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.
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.
This week in the garden it’s been more slow build than mad dash. The snowdrops are filling out splendidly, the scent of the sarcococca is noticeably gathering in the air, the hamamelis buds are beginning to show their spidery finery. And this is all good stuff. But the muscari…
This is the week that I curse the muscari.
These are the muscari that I chucked into the edge of a couple of borders one year after they had done their lovely thing in my containers.
Let me tell you that this was a big mistake! Because around about now is when they pop up where they aren’t wanted, looking all grassy and meh. They hang around in tatty clumps and annoy the hell out of me. Last year I had a purge and thought I’d got rid of them all. I moved a whole heap of the little blighters to fill the area under the espaliered apples in the veg garden. But here they are, back again in the borders. And particularly annoying, they are mustering right outside the kitchen window.
So I’m staring right at them, right this very minute.
My advice for what it’s worth is to be cautious of anything described as vigorous. Invasive is self evident; we all know to steer clear of invasive. But vigorous can sound like a really good thing. The problem is that once you’ve got vigorous in your garden, it’s going to be with you for a very long time. So you’d better be sure you like it.
My current offenders are the aforementioned muscari, an acid yellow primula that popped up out of nowhere and at first I rather liked, an alstromeria I innocently bought at a plant fair. There are others that turn up a bit later, like alchemilla mollis, centranthus ruber, valeriana officianalis, verbena boniarensis and tellima that I like enough to forgive their overenthusiasm. But you can have too much of a good thing and liking can turn to loathing when there is an overabundance.
In my opinion muscari are best in containers or borders where their clumping habit is acceptable. This is not in full view of where I sit to eat my breakfast.
Apart from muscari madness we have had another bit of excitement in an otherwise quiet week in the garden. This morning saw the arrival of…
If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that I wage constant war with the rabbits in my garden. And nine times out of ten – actually make that ten times out of ten – they win. A couple of weeks ago we noticed that a mound of earth had appeared in the corner bed on the drive side of the house. Seemed like the demon bunnies were tunnelling their way in. Quick call to the pest control people who have helped with a rat problem in the past. Vanessa the pest lady pops round and tells us that this time round we have a rabbit problem.
Now I don’t need this spelling out. But under the house is a new one on us. Vanessa suggests that ferrets could be the answer. My favourite ever answer phone message is the one that begins: ‘Hello, this is The Ferretman speaking…’
So Martin turns up with his ferrets. And it’s all very exciting. And he gets going with nets and ferrets. But the rabbits are too clever for us. They appear to have gone elsewhere. For the time being at least. I know full well that they will be right back the moment that The Ferretman has gone.
So the week outside has been a source of irritation. Inside I’ve been much happier. Inside I’ve been obsessed with my hippeastrum.
Last year my sister Lucy and I each bought a hippeastrum bulb from Petersham Nursery. Simply described as ‘orange’. We planted them at the same time in the middle of November. Hers went ballistic, grew about two foot tall in what seemed like a matter of days, and was flowering by Christmas. Mine did pretty much nothing. For weeks I thought it was dead. Until it showed a little tongue of green. And grew. And grew.
And then last week it began to flower.
I’ve been recording its progress.
First one flower began to open.
It opened a little bit more.
Then another flower got going.
I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
At night, under a spotlight, it glistened and gleamed. It was hard to believe that it was real.
This morning it was in full flower. Taking up so much space that my problem was a lack of a background to shoot it against. I tried black velvet – not a large enough piece to fit in the whole flower head. But enough to give an idea of its fabulousness.
I’ve had more pleasure from this one bulb than from a million muscari. But they will have their chance to redeem themselves when they start to flower. Then I will forgive them anything.
What am I saying…? I’m not in the Big Brother house. I don’t watch the Big Brother house. I have no interest in the Big Brother house. But, since I started these weekly posts, whenever I start to think about the next one I hear a booming voice in my head saying ‘Week Five (or four or three or whatever week it happens to be) in the Big Brother garden.’ And I know it’s time to get writing.
Maybe it’s the weather that’s making me hear voices. This week it feels colder and greyer than ever and I’m beginning to feel a little bit stir crazy. I’m looking out at the garden, and I have absolutely no desire to go out there. Which is making it something of a challenge to come up with what to write.
But, luckily for me, there was a day this week that the Great Garden God smiled. And the day he did was Tuesday, which happened to be the day that Chris, the Rose Pruner, was coming to help me with pruning the roses on the pergola that are too high for me to get to on my own. It was the day that the wind dropped and the the sun shone, and we were able to get on with pruning, and I tidied up the apple trees which have been nagging me for weeks. And apart from discovering that the pergola that holds up the roses and wisteria is rotting away, which is one of those one step forward, two steps back moments that go hand in hand with being a gardener, it was a really good garden day.
One of the best things about it was that I got to use my new Niwaki telescopic pruner for cutting stuff that is very high up. I bought it for myself in January after last year’s purchase of Niwaki shears changed the box shaping/pittosporum sculpting task forever. (I find it hard to believe that I am the woman who gets excited over a garden tool. But hey ho.)
So I was too busy wielding my new toy to have much time to take photos for this post. Which is not such a bad thing because as much as I love my roses they are not at their photogenic best when they’ve just had a short back and sides. But I did manage to stop and take some shots of the seedheads of the Hydrangea Annabelle to send in for the last assignment of my online photography course.
This was my attempt at achieving/creating Bokeh. Have you heard of Bokeh? Me neither. (Or maybe you have heard of Bokeh, and it’s just me.) For the uninitiated let me tell you that Bokeh is ‘the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.’ It means ‘blur’ in Japanese.
I used to think blur was a bad thing in photography. Which just goes to show how much you can learn in a short space of time.
Each of the four assignments I have had to complete for the course have required me to send in two to three photos. With the lack of flower action in the garden and the inclement weather I had to resort to sending a photo I took last year of Amelanchier blossom shot against Tulip Apricot Beauty as an example of using a contrasting background.
I was worried it might be cheating to use last year’s material. But I’ve just heard back from Clive (did I mention how much I love Clive!) and he loved the combination of white and apricot. And said it was an ‘attractive flower study’. And he thought the ‘Bokeh’ shot was the best one I’ve sent him.
So I’m happy. In spite of the weather it’s been another good week. And who knows what next week will bring!