Winter of my discontent

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungles), Kimberley, WA

I am never very fond of my garden in winter, but this year I seem to be particularly discontented with it. Maybe because I recently spent several weeks in a landscape so vast and spare, with a typical scene comprising a single tree surrounded as far as the eye could see by hummocks of spinifex grass (cue one final photo from the Kimberley trip); on coming home, my garden looks so cluttered! It's as though I am seeing it with fresh eyes, and I don't particularly like what I see.

Plants propagated for no particular reason

The problem is that for the past 35 years, since I became a gardener, I have been a collector. I came to gardening because of a sheer fascination with plants, a love of flowers, and a sense of childlike wonder about how things grew. My quest was to get to know as many plants as possible in my lifetime and work out which ones were best suited to my Sydney garden. My general modus operandi has been thus: go to a nursery/plant fair, buy whatever takes my fancy; bring them home and then wonder where on earth to put them. Or, visit a friend's garden: receive (gratefully) as many cuttings as possible without seeming to be totally avaricious, bring them home, strike them; then wonder where on earth to put them. My 'potting area' usually groans with plants awaiting homes - often for years on end! In my imagination, I have acres to fill; the reality is a suburban plot. Whenever I am going away for a while, I spend the day before departure feverishly trying to plant them out, stuffing them in any old spot, just to get rid of them.

I like this vignette with just hellebores and Iris japonica, which is not too cluttered

As the years have rolled on, shoehorning more and more plants into an already 'full' garden has become more and more of a challenge. The problem is I love and want them all! However, viewed with dispassionate eyes, my garden has indeed become rather overcrowded, chaotic and busy. After so many years of plant acquisition, I feel I need to take stock and start to reduce the visual clutter by making bigger groups of the same plant for greater impact and better cohesion. And I have realised that the parts of my garden that I like the best are those where there are fewer plants, arranged in a more meaningful and simpler way. Such groupings are just somehow more satisfying when you step back from looking at individual plants and look at the whole picture.

An over-planted area that contains too many disparate plants

Easier said than done, however, to reef out long-loved plants. But I feel I need to act whilst the feeling of discontent lasts. Other plants are annoying me because they are in the wrong place: usually because I haven't given them enough room so they are crammed in and unable to develop their full potential - alas another consequence of trying to fit in too many plants into a finite area. Luckily, winter is the perfect time to move plants around in the garden. Give them a good dose of a seaweed extract after the move and ensure they get enough moisture for a few weeks after the transplantation. Plants really do benefit from being given more space around them - whether they be a tiny seedling or a majestic tree. Competition for sunlight, water, nutrients and air stunts growth. Plants can actually be killed by nearby specimens growing over them - as I have often found, to my sorrow.

Salvia Pink Icicles: once loved but now despatched

Whilst I am in this ruthless mood, I also plan to get rid of plants that for whatever the reason no longer 'spark joy' (to quote Marie Kondo, household tidying guru). Marie counsels that we should politely thank the item for its contribution to our lives then throw it away (or compost it, in the case of a plant!). I've realised that a number of plants in the garden have failed to live up to the expectations I once held for them. Or they have negative qualities that outweigh the positives. Or else, I've just grown tired of them. Plant obsessions wax and wane, and whereas I would once have to have anything that was called Salvia, for example, I now find I am getting a lot more discerning about whether a plant is a good doer, rather than just another one to add to my collection. I'm also quite over most of the huge Salvia that need so much cutting back a few times a year, for example. One great thing about getting rid of such specimens is that it gives space for something new ... aargh, what am I saying???

I know my garden is never going to be a minimalist expanse of spinifex grass with a single tree, but right now I feel that natural landscapes have something to tell me about restraint, and maybe that is not a bad thing for the plant-obsessed to occasionally consider ...

Reader Comments

  • By Janelle 2132 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I know exactly what you are saying as I feel my garden is the same. Good luck with your ruthlessness!! Thanks, Janelle. It is a tricky thing as I do love my plants! Deirdre

  • By Shelley 5158 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I totally understand its do you want a beautiful looking garden or an extensive plant collection. I went to visit a "collection" last year and it didn"t have the look of a beautiful space far too busy. Good luck in culling your plants. Perhaps they could be given away to be sold for charity or you could even sell some on gumtree. Yes you are right that I should find new homes for my plants elsewhere rather than simply composting them! Deirdre

