'The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul'
Alfred Austin, The Garden that I Love, 1894

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Green Therapy

If I had a drum to bang, it would be this: in an age when society is so permanently wired up to technology and virtual worlds, there is no better therapeutic antidote than to put the smartphone/tablet/laptop away and step outside into a green space where real things live and breath, wind blows, birds sing, and clouds skud across skies. There need be no more interaction than what you choose. No-one is speaking to you, no-one is telling you what to do or how to behave. It's just you and the landscape that surrounds you. This may be your garden, a park or the wilds of Exmoor. The point is that it doesn't matter as long as you are somewhere that envelops you in nature, where colours, scents and sounds change with the seasons and where you can be at peace with yourself.

The Peak District was once known as The Green Lung of England. In those days it represented an oxygen-filled, fresh-aired escape from the industrial smog and particle packed air of the cities, towns and mills of Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Derby and their satellite towns. While the mills are long gone and the city air has been cleaned up, it now provides respite of a different kind: technological detox. It allows city folk to feel mud and grass under their feet rather than man-made concrete or tarmac; it allows eyes to take in new sweeping horizons and perspectives; it allows lungs to take time to breathe. Yet none of this is any good unless the technology has been switched off.

It is not possible for Man, once so in touch with his instincts, to continue in the direction he is going without some kind of balance being re-introduced. If society is to continue on a civilised upward curve (which currently seems increasingly unlikely), we urgently need to reconnect with the natural world around us (before we destroy it completely) and to re-awaken our innate intuitive powers. Our ancestors were born out of the earth and we should always maintain that connection, that humility, if we are to remain a civilised, functional society. We are a tiny fragment of an infinitely larger picture - one that our scientists and astro-physicists are continually trying to explore and understand.

At the most simplistic, achievable level, gardening can help with this. It can literally bring us down to earth. It allows us time to think and ponder instead of continually rushing headlong. It re-connects us with the matter out of which we developed. 

Anyone who has picked up a spade, fork or trowel and tilled the soil will understand what I'm trying to get at. Anyone who has raked damp, musty leaves (or dry crackly ones) will understand. Anyone who has planted the seeds of new life will understand; anyone who has pruned an old plant to encourage new growth will understand. It is the very joy of being 'in the moment', of cultivating and nurturing, putting in and getting out, that is food for the soul. And if the soul is happy, the mind is happy; if the mind is happy the body is happy. It is a virtuous circle better than any business plan or economic utopia. 

It is no surprise to me that we are seeing more instances of cancer. We live lives these days that create triggers for ill-health. And all it takes is one trigger. If we are permanently wired and connected, then we can never truly rest. If we can never truly rest, we are not allowing our bodies the time they need to recover. The human body has a remarkable ability to self-heal but our modern lives seem intent on preventing this happening. All you have to do is put a hyphen in the word disease: Dis-Ease is what you get.

So many of our modern diseases are examples of a body out of kilter - from cancer through to the many auto-immune diseases which abound these days. Too many of these are triggered by stress - which is the state of permanent 'readiness' for fight or flight which our bodies remain in when we are stressed. An overly stressed body is an overly tired body and an overly tired body is at greater risk of malfunction. At a mental and emotional level, depression appears to be on the rise - or maybe the taboo is being finally lifted and, as more people suffer, more people talk about it and acknowledge its presence in 21st century lives.

No surprise, then, to see the rise of Mindfulness in recent years - so much so that it is virtually becoming an epidemic in itself (yet another example of how our modern society has lost the ability to balance - everything is boom or bust, done to excess as we increasingly lose our ability to moderate). Twenty minutes a day of intricate colouring is certainly restful for an overworked brain, but how much better is the smell and touch of the earth, the sound of sea or birdsong, the rain on your face? Only then do you get a true sense of your place in the universe, of your ultimate insignificance and yet your timely importance. Being in touch with the natural world is being in touch with your essential self. How much better this than the version of yourself you too often choose to present to society in our increasingly virtual existence?

Each generation is moving civilisation forward - such is the nature of progress. But we should all remember that such progress needs to be positive, not negative. Gardening should no longer be sneered at or assumed to be merely for the retired and redundant. It is therapeutic at all levels - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. If we all had a bit more of it in our lives - or at least spent more time in green spaces, parks, fields, woods, rivers, seas and mountains - we may well be healthier, happier and better able to contribute positively to the development of humankind. It is arguably a perfect example of how the micro can benefit the macro, and how the individual can benefit society as a whole.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Funny old game, gardening.

