Editing the garden

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Long Border at Great Dixter, West Sussex, England

Whilst watching a very good program on SBS television last week - British Gardens in Time - which featured Great Dixter garden in East Sussex, I was fascinated to hear the head gardener, Fergus Garrett, talk about all the changes he planned to make to various borders in the following winter, in order to improve them. In my early gardening days, I assumed that once a garden was made, it would be right forever, and I could sit back and just admire it, cup of tea in hand. But nothing stays the same in a garden over time. Great Dixter, of course, has seen huge changes in its long history: the ripping out of its revered old rose garden and replacement by a tropical display is one well-known example. As an editor by trade, it occurred to me that gardening in an established garden is a bit like editing - a process of tweaking to improve our plots from one year to the next.

Editing a manuscript can range from the proofreading level (correcting spelling mistakes, fixing punctuation) which to me equates to weeding and deadheading in the garden; to copyediting (changing sentences to improve their clarity or grammar) which is kind of similar to pruning overgrown plants or moving plants around in the garden that aren't in the right spot for whatever reason; to major structural editing (where the whole formation of a document is reconfigured to make the intended communication more logical or coherent) which is like relandscaping all or some of the garden and rearranging the main elements! (Of course, in actual editing, the process has an endpoint, when the document is published, whereas in gardening, the process just keeps on going!)

I once loved this curtain of Trachelospermum jasminoides on my verandah but it went wild in the end and had to be removed

Every level of editing a document is important and so too are each of these activities in our gardens at some stage or other. Weeding and deadheading are ongoing tasks; the other activities result from feeling discontented with what is happening in the garden over time. It is a simple fact that plants grow! They can outgrow their allotted spaces or even take over in a rampageous way that we never anticipated, self-seeding or running from the roots. Alternatively, plants can just get old, woody and unattractive. Sunny areas can become shaded as nearby trees mature. Planting schemes we've planned sometimes don't turn out in reality to be the triumphs we had imagined - the flowering periods may be disappointingly short, the colours may clash horribly, or the plants may fail to thrive because they don't suit the climate.

As we learn more about design, we can become dissatisfied with our existing garden. Garden compositions can be unsatisfying when there is too much - or too little - variety of plants. As was pointed out in the television show, there needs to be contrast (of texture, colour, shape, size) to give visual interest and excitement, as well as continuity in those same elements to lead the eye on and make us see a garden area as a cohesive whole. The balance between these two fundamental aspects can change over time and they need to be amended periodically to restore the equilibrium.

Border in my front garden two years ago, now altered

Other things change too over time - our plant fads, our knowledge, external gardening fashions, our ideas on planting (garnered from books, friends or visiting other gardens), our energy and ability to garden, and what we want from our gardens. We (or at least I) also constantly acquire new plants that need a home: a challenge in an already full garden! I do think it is a useful exercise to go round the entire garden at least once a year with a notebook and evaluate each and every plant: to see how healthy it is, what contribution it is making to the garden, whether we still actually like it or not, how much work it is requiring from us during the year, and if it is in the right place. It's probably best to make these notes when the garden is in full flight (sometime around now!): you won't be making many of the changes now, but come next autumn and winter, you'll have a plan. Sometimes after a number of years, a major overhaul is required of a section, or a new area may be earmarked for development for a new vision you may have for your garden.

Murraya paniculata hedge in my front garden, the only vestige of the original garden I created 22 years ago here

My front garden, planted 21 years ago, contains only the Murraya hedge that was put in at that time. None of the other original plantings remain! Constant alterations over the years as my ideas have changed mean that the garden has never looked the same from one year to the next. I hope it is an upward trajectory. Who knows what the future will bring? Maybe one day I will turn it all over to vegetables!

Reader Comments

  • By Elizabeth 4035 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 30 November 2015

    I love the notebook idea. This week will see me notebook and pen in hand. Thanks for sharing. I have used a garden notebook for many years - in fact I have a whole box of filled ones! They make interesting reading! Deirdre

  • By Christine 2429 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 30 November 2015

    Thanks Deidre - all so true. Definitely the case in my "new" inherited overgrown garden with nice plants plonked at random with no relationship to each other or the site!! Esp. plantings of grevilleas and banksias next to camellias - no wonder the natives look a bit sick most of the time. Is a challenge but doing a section at a time - still miss my old rambling country garden created over 13 years - but we all must move on I guess!! Love your blogs and enjoying British Gardens in Time too. Very hard to leave a beloved garden but the new one I am sure will turn out to be just as good. Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 30 November 2015

    Enjoyed the "Gardens in Time" show too. I bought a 2nd hand copy of Christopher Lloyd"s "Hardy Perennials" maybe 20 years ago, and tried growing many after seeing them in English gardens - not all successfully. Native plants can mix with exotics - my white azaleas look terrific against purple mintbushes (Prostanthera)in Spring. I love Christopher Lloyd"s books - the plants he used often didn"t suit pour climate but I was inspired by the way he put plants together and his bold use of colour, plus his constant experimentation. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 30 November 2015

    My garden has seen many changes, over the time I have been here. Thinking about it, after reading your blog, stirred me to look out some old pictures, and I was amazed to see what plants I have cultivated over the years. Changes need to occur from time to time, for various reasons. I visited Great Dixter, before the rose garden was ripped out, and was lucky enough to have Christopher conduct a tour around his garden. Irascible, forthright, but definitely a knowledgeable man! How wonderful to have Christopher Lloyd take you round the garden! I visited there in 1987 just before the rose garden was removed. It was a joy to be actually there at the garden I had read so much about. I hope to go again one day to see how it has evolved. Deirdre

  • By Bren 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 30 November 2015

    Thanks for alerting me to the Gardens in Time TV program! How did I miss that? And what a border that is in the picture of Great Dixter! The English do herbaceous borders so well.... Their borders are wonderful. I think we can achieve a similar look, using plants that flourish here. Not many of those gorgeous herbaceous perennials like our hot summers, alas. Deirdre

  • By Jan 2582 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Tuesday, 01 December 2015

    I really enjoyed this - thanks Deidre! Thanks, Jan. Hope all going well for you. Deirdre

  • By Janna UK Wednesday, 02 December 2015

    Wasn"t the Great Dixter programme wonderful? I think it was the first thing I had watched on TV all year, and it was worth waiting for. Sadly I was out last night and catch up TV is well beyond me. But I switch from loving moving a lot and hence getting the chance to start again (my thinking changes so often!) and wishing I had somewhere longer term where I could tweak and get something "just right". Maybe the latter isn"t really very realistic! I think it must be good to start again and apply new ideas; it hasn"t happened to me very often (only once in fact!) but I am heartened by the gardens of older friends who have recently downsized and made fabulous new compact gardens very quickly, using all the knowledge and experience they have gained over a lifetime of gardening, avoiding the mistakes of their earlier years. Deirdre

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