Author Archives: The Constant Gardener

About The Constant Gardener

Head Gardener at Horatio's Garden, Salisbury

Groundwork

I got a bit distracted by the previous post’s theme – a consequence of spending the day trying to restore order in the garden, and finding myself with repeated handfuls of soggy brown leaves to decant into my green bin – and went on a bit. Sorry.

The geist of the day, however, was good and productive. I managed to go through the greenhouse plant by plant, checking on a the many overwintering Salvias, Penstemons, Pelargoniums (shouldn’t that be Pelargonia?) – all of which were potted up in late summer, and all but two of which have survived. Indeed, several are thriving with the promise of cutting material aplenty in due course. Which does raise the question of where exactly I am going to put them all when they grow to maturity…

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Inside the greenhouse after a tidy. The sad-looking Musa basjoo is fine, just resting over the winter like an ageing repertory actor.

I think they will fill the various pots and planters which are currently full of Narcissi and Tulips, queueing to flower over the next two or three months. Today I – very belatedly – potted up some Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and ‘Tete a tete’ from black plastic pots into presentable terracotta. They will join the others, planted back before Christmas, when they are flowering, and be placed around the garden to provide focal points of colour and interest.

The main herbaceous border was also a focus of my attention, as I cut back masses of dead and dying stuff. I pulled the plug on a scruffy old Solanum crispum, which used to live in a big pot on our decked area before that was torn up for the new shed. It’s never liked its subsequent location and neither have I – so into the green bin it went. At this time of year I always tend to plan an overhaul of at least part of the main herbaceous border – it currently contains far too much Lemon Balm, Tansy and Marjoram: three plants which are difficult to contain, and easy but fairly unrewarding. I didn’t have time to start clearing today, but their days are numbered. Kerria japonica is another plant I struggle to like – I’m not sure why I planted it in the first place – so it too was dealt with firmly.

One other greenhouse job was finally calling time on the chilli plants. I gathered the last few useable chillies, and then composted the plants. It is already time to sow this year’s chilli seeds, though I tend to grow a mixture of plants from seed along with a few I buy as plugs. The heated propagator isn’t set up yet, so the chilli sowing will have to wait for next weekend. A pot of Sweet Pea ‘Windsor’, sown back in October, has done very well in the greenhouse – strong roots are already showing through the bottom of the pot, and I pinched back the tops to encourage the plants to bush up a bit before I pot them on.

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The last of the 2017 chillies

A final greenhouse task was to fit a new automatic opener to the roof light, the previous one having seized up. Although the greenhouse is unheated, ventilation is important – and equally, the south-facing greenhouse can get very hot on sunny days all year round. A fiddly and slightly irritating job, involving repeatedly dropped screws and a modicum of cursing, but it’s all up and ready for the next warm day.

Then, as the light began to fade, and the blackbirds started their dusk chatter, it began to rain steadily but softly. I took the cue, made myself a mug of tea, and sat to reflect on a happy and productive day, clearing the decks for the season ahead.

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A mug of tea in the drizzle – feeling damp but contented.

 

Sog

In theory, I am all in favour of not going for a major autumn tidy-up in the garden. Many people like to ‘put the garden to bed’ some time in late October, once the dahlias and late-summer colours have done their thing. There is a certain appeal in the neatness which ensues, and the way it allows early spring to manifest itself unencumbered: snowdrops pushing through clean, bare earth. And it does allow you both to get a heavy mulch on to borders before the winter sets in, and to have plenty of clear ground for planting spring bulbs.

However, taking a different approach, and leaving herbaceous plants to die back naturally has many – I think, more – advantages. Firstly, many plants will keep going longer than you might imagine. There were dahlias and antirrhinums flowering well into November – a pleasure which an autumn tidy would have cut short. Secondly, leaving stems and seed heads is good for wildlife – providing food, shelter, even spots to tuck away and hibernate. And third – and the point of this post, perhaps – it provides some interest through the winter. There can be great beauty in the way low sunlight catches the browns and yellows of dying foliage, or the way frost gently seizes an Eryngium head or a spider’s web between two stems of Verbena – that image so beloved of the gardening magazines. Bare soil never quite catches the eye in the same way.

This is the approach we take at Horatio’s Garden, where generally we cut back very late in the winter – in fact we’re still doing it now; last year it was well into February. The patients and visitors need to see shape and colour in the garden, even – perhaps most of all – on a dreary January day.