Early September 2015

Leaving the garden in July to go away for a number of weeks is never easy. Everything is in full flower and the fruit and vegetables are about to yield. It is now that I need to be around to pick raspberries, strawberries and blackcurrants; to grab any peas that have survived the slugs and mice; to cut the lettuces and to feed, water and nurture everything else.

Last year, two weeks of extreme heat followed then by heavy rains left me with nothing but disappointment on my return - drought stress followed by wet stress is a killer. This year the rain has been abundant but the sun and heat have been miserly so, once again, I have very little to show for weeks of hard work.

The first set of runner beans I planted are doing well with plenty of long, straight pods developing. The second set are weak and paltry and I doubt will produce anything much at all at this point, confirming once again that timing is all in vegetable gardening.

The strawberries have not had enough sun and the raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants were stripped by the birds. (At least something got to enjoy them!)

I grew dwarf broad beans this year and they have produced nothing. I won't be doing that again - bigger plants, bigger yields clearly holds true.

I have had a couple of small courgettes (again, anything that was ready while I was away was duly eaten by slugs and snails) and a few shallots and garlic. The cabbages became as Victorian lace, the rocket, chard and curly red lettuce bolted. The celery put on a reasonable show and the parsley proliferated. The lavender, contrary to all reason, is flourishing again and I have been able to make little muslin bags full of pungent perfume to put by my pillow and lure me into sweet dreams. I didn't do carrots this year but I seem to have a good enough number of potatoes, all grown in pots to avoid the worst perils of growing them directly in the ground. I have mint too. Lots of it. Endless mint tea. Lovely.

As for the rest of the garden, the lawn is looking exceptional thanks to all the rain and Ian's hard work earlier in the season scarifying it to get rid of some of the moss build up and make way for more grass. The roses have been lovely and I continue to dead-head them to prolong the show. The heleniums, anemones, actea, cosmos, crocosmia, achillea, rudbeckia and sedums are also creating colour in the borders and the grasses and everygreens are maintaining structure and interest. If nothing else, my planting schemes to prolong the season (so that on my return from summer holidays there is still much to relish in the borders) have actually paid off.

In other words, it's not all gloom and doom. And best of all, I have picked a delightful little posy of sweet peas whose looks and scent quite simply sum up the quintessence of an English garden.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Seasonal Succession

What a delightful time of year this is in the garden. A gardening must, in my humble opinion, is to have perennials, shrubs and trees which hand the baton of colour and interest seamlessly from one to the other as the seasons progress.

Thus in late winter the white carpet of snowdrops takes over from any real carpet of snow, followed by the nodding whites and mauves and greens of hellebores; the purples and whites and yellows of crocus; the blues, pinks and whites of the delicate windflowers and the pinks and whites of cyclamen, perhaps an understorey to the red and yellow and green naked stems of cornus and salix. 

Soon to follow will be the yellows of daffodils, forsythia, gorse and broom, the multi hues of tulips, the soft purply cobalts of bluebells and the whites and deep reds of hawthorn; with these also come the white and purples of wisteria, the pinks of clematis Montana, the yellows of laburnums and the rainbow of colours which are the gift of rhododendrons and azaleas. 

Frankly, the list is endless and I will go on no longer. You get the picture: an artistic palette of ever-changing moods. For whatever sadness you have that the seasonal blooming of one plant is over, another should soon whisk you away to new areas of sensory delight. 

I have been lucky in the garden I inherited. It's structure of mature trees was sound, giving it the permanent bones all good gardens need to endure. Mature shrubs also abounded together with well-stocked beds of perennials. Over the years I have had the pleasure of taming those that have outgrown their spaces and removed those that have passed their usefulness. I have further stocked the borders, re-balancing the abundance of perennials and stuffing in as many appropriate ones as the earth will take to continue the theme of permanent interest and ever-changing palettes of colour. The large lawns and the many trees mean it is all too easy to become overly green, so I am always trying to manage that balance of nature in the most light-handed way possible. 

I will give you a quick tour of how things were in early June. The photo quality is not marvellous as they are snapshots taken with my ipad, but they give an idea.
The wisteria has been beautiful this year. The alchemilla mollis is starting to take over the terrace as it does every summer. Some of the Aucuba have mysteriously bitten the dust. Time to fill the gaps with new planting ideas.

Doronicums and daisies add a burst of colour to the late spring/early summer border.
Welsh poppies start bursting up through every nook and cranny and will always remind me of the day we moved here 12 years ago (31st May 2003).

Wallflowers amongst the ferns. Always a favourite.

