Gertrude Jekyll, the influential garden designer, plants woman and artist, once said that ‘The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.’ For myself, like many gardeners, this is profoundly true.
Over the years, that love has almost become an obsession that shows no sign of abating. Not only does the time I spend in the garden bring many beneficial hours of physical exertion, mood enhanced well-being and satisfaction, I’ve also begun to see the world differently.
Jekyll’s dedication to observation and working with plants is evidenced in her extensive writings on horticulture and in the hundreds of gardens she designed.
The study of plants in their habitat is the beginning of a journey that can take you in a seemingly infinite variety of directions, with some surprising destinations.
An early start…
I suppose I’ve always been a garden designer, to a degree. According to my mother my first word was ‘flower’ – this possibly explains the bullying I would later receive as a young man with a sensitive soul.
From the age of six my parents encouraged my sister and I to design our own garden spaces within our suburban ‘back yard’, as they are referred to in Canada where I grew up.
I chose Cannas, Salvia’s, and Peony’s for mine – pastel pink, hot orange and red. Even then, as I do now, I loved the contrast of their foliage, the drama and generosity of their blooms.
Looking back, if I could say anything to my younger self on these early forays into garden design, I would say ‘Don’t worry, one day you’ll be taught colour theory, and discover the colour wheel. ‘A’ for effort though.’
Viewing plants in a different way…
That old adage, the more you learn, the more there is to learn, is true when you begin a study of horticulture. I look to try and increase my knowledge day by day with the names of new plants, varieties, and study of their habits, health and conditions.
Much of my day is spent doing research and making observations of the plants in my own garden – approximately 900 and counting, and in the gardens and landscapes that I visit.
Observation and identification…
The increased time observing my environment in more detail, has meant that I have begun to see the world in a different way.
During my walk to the local shops to buy a pint of milk – or bottle of wine for dinner, the more likely scenario – I’m reflecting upon the weeds in the pavement, and the shrubs and trees and gardening efforts of my neighbours.
The plant app on my phone helps me identify the things I don’t already know (it’s not a weed, it’s a wildflower!). If that fails, desk research, accompanied by the pictures I’ve taken (I’ve had a few strange looks from neighbours, crouched down to take a close-up photo of the Helminthotheca echioides – Bristly oxtongue – protruding from the edge of their drive), enables me to feed this hunger for naming my surroundings.
A constant search for new knowledge…
My goal with each of these trips is to identify something that I don’t know, learn about it and remember it the next time I’m passing. ‘No, it’s not a dandelion, it’s called Bristly oxtongue – but you’re right, it is like a dandelion.
Traditionally it was used to treat internal parasites, (bemused, or slightly horrified look on neighbour’s face, tells me it’s time to beat a hasty retreat). Enjoy your tea!’ I offer and quickly move on.
What’s in a name?..
I love being able to name all the trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials and wildflowers in my neighbourhood throughout the seasons – and this obsession follows me now on all my travels.
More than once I’ve been shouted at to keep my eyes on the road, as I spot a tree with foliage I don’t recognise. I don’t want my eulogy to read, ‘Cause of death, he drove headlong into a Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’. The silvery sheen of its spring leaves drawing him towards it like a siren song’.
A Whitebeam in spring is a glorious thing to behold, but I do make a concerted effort now when I’m driving not to be too easily distracted by everything that catches my eye.
Indeed, the seeds of any horticultural quest for knowledge can be be found scattered amongst the cracks in the pavement around us. Thanks Gertrude Jekyll; off to the shops now!
My day job is as an Arts Consultant for Arts Council England, advising artists and arts organisations on funding and business development. In my other life I practice horticulture and continue to expand my knowledge. I have an RHS Level 2 in horticulture and a Level 3 Diploma in Garden Design from Plumpton College. I am interested in the intersectionality between cultural experience and expression, horticulture, it’s history and development in response to environmental and social change. Also a bit of comedy, for light relief. You can find me at my website Happy Gardens.
Nicely written John!
We saw a field of Bristly Oxtongue while driving the other day! Richard said “look at all those dandelions” and I knew tgey were not. (Flowers far too small, quite pretty punch of yellow en masse though). Now, thanks to you, John, I know their proper name!
Looking forward to reading more!
Thank you Helen, very kind words. May all your gardening efforts be richly rewarded!
Such true words, passionately spoken!
John, thank you for your story. I loved it.
The journey into the garden takes many forms. Yours continues to this day.
Thank you Tom. I hope your journey today finds you well. Best wishes, John