  • By Ann 2029 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I did enjoy your latest blog - I have a large garden just out of Goulburn and I have always done exactly what you describe - no planning, I just want every different plant!!! However it is lovely to be in that peaceful atmosphere with little blue wrens all around. Thank you, I do enjoy reading your column. Ann Thanks, Ann. It is so tricky as I do love my plants but I feel I have too many now! How lucky you are to have the blue wrens in your garden. I love all the parrots we have at the moment but would love some of the little birds to return. However, the mynah birds seem to have driven them away. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I agree, you do need to be discerning with plants. It has taken me many, many years to reach this conclusion. It is difficult, as there are so many plants I like (or think I want). Large clumps of one type do make an impact - the dilemma is to decide just which ones I desire most! The choice is not made easier, with a small space, such as mine, as I do like to see a full garden. However, there comes a time when "enough is enough"! Thanks, Margaret. I have been collecting plants for so long now that the garden really is very full. For the moment at least I do not want to acquire any more, and wish to make sure that I really love those I have in the garden. Deirdre

  • By Pat 2536 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I suspect your garden is over reacting to the enormous amount of rain we have had lately. I share your reasons for gardening and yes, my garden is lush - any spare bit of earth beckons for filling. But it is a refuge for all the small birds that visit. cool in summer and sunlit to a degree in winter providing dazzling shadow plays. Gardens are dynamic forever changing, Sure do a bit of snipping, reflect and if your garden still doesn"t fill you with joy, go,ahead. Pat Yes I do not want to go too far in the other direction and I do love all the wildlife that visits my garden and finds a refuge here. Deirdre

  • By Susan 2430 Monday, 20 June 2016

    Oh how I wish for the bounteous garden look! We are 3 years into landscaping a hectare from scratch and everywhere I look there are bare patches and future plans. I take inspiration and ideas from gardens like yours - so full and varied and thoughtful. Leave the minimalist look to mother nature and to those fashionable landscape designers. Susan, I know exactly where you are in your gardening journey as I was there about 20 years ago -- a totally new garden started from scratch. I could not imagine that things would ever grow big! But in time it all happens and then one ends up with it overplanted like mine! But I know I love plants too much to become a complete minimalist! Deirdre

  • By Christine 2429 Monday, 20 June 2016

    Such a common problem for gardeners who love plants,flowers and trees to distraction. Susan 2430 took the words out of my mouth!! Every garden is individual and reflects its owner"s love. Thin out a bit and do some regrouping but I bet you can"t get rid of as much as you plan....always looks lovely to me. PS next time stay away from the wide open plains. Thanks, Christine; I am pretty sure I will not end up denuding my garden; my next holiday better be in a tropical jungle I think! I am amazed how suggestible I am though, when exposed to a particular style of landscape for a few weeks. It is wearing off now though ... Deirdre

  • By Lesa 2445 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I am about to do the same thing. My garden is only 5 years old and over planted to get a lush look, where I have culled and opened up it is much more pleasing, yet still lush looking. Broms, grasses and anthuriums have clumped up and I have taken out the other fussy groundcovers that I was using to fill. Still a work in progress, and not an easy task, who can ever "throw" a plant away? Empty space has aesthetic value too. It certainly is hard to throw a plant away. Giving it away to someone else makes it easier. I think we do need space in a garden but it is getting the balance right that is the tricky bit! Deirdre

  • By Pam 3216 Monday, 20 June 2016

    Deirdre, you are too hard on yourself! I always think that minimalist gardens look good until you have to look at them every day, then they are BORING! The joy for a true gardener is enjoying a quiet moment walking around her garden and noticing the changes and the small hidden things that are not at first obvious. That"s what you have got. Thanks for a great blog. Thanks, Pam; I do know what you mean about walking round the garden looking at everything. Very structured gardens can be quite static and I do love looking for things that have happened in the garden: buds, new growth etc. I know I will always be a plant lover! Deirdre

  • By Sue 2372 Monday, 20 June 2016

    How I wish to have such a full and luscious garden as yours! We moved to our present block 3 years ago. It did not have one single tree or shrub on its 3300 sq metres. We have since planted close to 200 trees and small plants/shrubs but they are still small in height and some struggle with our Nothern Tablelands NSW climate...lots of wind, minimal rainfall and cold winters.But we love it here and are hopeful that in the years to come, we will see our garden flourish with gorgeous deciduous trees. I do know what it is like to be starting from scratch. Those early years can be a bit frustrating but once things get going it is a joy to watch them grow and mature, like children growing up! All those trees etc will be amazing and it will happen quicker than you expect. Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I too have a cull every so often, as a few loved plants multiply out of hand. Usually they are bagged and put on the footpath with a "Free to good home" sign, or taken to the local garden club to be given away or sold as bargains. So nice to be able to give plants away to a good home rather than consign them to the compost heap! Deirdre