The bright new leaves of a young pieris.

The lupins are splendid this year - thick strong stems and hearty flower spikes.

More bright bursts of daisy colour.

Welsh poppies mingling with the geum.

Clematis Broughton Star.

The Stipa gigantea, planted last year, finally taking off a bit.

The large, old shrub rose.

There's nothing like a rose bud...

Alliums happily increasing their numbers over the years by self-seeding.

This beautiful Ravenswing (purple cow parsley) has finally taken off this year...

More lovely wallflowers.

Orangey-red and purple - I always love that colour combination.

The acid green vibrancy of new foliage punctuated by the blue cornflowers and purple pom-poms of the alliums.

And here we have white pom-poms on the Guelder rose (viburnum opulus) - another favourite.  

Clematis montana scambles through the hedges with gay abandon.

The copper beech leaves are still a light shade of burgundy rather than a deep shiraz.

The ponticum is getting going. Often an unwelcome intruder, but always colourful.

Orange erysimum and blue forget-me-nots hob-nob under the Rhododendron luteum.

The sweet-smelling luteum, also a heady reminder of our arrival 12 years ago.

Bold red blooms of a well-established rhodi...

More elegant white, living side-by-side with the red like an old married couple.

New plantings of azaleas.

Euphorbias catching some sunlight and brightening up a dark corner.

Nothing better than mown paths through long grass.

I've been adding planting around the stream: candelabra primula, wild garlic, hostas, ferns and tiarella.

Dappled sunlight through the dell.

Lily waiting ever hopefully and patiently for her red frisbee to be thrown...

Dappled sunlight on a hosta.

Bronze fennel blowing in the breeze and adding a contrasting featheriness to the uprights of the alliums (and excellent for cooking and infusions).

Green wall punctuated with colour.

The old rose again.

Fabulous flowers on the clematis this year.

The beauty of a new lupin spike.

And back to the beginning again....

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Garden Philosophy

9th March 2015

An early lesson to learn for any gardener is that it is not always therapeutic. For every success in gardening there is failure, and much is learnt by trial and error. At its worst it can be hard work and demoralising - and at its best, quite simply, joyful and rewarding.

Last year was not the best. A lot of time and money was spent on generating the borders and developing Dingly Dell, on carefully preparing the vegetable patch and sowing, planting and nurturing. Yet most of my efforts were, if not totally wasted, well, somewhat compromised. The first reason was a rather strange weather pattern; the second was some unwelcome visitors; and the third was a life-changing event.


No mortal can ever predict the weather. It is in the lap of the Gods. Long gone are the regular seasons of popular myth: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Rather, we often get a bit of spring in winter, a bit of winter in spring, a bit of summer in autumn and a bit of autumn in summer. Take last year: there was a week in early March where the temperatures soared. I remember walking round one of our local reservoirs in a T-shirt - the sunlight as strong and warm as on any English summer day. I enthusiastically started sowing peas directly into the ground, the soil nicely warmed for germination, only to have cold, wet, miserable weather descend for much of the next six weeks. The peas rotted. I sowed again in late April. They rotted again. I gave up and tried them in pots in the greenhouse only for many of them to be eaten by mice or slugs. The few that I managed to get in the ground as young plants struggled to put on any meaningful growth and rapidly fell prey to more slugs and snails, flourishing as they were in all the wet, warmish (but not warm enough) weather. Not forgetting that I garden at 1,000 feet above sea level with strong winds and an awkward facing garden surrounded by huge trees and steep hillsides. It is quite a battle, I can tell you. Of course, it doesn't help that I go away for five weeks at the end of July, just as anything that might have survived is coming to fruition. This year, because of the heat of July, I came home fully expecting to have a bumper crop of at least some things - only to find that Ian, who helps me with the garden, had been away in what turned out to be the hottest two weeks of the summer and that anything that was there had frazzled and dried up without watering. I do not have a water supply at the top of the garden and rely purely on lugging up watering cans. It is far from ideal.

It was for all these reasons that, a few years ago, I spent time, energy and money re-developing the puny and unproductive vegetable patch: I created raised beds to help manage the soil temperature, composition and nutrition; I built a dry stone wall around it to help contain warmth and protect from some of the harsher elements (frost, wind, etc); I cut back hedges and trees to create as much light as possible. In short, I did it all by the horticultural book - yet this much-loved patch still remains relatively unproductive. I have the greatest success with broad beans and runner beans and the wallflowers seem to like it. Sweet peas struggle, peas struggle, apples struggle, potatoes struggle (unless in a grow-bag), cabbages struggle. Leafy salads are reasonably successful if the slugs don't get them. I managed a reasonable clutch of shallots. Onions, leeks and carrots remain pitifully small. Garlic never seems to do a lot. Endless sowings of radish never germinated. Ditto beetroot. Rocket did ok and the raspberries that used to grow wildly in the grass before I developed the plot flourished too, though less so now they have all been moved.

