From the start…

So I’m sitting here now wondering why, exactly, I have started this blog. I think it’s mainly for myself, so please forgive me if you have stumbled across this accidentally.

Gardening is my favourite hobby. Anxiety is my most usual state of mind. From waking in the morning to going to sleep at night I can generally find something to worry myself about; there are good days and bad days, on good days my anxiety drives me and helps me achieve things, on days like, well, today, I want to sit and cry all day. One of the main reasons I don’t cry as much as I feel I could is my garden – it is a distraction technique, and just when I feel myself tipping over into that little black pit I stand in front of myself and say “so anyway, what should we plant in that far corner next Spring, it can’t stay like that, can it? so, what do you fancy doing….?”. And more often than not, I answer myself.

So that’s what I want to write about. Gardening is therapy for me – I don’t have a big garden, which is probably good because neither do I have much of an attention span. In my garden I can leave a job half done and not beat myself up about it. I can spend all morning playing with one unimportant detail and happily not notice the weeds filling the lawn. I can ignore it for a couple of weeks when I don’t feel able to do anything for it, then blissfully throw myself into it for a day and emerge mud-splattered, dishevelled, with torn nails and a stupid grin on my face, knowing that I have once more managed to save the world from near destruction. Or something equally important.

So if anyone is out there, bear with me. I may be back, I may not.


The Colouring-in book

We recently had a conversation about colouring-in books, I have tried this as a relaxation exercise but found it, well, boring if I’m honest. I think part of the problem was that however many pencils you have you are always going to be limited with your choice of colours, and also, however nice the overall picture is, some bits are just downright dull to fill in. A friend said that she does this using her iPad; we all stared at her and she said “yes it’s great, and so quick, you select a bit to fill in, then click on a colour, and there you go! quick, easy, and no risk of going outside the lines”. She was genuinely mortified when we all laughed, and explained that she was possibly missing the point here.

So – what is the main point of the colouring-in thing? I realised that in effect, this is what I’m doing when I’m gardening. It’s like colouring something in which automatically wipes itself clean every season, or at least every year; you are constantly trying to find not only the right colour to fill that gap that’s suddenly appeared, but also the right texture, and you’re also having to plan ahead because the chances are that when the colour you’ve planted finally comes to maturity the gap it is filling is by then a completely different shape, or may even have disappeared altogether. You can spend months finding the right colour, going over seed catalogues, magazines and books, an exercise which can actually be a lot more enjoyable than seeing the plant finally in place.


I think what I also like about it is that you don’t have to go for a wide range of colours, you might choose to stick with a subtle selection and just go for variations in texture:


And the best bit is, that if you’re not pleased with the overall effect, next year you can choose a whole new range of colours, and move the lines around so you get to fill in more interesting ‘shapes’. Going back to my previous post, you can create a shape within a shape, and one corner of the garden which may just look green from a distance may have all sorts of details within it, which you can only see from up close.

Gardening as meditation is a very valuable exercise, and it can be very therapeutic standing in your shed, listening to the rain outside while you pot up a few dozen seedlings, and it’s a very calming thing to work your way slowly down a border pulling out the weeds and doing a bit of gentle dead-heading, but it’s also good to look at the “big picture” sometimes, to take that step back and decide what page of your colouring book you want to start on next. Not as instant as iPod colouring in, but infinitely more satisfying.

Worlds within worlds…

Some days it feels as if you could be out in the garden all day and not achieve a single thing (as per my previous post).  Viewing the garden as a whole can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, there are days when it all feels too much, there are days when you just can’t be bothered, but I’ve learnt not to punish myself for these days. While it’s true that I always do feel better for doing something out there, and I have never yet been so disheartened by the whole thing that I’ve given up completely, I’m happy to allow myself days off from it, or, as a compromise, set myself a small project instead of trying to fix the whole world.

I have found myself recently quite obsessed with small detail, and creating a small ‘garden within a garden’, a little corner set aside for when the rest of it is just too much. It can be very satisfying creating a small world, just for yourself. I love alpine plants but my garden isn’t sunny enough, so I have taken the idea of putting small plants into barely noticeable corners and niches and have discovered a fondness for sempervivums. There are a lot of examples of this sort of detail in gardening, this is from a wall at RHS Harlow Carr:


DPP_0018and it does look fairly achievable…

Sempervivums are available pretty much anywhere now, you can even buy “hens and chicks” on Amazon, which give you several plants in one.  They grow well in shade and are very hardy – the birds dig mine up, looking for ants, but I’ve found uprooted baby plants which have obviously been out of the soil for some time and managed to replant them in the tiniest bit of soil, and they’ve still survived. But I do think it’s important to have a theme, if you are going to create these detail areas – mine, at the moment, tends towards kitchen items.

