’ve actually done a few of the CAD drawings this week. It’s been tortuous because I haven’t done any work with CAD since the start of the summer term. But it’s amazing what a difference it makes when you’ve got plenty of time to play around and you’re not panicking because you’ve got a deadline looming.

So my advice to anyone contemplating doing this course is to think long and hard about it. Because when they say it’s a lot of work they mean it. To get the most out of it you need to clear the decks and be prepared to work flat out without a breather for a year…. And that includes the holidays. It’s a massive commitment.

For those of you waiting with bated breath for the publication of my book you’re going to have to wait a bit longer. I’ve finished editing but want to give it one last tidy up before presenting it to the world. But hey – I’ve been writing it for the past seven years so what’s a few more months.

So I hope you’ll stick with me and this blog for a few months longer and who knows where we might end up….

Even the best laid plans….

Ok….

So a slight change of plan….

For those of you expecting to sign in and read about the final term of the garden design course that this blog started out being all about – I’m afraid you are going to have to wait a bit. Because I’ve had to put it on hold. And the reason why…. I’m going to be honest…. Because I underestimated the amount of work involved and simply didn’t manage to get it all done.

When I signed up last year I didn’t expect to have quite so much course work to do over the summer holidays. Actually I didn’t expect to have quite so much course work to do, full stop. So I planned to do lots of other stuff, including my trip to Everest Base Camp at Easter, and didn’t leave myself enough time (or energy) to get everything done. Cue panic….

Add in some unanticipated family issues that needed my attention, and I found myself contemplating the start of the autumn term with two projects unfinished, a new project to get started on right away, and the realisation that I simply wasn’t going to be able to get it all done. But all is not lost. The fates – and the lovely people at KLC – have been kind to me. Demand for the Diploma Course has been so great this year that they’ve been running an extra course which started the term after ours. So they are very kindly allowing me to delay completion of the final term until January 2014.

So a few words of advice to anybody thinking of doing this course. Believe them when they tell you…. it’s a huge amount of work.

But I’ve been lucky. And now I’m going to devote the next few months to re-editing and publishing my favourite of the five books I’ve spent the last twelve years writing, completing the unfinished projects for the course, working in my sadly neglected garden and…. having a bit of a rest.

I’m going to keep on blogging, so I hope you will all stick with me. I don’t know where it will take me, or what I will be doing at the end of it all. It’s a bit of a watch this space situation. So stay tuned….

Just call me Vita….

Work experience…..

Isn’t it that thing that teenagers do in the summer holidays? Go and spend a couple of weeks in an office, filing and photocopying and watching the clock until the end of the day. At my age it it’s the last thing I expect to be doing….

The year’s course at KLC requires us to spend time during the summer break working in a garden or a nursery for a couple of weeks. It’s viewed as an essential part of the experience. I had been allocated two weeks at Great Dixter in July, which I had pulled out of at the last minute when my father in law died. And a week at Long Barn at the beginning of August.

Long Barn is the house that Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson moved to when they were first married. They bought it for £2,500 in 1915. It was Vita’s first home after Knole and, with the help of their friend Lutyens, she and Harold created a garden that would be the precursor to Sissinghurst.

It’s a house with an amazing guest list – visitors included Virginia Woolf, Stephen Spender, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Oh and Jane King of course….

IMG_0507

The current owners had been kind enough to offer the opportunity for a couple of us to come and spend some time in the garden, so I went to there to make the arrangements earlier in the summer. And was blown away.

Steps and Terraces

But being blown away by a garden and doing hard labour in it are two very different things. And on that Monday morning in early August, having undertaken the eleven hour drive back from Ullapool the previous day, and with my own garden in sore need of some serious attention, I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to get started.

Shows how wrong you can be.

This garden is pretty close to my idea of perfection. But it’s not open to the public. So to spend a week there in perfect weather, sun shining but not too hot, working from one area to the next, pruning and cutting back, sometimes talking with fellow student Ann and head gardener Richard as we worked, sometimes quietly getting on with it…. let me tell you it doesn’t get much better.

We pruned roses.

Before pruning....
Before pruning….
IMG_1162
During pruning….
After pruning...
After pruning…

We worked in the vegetable garden.

Before....
First you see it….
After....
Now you don’t….

We got up close and personal with some onions.

Before....
Before….
IMG_1218
I could swear there were onions here when I last looked …..
There they are....
There they are….
And finally.... Onion Art
And finally…. Onion Art

And made a lot of trips to the compost heap.

Taking a breather!
I need a break!

There were unexpected bonuses. I got to spend time with lovely Ann, a kindred spirit in the making. And Richard, the head gardener, was friendly and patient and very kind to us novices.

And then of course there was Vita.Vita-Sackville-West3

Yew Trees and StatueI followed her ghost along the side of the majestic yews planted by her husband.

The OrchardWalked beside her through the orchard.

IMG_1157Gazed out with her across the fields and wooded slopes of the Weald.

Trying to see the garden through her eyes – and influenced no doubt by the photos I’d seen from the days when she lived here

Long Barn– I had a moment when I saw the world in black and white.

Glorious TechnicolourSo that when I snapped back into the present it seemed almost unnaturally colourful and bright.

How lucky were we? Ann and I? To spend time in that special place. To work in that unique garden. No doubt I will visit many more wonderful gardens in years to come. But I can’t imagine I will find one to live up to Long Barn.