In summary, I could say that last year, all I really got were some runner beans, some broad beans, a bit of salad, some redcurrants (but you have to grab these before the birds strip the plants bare) and wild blackberries, a few potatoes, a beetroot and some shallots. And the quantities I am discussing here are barely enough for more than a couple of family meals! Surprisingly, for a mediterranean plant, the lavendar did quite well while the sage rotted and the sweet peas and nigella basically didn't happen. 

You can imagine my inner despair, therefore, when I visited a friend who has just moved into the most amazing manor house in Oxfordshire complete with enormous walled vegetable garden which would once have fed the whole village, and two inherited full-time gardeners to tend the patch. She doesn't lift a finger and gets more vegetables of gigantic proportions on a daily basis than I could ever imagine in my wildest dreams. Quite depressing really. As I cooed over the enormous size of her carrots and beetroot and parsnips, I chatted with her gardener and took a crumb of comfort from the fact that he confirmed it had been 'a very strange year'. He was complaining how hard it had been to cultivate things this year - but I would still have given anything for his carrots, beetroots and parsnips which looked like Gulliver compared to my pathetic (actually, non-existant) Lilliputian offerings. I took little solace from coming home with a bag full of giant carrots, beetroots and parsnips and an amazingly beautiful collection of healthy gourds (they had so many they didn't know what to do with them even having shoved them in every nook and cranny of the voluminous house for Hallowe'en).

Further demoralised, I chatted to Ian about it all as well as another friend who has been producing armfuls of lovely veg on his High Peak plot for years (but unlike mine his is south facing on a slope - perfect). Both men confirmed too that 'it had been a very strange year' and that production had been poor.

Unwelcome Visitors and a Life-Changing Event

My objective last year was to regenerate some borders which were getting a little tired and understocked and to create some winter interest. Ian had worked like a Trojan adding home-produced compost and leaf-mould to the borders and I had fun coming up with a planting plan and choosing the plants. During Spring and early summer we had also been putting in all sorts of flowers and shrubs to enhance the Dell. I had taken a trip to Bodnant Gardens in Wales to get some inspiration around rhododendron and azalea time and had come back with a bootful of plants they were selling in their garden centre. It struck me that what would grow there should also like my conditions as they were not dissimilar in terms of terrain and climate (albeit in a micro version). So I bought bog-loving candelabra primulas to plant next to the stream, together with more ferns, grasses, marsh marigolds, arum lilies and euphorbias. Ian had picked up a number of azalias and some rhodis at market which also went into the Dell. My overactive imagination was taking over now and I had a vision of this woodland wonderland! We put in forsythias in appropriate gaps elsewhere around the garden together with some brooms, viburnums, dwarf conifers, acers, wallflowers, lavenders, agapanthus, pieris and all manner of other things. To cheer up the bare soil beneath some trees and hedges we under-planted with daffodils and snowdrops (which I had dug up and divided from the Dell). I also went to a plant fair at Adlington Hall in Cheshire and bought another whole load of perennials to ensure the herbaceous border was full of colour and interest. In short, we planted a lot of new plants!

I remember showing my mother-in-law around the garden in early November, proud of what we'd achieved and pleased it was still looking so interesting and fresh even at that time of year, especially as the last border we renovated had been planted up with lots of things for winter interest which included evergreens and grasses. So you can imagine my dismay when, a week later, when I was down in the South of England with my father critically ill in hospital, that I received a phonecall from a friend to tell me that we had a dead cow on the lawn! In other circumstances this might actually have seemed rather funny - but instead it was a horribly symbolic omen of what lay ahead for my father who in fact never made it out of hospital. Worse still, in fact the entire herd of cows (13 it turned out) had got into the garden while we were all away (the children being looked after by friends) and had wreaked havoc. They had broken down walls and gone down the banks into Dingly Dell; they had eaten all the beautiful aged ivy off the boundary walls, smashed pots carefully planted up by Ian, they had lain in all the shrubbery, they had shat EVERYWHERE and the lawn looked like a ploughed field. What they hadn't eaten they had tugged at and pulled up. But the fatal mistake was chewing away at my fastigiate taxus baccata (Yew, by any other name, and deadly poisonous). So I then had a heffer staggering around the garden, trashing even more stuff, and foaming at the mouth before keeling over in front of the summer house where he still was, stiff-legged, when my friend had brought the girls home to get some clean underwear! You couldn't write the script really. The farmer had had to devise a rope and pulley mechanism over a tree branch to get the dead beast off the lawn and out of the garden and his uncle (my neighbour) had then spent many laborious hours with him trying to clear up some of the mess. By the time I got back at the weekend it was still a very sorry sight and Ian and I walked round, incredulously, logging the extent of the damage. It took hours of Ian's time to try and sort things out - as I had neither the will or the time as I was rather spiritually and physically broken by everything that was going on with my father. It was even sadder that my garden was my spiritual haven (especially as I was, at the time, so out of love with my house) and just when I needed it most it was simply adding to my overarching gloom and depression.