IMG_8146the above picture is part of a further contentious area of the garden, the “soakaway that doesn’t”. I shall write more about that later.

So yes, you need a theme. I find Pinterest a brilliant source of ideas, and the theme of recycling disused items is a very common one, but there is also a large collection of more ambitious projects. Fairy Gardens are not my thing, to be honest, though you do have to admire the imagination that goes into these – maybe it’s something I’d like to do when I retire. It’s important not to overdo a theme though – a small collection of broken pots and galvanised buckets can look fabulous in one corner of the garden, but if they take over it will just look like an overgrown junk yard. Besides, an important part of the appeal of these details for me is that visitors will come across them accidentally, or will only notice them if they look closely enough. It’s a secret garden thing, I think.

So I would encourage anyone to try this, to think small and just focus on one area, use your imagination and beautify an overlooked corner in your garden. It’s a mindfulness type thing. There is a lot of inspiration out there. I have an old gardening book, “The complete book of gardening” (1954) and I love browsing through this on a rainy afternoon. I looked at the section on building rockeries and garden features, and found this paragraph about building a Moraine garden. “(the) ideal and natural position for the Moraine would be at the lower end of a valley between two rocky spurs, the gorge gradually expanding into a flat bed of scree with occasional boulders strewn over it”. I don’t know that I will ever own a garden large enough to be able to casually strew boulders over it, or to have it’s own valley and scree bed, but we live in hope. Maybe there’s a way of doing this in miniature too?

Small beginnings

I work in an office, and as if often the case when you get a group of administrators working together, chances are at least some of them are going to have their own variations on OCD and other odd behaviours. In our case, I sometimes think our office is like something from “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”. We had quite an important breakthrough last week, and one of our number has put herself so far outside her usual comfort zone it has left us all amazed – she is still nervous about the task she has committed herself to, and I’m not saying there won’t be tears, but so far so good. Some elements of the job she has taken on would hardly merit a second thought for a lot of people, but they’re absolute mountains to her; it’s so easy to take for granted what a lot of us find easy and second nature, and to forget that to some people these things represent absolute nightmares.

So. Some years ago I lived in South Africa, we lived on a very smart golf estate and we had a beautiful house, but the garden had been neglected and was quite overgrown compared to what it must have looked like when it was first planted. I decided to take this project on, and got up early one morning armed with the pitiful collection of garden tools left by the landlord, and a lot of determination, and set to. As I tugged on one piece of creeper running through the border, bushes on the other side of the garden moved – it was completely infested with this stuff. But I carried on, and did what I thought was an amazing job; it wasn’t finished but you could once again see soil, and some shape to the plants, and I felt it was a very worthwhile first day’s effort. As I tidied up in the afternoon a team of professional gardeners came past the house, and one of them told me that they had been the team that originally planted that garden, they had loved it and it had looked so beautiful when originally planted, “but we see it now madam, and we cry”. He did actually say cry.

So I stomped back into the house and had a long shower and a serious sulk, I’ll admit to having been quite upset by this. All my hard work, and people still felt the need to burst into tears when they saw the state of it. I had my shower, my husband came home and we had a meal, and we had a relaxing evening in. And 7.30 the next morning I was up again, tackling the same area of garden but a lot more methodically, and this time it really did look better, though probably still invoked unease / hysteria in any passing professional. but I learnt from this experience, as I’ve learned from gardening in general:

  • Your first attempt at a new project may well be rubbish. In fact it’s almost certain it will be. Before you realised how rubbish it was though, if you were enjoying it and had high hopes it would work out, chances are it’s worth continuing with.
  • Your second attempt is probably not much better than your first.
  • By tackling it in small stages you are improving all the time – if every part of a task is new to you don’t be too hard on yourself if overall you don’t think it worked out. Some bits will have been more successful than others, and gradually there will be more successful bits. As a musician friend once said to me, when playing a piece of music don’t stress over the single bad note you played, think about all the good ones.
  • It gets easier. All of it.