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!