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 ...