  • By Wei Jen 3805 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I agree with Pam. If you enjoy having different plants, always want to plant something new, and a collector, a minimalist garden might be boring for a busy gardener. Maybe just tidy them up or do a bit of moving them around. I can totally relate with your propagation problem. My potting area looks exactly like yours. HAHA! So many plants, so little space. Good luck with your new garden arrangement. Yes I agree a minimalist garden can be too static. I do love my plants and after a bit of moving things around I am sure I will be happy with the garden again. Deirdre

  • By Helen 7256 Monday, 20 June 2016

    Well Diedre, I identify with your dilemma - its a constant tug of war between wanting to try that new plant & trying to achieve "breadth of effect" (even in a larger garden)! Have just been reading Michael McCoys books (Gardenist & M M"s Garden)and he obviously has the same struggle. I am inspired by your blog to harden my heart & cull those plants which are not really thriving or which I don"t really love as much as I thought I would. Thanks, Helen! It is a fine line between variety and interest in planting and a spotty effect, in my experience. I think I want to streamline the garden a bit and give it more cohesion. But I know I will always be a plant collector! Deirdre

  • By Caroline 4105 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I absolutely agree! During the last 25 years of my garden journey I have done exactly the same. If there is a plant I don"t have I just have to have it. It"s either propagated, acquired via friends or purchased from a nursery. I too always manage to stuff it in the garden somewhere. Trying to find the right position can be a trial though. I love the "full" look and sometimes it works and sometimes not. Off now to do a clean out, then to hunt for more replacements....never ends! Yes gardening is a never-ending process; plant favourites come and go but I do have my stalwarts and one never knows what plant is around the corner waiting to be discovered. But I do have ones that have not lived up to my expectations over time and they are on borrowed time. Deirdre

  • By Norman 2653 Monday, 20 June 2016

    Hello Deirdre; can you imagine going to a plant nursery; or a plant fair and only being able to see 1 or 2 plants; all the best wishes to you and your family. Yes I know you are right; we need a big palette to choose from and I know I will always be a plantaholic. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 20 June 2016

    I relate to all you have said. Last week for the first time in my life I paid someone to do do weeding because at the moment it is all beyond me and, if I"m honest. is likely to stay that way without outside help. Having about a 75% tree canopy makes my job easier of course from the point of view of what I can plant. Hmmmmmmmm. Good luck with your garden; I know the time will come when I need more help to maintain my garden. Deirdre

  • By Janna 0 Monday, 20 June 2016

    It seems we can all relate to this, Deirdre! I"m always so inspired by nature but it"s hard finding that optimal balance in the garden. You are clearly in tune with garden fashion (the concept of which makes Paul laugh!), as it has changed over the years. We didn"t all like the minimalist phase but I think the naturalistic phase will continue to be popular with real gardeners for some time. Sorry you didn"t leave my place with bags of cuttings...I assumed you wouldn"t find anything of interest! It is certainly an ongoing challenge to find the balance between variety/interest and cohesion, mass and space etc, particularly for a plant collector. I loved seeing your Sydney garden as it had that balance I have always sought! Tumbler is going well, by the way. Deirdre

  • By Gil 2037 Tuesday, 21 June 2016

    Loved it Deirdre. Of course, you could always move to a larger garden :) Sadly I know that my next move will be in the other direction, but hopefully not for quite a long time to come. Deirdre

  • By Cheryl 4213 Tuesday, 21 June 2016

    I know what you mean about rejuvenating the garden but be careful comparing your garden to the outback when mother nature is in waiting mode. I have seen both faces of the outback. The one you witnessed of great rolling plains of red dirt but I have also seen the wonder of the landscape after rain where the red dirt can no longer be seen because of the carpet of wildflowers. The wildflowers are so thick over the ground they completely cover the red dirt and there is no space for anything else. What an amazing vision that must be and I have never seen spring wildflowers - would love to one day. Thanks for a great point. Deirdre

  • By Robyn 2761 Tuesday, 21 June 2016

    I totally loved this blog, I chuckled to myself in agreement & the comments given from everyone! Thanks, Robyn. Certainly brought up a variety of thoughts on the topic and gave me lots to ponder on! Deirdre

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