It would be easier to make and maintain a good garden if we could see what we are doing. But we can’t. The problem is that we can go out and look at our gardens every day without ever managing to see them clearly.
I think the difficulty is that evolution designed us to notice novelty, because it is picking out a change in a familiar landscape that alerts us to danger. So, as we walk round the garden we see things that have changed overnight or since we last looked. Sadly our danger mechanism is often alerted, and it isn’t the flowers that have come out that we notice, it’s the mole hills or shallots that have come out. But either way, it’s the detail. It is almost impossible to see the garden as a whole, evaluate our design and see how it’s coming along.
The familiar always goes into the background, which is why we love to buy new things. We buy a new teapot, for example, and love its shape and the pattern on it. We imagine that our mornings will be transformed for ever by the pleasure of making our tea in this lovely new pot. And certainly the next few mornings do have an added lift. But slowly and inexorably we stop noticing it. And then we long for another new thing to see. The same is just as true in the garden, and it is probably this that fuels that relentless appetite for new and “unusual” plants.
So if we really want to see what our garden is like we have to play tricks on ourselves that enable us to see it again. The simplest is to go away on holiday, but it’s also one of the most expensive. And then, when we do come back from holiday, we are again most likely to quickly focus on the detail because we are anxious about whether things are all right. We will see the plants that need watering, the grass that needs cutting, the rabbit that needs strangling. Evaluating the overall design is not a priority at this point – unless you realise that this is a very rare opportunity to see your garden freshly and you rigorously pay attention only to that aspect. I think there are better ways.
One is very simple, and can be an absolutely delightful little trick – try looking at the garden in the reflection of a window of the house. It’s amazing how we can walk past such reflections every day and never notice that they show us a totally new, Alice in Wonderland garden. It may be a bit blurry and out of focus, but there’s your garden, wrong way round and looking totally unexpected.
Another way is to walk round the garden focusing only on one aspect. I was reading about focal points in the garden one day, and then went out into the garden. I looked at the meadow and suddenly realised what was unsatisfying about the curvy paths I’d mown in the long grass. By that same evening we had bought a statue and installed our new focal point at the end of an avenue to be. This avenue now seems to me to have all the obviousness of a design that works, but it took this trick, of just having one aspect of the garden on my mind, to enable me to see it.
You could equally go out just to look at all your shrubs. These often grow so slowly that we don’t notice their size or contribution to the garden picture anymore. They can begin to completely obscure a view, but so gradually that we forget what we’re missing. Or sometimes we miss good bits. I planted some evergreen shrubs at the edge of our drive, and I can remember the shock of pleasure I got when one day I suddenly noticed how satisfyingly big they’d grown, so that they were nearly fulfilling my original intention. At moments like that it seems extraordinary that I could have not noticed such a thing. But I don’t think I am alone in this blindness.
So, at times I walk round the garden simply concentrating on shapes. This can lead to a bit of judicious pruning, or even a positive orgy of cutting and hacking. Sometimes I’ll just look at colour. Planning for colour combination and contrast in theory is easier than getting it right in the borders. Every year flowers seem to come out at different times and find unexpected neighbours to quarrel with. When I finally notice I have to take immediate action. If you’ve ever heard that you can’t move a rose when it’s in full flower in a drought I’m here to tell you that I’ve done it. And what’s more, the rose is still alive.
Photographs are another good trick. Trying to take a good middle distance picture of the garden can show up an amazing amount of ghastliness you’d never noticed before. It’s all very well cheating and taking the picture from standing on the dustbin in order to avoid including that horrible plastic water butt, but you will not entirely manage to eradicate your consciousness of the horror again. And if something less than lovely escapes your attention when you look through the viewfinder, you may well find it leaps out at you when the picture is developed.
I do happen to be dedicated to making the best possible garden that I’m capable of, so I try to bite the bullet when I see the mistakes I’ve made. I even try to put them right, though I have to say I am now too far down this particular garden road to completely start over, whatever I suddenly notice. But I think that on the whole it’s not terribly British to take garden design so seriously. Plants, yes, – but then they’re like animals in that we have a responsibility to look after them properly.
So, many people may wonder why they would wish to go to such trouble to see things they’d rather not see. But creating opportunities to see freshly doesn’t just show up the problems. It takes you away from the relentless preoccupation with weeds and caterpillars and suddenly returns you to the loveliness of your plants and garden.
First published in the Financial Times July 25th 1998