So what do you take from all that? Well, you could just give up. Or - you could affirm that you shall not be beaten, turn up your collar to the wind and go out and try all over again. Until about a week ago I was in the first camp. Then, as the first warmer spring sun started to come through the other day, I felt my morale rising like the sap and vowed to get out there and have another go. And with that attitude, I fed the birds and got to work on sowing some seeds...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Through the Seasons

'Our lives today are governed by the endless ticking of the clock. The ancients talked of the Wheel of Time, the constant circle of birth and rebirth. We choose a totally different metaphor: for us, life is a constantly flowing stream. In our mind's eye time marches or flies, it never stands still and it never recedes. This linear view of time makes us hurried and impatient, and is the root cause of the hurry sickness which has become such a destructive feature of our modern lives.'

This passage has been taken from 'The Therapeutic Garden' (Donald Norfolk, Bantam Books, 2000) and quoted in 'The Art of Mindful Gardening' (Ark Redwood, Leaping Hare Press). The message strikes at the heart of everything I struggle with in daily life - the constant need to be juggling and rushing, the difficulty of finding that elusive element, Time, in which to simply Be. If we are not careful we all miss the defining element of life - in other words the fact that we have been given the miracle of birth and that we are spending our living days on a living planet before we leave it again and return to the earth and the ether. So much of these precious hours and minutes that we have been given are spent rushing from one thing to the next in this Time-hungry world that we have created that it is nigh on impossible to find moments in our daily lives in which to be still, to look, to hear, to smell and to appreciate. 

It is even an issue with gardeners who, arguably, should be adept at being in touch with the natural world and taking refuge from the madness without. But even here it is all too easy to be constantly finding a job to do in the garden: to be sowing, cutting, weeding, primping, pruning, digging and the like. I am always getting cross at my own mother for making her gardening too much like hard work with her need for everything to be perfect such that the garden risks becoming a burden rather than a joy, especially as age creeps up on her.

While I accept that gardening is an act of taming nature, we should always work with nature rather than against it. Don't plant plants unsuited to their climate and environment - all that does is set you up for some time-consuming over-management, expense, and, ultimately, disappointment as things fail to thrive. 

I was lucky enough, I admit, to inherit a garden which was fully mature, but when you look around you see that the plants and shrubs and trees have broadly been chosen because they are suitable for our climate here. There are astilbes, loosestrife, aruncus, ferns, rhododendrons, cornus - all things which are happy in this cool, damp, upland environment. Welsh poppies and alchemilla mollis pop up in every crevice. It is a garden at ease with itself, happy to be what it is rather than trying to be something it isn't.

In winter the mature trees, conifers, evergreens and deciduous shrubs hold the shape of the garden - it's bones exposed - still offering so much naked pleasure to the mindful eye...

The snowdrops bring the first flush of life and cold colour...


....followed soon by the optimistic yellows and pinks of spring with the daffodils, forsythias and blossoms.

Next the soft scent and hues of bluebells fill the dell together with the brasher colours of the azaleas, the rhodis and the primulas while the new vegetation is bright and fulsome... 



From the brilliance of May and early June we move into the blowsy maturity of July...

...while with late summer comes a faded grandeur before Autumn brings a new elegance ahead of the untidiness of November....

...and then the peace of Winter again...

nd so the wheel of the seasons turns, each bringing its own pleasures which we should strive to find the time to appreciate. A garden is for living in, not just working in.

'There are times in our lives for acceptance and nurture....And there are times in our garden for contemplation, rest, and dormancy'. 
(Cultivating Sacred Space Gardening for the Soul, Elizabeth Murray, Pomegranate 1997).