Grounds to note
Recording the details of your garden’s trials and triumphs is an important part of its continuing improvement
Great Dixter, East Sussex; August 2012, from The New English Garden, by Tim Richardson. Photograph: Andrew Lawson
I’ve ordered myself a notebook. Not any old notebook, mind you, but a proper, grown-up Moleskine notebook of the kind once beloved of the late travel writer Bruce Chatwin, with ruled paper, a smart, oxide-green hardcover and an elastic pageholder that snaps tightly over the top.
The reason for this purchase? I am one of the world’s worst record-keepers. Especially when it comes to gardening. Told the name of a must-have plant, I either try to consign it to memory (a mistake, inevitably) or reach for a pen and the nearest bit of paper. Rummage through my coat pockets, desk or the car’s glovebox and you’ll find countless, barely legible, hastily scribbled notes written on the backs of tatty envelopes, bills, receipts, leaflets, fliers, old shopping lists, sometimes even – I admit this shamefully – the insides of books.
Which is silly. The names of those daffodil bulbs scribbled on a paper bag last autumn? Lost forever. Those sooty-black poppies grown from a packet of seeds bought on a trip to Amsterdam? If I hadn’t left the empty packet in the open pocket of my raincoat where a summer downpour reduced it to a small rectangle of damp, grey paper pulp, I might be able to tell you. The same goes for the lines of bedding plants waiting to be transplanted into their final positions. (Which in my defence I did label, before two sets of small, grubby hands – those of my young twin sons – put them to better use elsewhere.)
But it’s not just plant names. The very best garden notebooks are also detailed documents of sowing, germination and flowering times, of the first and last frosts of the year as well as its droughts and deluges , the plant varieties that thrived or disappointed, the combinations that inspired (most often in other people’s gardens) as well as those that never really came to life. In other words, the successes and the failures.
And the surprises. Like the blue love-in-the-mist sown this spring, which turned out to be be pink (note for my new notebook; be wary of using that particular seed supplier again). Or the clematis bought as C. ‘Madame Julia Correvon’ that wasn’t. Or the cactus-type dahlia whose pale petals are tipped in strawberry pink – an impostor for the red and yellow D. ‘Saint Saens’ that I’d ordered. Plants and the story of their mistaken identities has emerged as a strong theme in this year’s garden.
The purpose of such careful note-taking? It’s only by looking back in this way that gardeners can properly plan ahead. It’s the reason why almost every one of the worlds’s best garden makers – among them Thomas Jefferson, Russell Page, Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto – were/are also meticulous note-takers. So this week I’ll be taking a long walk around the garden, mobile phone camera to the ready and shiny new notebook in hand, to make a list of everything that could be improved upon (it will be a long list). Along with photographs, I’ll make a note of every one of those patchy pieces of planting that annoy me, those shrubs that need to be pruned, those clumps of perennials that need dividing or repeating, that tree that could be crown-lifted to let in more summer sunshine.
And given the fact that there’s no praise like self praise, I’ll also be making another list (admittedly, a somewhat shorter one) of the things that were satisfyingly right in the garden this year; the plants still flowering their heart out, the fruit and vegetables – late strawberries, raspberries, potatoes, carrots, courgettes, scarlet runner beans – that are still a tasty feature of our family meals.
On yet another list will be garden tasks for the weeks ahead; clearing beds, sowing seed of some annuals and green manures, planting bulbs and digging up that daffodil I grew this spring – the one whose flowers looked so very pretty and yet smelled so strangely horrid. Its name? I know I made a note of it somewhere ...
A good garden read
If ever there was a book about the business of garden-making which is guaranteed to inspire as well as to stimulate enough debate to fill the pages of at least a dozen garden notebooks, then it’s The New English Garden by writer and garden historian Tim Richardson. (Frances Lincoln, £40). Among the 25 contemporary gardens featured in this superbly illustrated publication is the late Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter as well as Scampston Hall (designed by Piet Oudolf), Crockmore House (Christopher Bradley-Hole), Pettifers (Gina Price), the Olympic Park (James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett), Gresgarth (Arabella Lennox-Boyd) and Keith Wiley’s revolutionary Wildside in West Devon.