Sunday, 02 February 2014

Clutter can accumulate in the garden as well as in the house

Like many people at this time of year, I have been decluttering cupboards and drawers in the house. It is a horrid job, made worse by the fact that I have avoided doing it for so long that much junk has built up. It's strange that I can 'see' boxes of unused stuff in my cupboards crying out to be sorted, yet ignore them for years. Much stuff is hard to throw away because it has sentimental value - or because it simply has always just been there! I've decided that keeping anything non-essential is where hoarding begins, as the mere fact of having been kept confers a certain significance on what are really not such important items - such as every single newsletter from each school my children attended: and those children are now adults!

Plectranthus Nico with Tradescantia pallida Purpurea and Buddleja farreri growing alongside a path in my garden

I've been pondering how clutter can accumulate in the garden as well as in the house. The obvious things include an overabundance of empty plastic pots, broken garden tools and so on, but it can also involve plants. I, like most gardeners, try to cram too many plants into limited areas, and the result is a cluttered, busy-looking garden. None of the plants have enough space to really develop into the specimens that they could be. Removing plants that aren't performing well (as maybe they don't suit our climate, for example) or which simply don't please us provides space and frees up resources in the soil for the rest to flourish. Also, I have learned over the years that massing a few plants of the same type can actually look a lot better than cramming 50 different plants into the same space. The area pictured in the photo above is one of my favourite parts of the garden yet it contains only a couple of different plants. The same plants are repeated further along the border with just a few different types.

Annual Cleome hassleriana

Plants contributing to a cluttered garden may be doing poorly or be downright ugly, but because they have been there a long time, we tend to not see this objectively, so leave them there for even longer. I think it is better to get rid of a plant as soon as you realise it is a dud or fall out of love with it, to avoid it acquiring an undeserved status by simply having hung around your garden for so long. Some plants we may have once loved but we've grown tired of them, they require too much maintenance, or we just don't enjoy them anymore. One example in my garden is the tall annual Cleome. For 20 years, they have been one of the mainstays of my main summer border, but I am now completely over them, as they take up too much space, the flowers wilt badly on hot days and the plants become very gawky as they age. The plants are also horribly sticky, have thorns, and self-seed very vigorously. I've decided to grow the hybrid perennial form instead, which seems to be more compact, has none of the vices of the annual form, and flowers most of the year as well! Other plants (such as a number of my Salvia and Buddleja shrubs) are still favourites but they have become old and woody, and are in a decline - so not contributing the way they used to. They are the equivalent to the worn-out clothes in your wardrobe that really should be tossed away - and in the case of plants, replaced with fresh specimens of the same thing if you still love them!

A tip I have found useful in decluttering the house is that for every new item bought, you have to throw an old one away (or donate it to the thrift shop). The same thinking can apply in the garden, if you are tempted into buying a new plant but there is nowhere to put it. I buy very few plants nowadays, because of lack of space, but if I could be disciplined enough to remove an underperforming plant every time in order to put in a new one, this could be the way forward.

As in the house, the process of decluttering a garden requires one to walk round looking systematically and objectively at each and every plant and decide what contribution that is making to your garden, making lists if necessary. I do find the most difficult things to throw out are ones that dear friends have given me as cuttings over the years. The same applies for items given to me as presents inside the house as well - it as if the item almost personifies that friend and it would be an act of betrayal to get rid of it. However, when I really think about all presents - and plants - I have given to people over the last 40 years, there are very, very few I can really remember at all, so I wouldn't be offended to know that people have chucked them away! I try to apply the same reasoning outdoors. Another tip I've learned from the (many) decluttering guidebooks I own is to take a picture of a particularly heart-rendering item for posterity, then ditch the item itself. This has helped me part with old toys from my childhood and even baby clothes worn by my children. The same principle applies to plants that seem hard to part with - take a photo then despatch the unworthy plant. At least in gardening, the offending items can find a good home in the compost heap - or with another gardener!

Plants propagated for no reason soon clutter a bench

The potting area of a garden can become very cluttered if, like me, you tend to be unable to throw away prunings of favourite plants. It seems such a waste to compost these when they could be propagated into new plants ... but then I end up with racks of plants and have no idea what to do with them, and they become a burden to look after. It' best not to pot these cuttings up in the first place, I've decided!

The very best part about decluttering is that the older you get, the sooner you forget about what has gone from your life. One large box I found in the house recently whilst decluttering contained the label from every plant that had ever died in my garden (the labels having been kept as 'research' I was doing at one stage into which plants do and don't thrive in Sydney). I hadn't thought about any of these plants for years! AND I successfully managed to throw those plant labels away ...