And yet. This winter has been so mild, wet and windy that it’s challenged this approach for me, at least in my own garden. We’ve had no snow at all, and hardly any proper frosts, certainly no prolonged cold spells. I’ve just spent the day clearing and tidying the borders, and regretting that I didn’t do it in November – so much wet mush and soggy mess, foliage turned the texture of dishcloth and soaked paper. It’s unpleasant to the eye, and even more unpleasant to gather up by the handful. Most frustratingly, swamped by some of this gunge are emerging snowdrops, hellebores and primroses – which are now free to enjoy their moment, no longer surrounded by decay and sodden brownery.

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Maybe – if mild, wet winters are the anthropocene future here in southern England – I’ll have to rethink the approach…

Back to the lottie

Let me be honest. Last year my allotment was a disaster. Not because of weather or pigeons or tomato blight. Because of my neglect. I failed to prepare, plant or then attend to  the plot at all, and as a consequence it became a weedy mess. My attentions were then limited to a few Blitzkrieg attacks with the strimmer, in a vain attempt to assuage my guilt, placate my neighbours and avoid a stroppy letter from the council. And then the Gotterdammerung climax of a massive bonfire in the autumn, when – in a frenzy of (more) guilt and frustration – I burned more or less everything in sight. Not a happy tale. [I’m not sure why I’m describing my year at the allotment in the same Wagnerian terms as the rise and fall of the Third Reich – no doubt a shrink would tell me].

Over the winter, in anticipation of the request for my 2018 payment, I agonised about keeping the plot on at all. A good gardening friend (that is, a good friend, and a good gardener – you know who you are) had given up hers. How could I justify keeping it on if I not only didn’t grow much,  but couldn’t even look after it?

A conversation with a London allotmenter last summer stuck in my mind. When I confessed to her that my growing plans for 2017 amounted to little more than ‘rhubarb and raspberries’, she looked at me appalled. If that were the case with someone on her site, she said sternly, they’d be given their marching orders, and the plot would be given to someone prepared to do it properly. Wasn’t I keeping someone else from a worthwhile exercise in modest self-sufficiency and healthy eating? 

But then, there’s history bound up with my plot. We got it when the boy was a baby – he’s now heading precipitously for 14. We’ve had happy days there as a family, and have the photos to prove it. Damn it, we were ahead of the curve when we took it on back in the early 2000s, before allotments became desirable again. A young family with an allotment was a novelty – I was interviewed by the (then new) ‘Grow Your Own’ magazine. How could I walk away from those memories?

Admittedly, the allotment is now in a worse state than it was a decade ago. And therein lies another tale, that of my transition from hobby allotmenter to professional gardener. Too many times I’ve not wanted to spend the weekend weeding, when I’ve spent all week on my knees amongst the creeping buttercups and couch grass. And, of course, being a full-time gardener means that my anxieties (never far below the surface) about what the allotment looks like are ever greater. I have no excuse for not having a fantastic, abundant, Instagram-worthy plot. And that burden, really far more about anxiety than time or energy, has weighed me down latterly.

So, it was with trepidation that I approached the plot yesterday for the first time this year. And?

Well, it was a weedy, overgrown mess. There, I’ve said it. I’m not proud, but it was not perhaps as bad as I’d feared it would be. Couch grass has re-asserted itself all over the place. To be honest, it’s never really disappeared since we took the plot on. I rue the hours spent obsessively getting the raised beds level and square, when all they did was give an appearance of good order. I should have spent the first twelve months clearing and weeding the ground, before even thinking about building raised beds, fruit cages and the rest. Now the raised beds are falling apart, and the weeds are back.

I took up my strimmer, and went over the whole patch. It looks like someone cares for it now. And the area I gave the scorched earth treatment last November is still weed-free. There is rhubarb coming, and the fruit trees are looking good.

So I’m going back to basics. First of all, I shall lift and ‘park’ all the plants I want to keep: cardoons, currant bushes. Then, I’m hiring a weed-burner for a weekend to give everything a blast and take all the grass and weeds back to soil-level (at least, that’s what I hope will result). I shall channel my inner Colonel Kilgore, and blast out ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ as I work. Then it’s the unsightly but practical black sheeting for as much of the plot as can be covered. The shed needs re-roofing and painting. The raised beds need either removing or repairing – about half and half. Get all that done, and maybe, by the time the days are longer and the sun a bit warmer, I’ll be in a position to sow some seeds.

Taking Libertias

One of the signature plants in Cleve West’s design for Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury is Libertia grandiflora. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s (to quote the RHS) “a strong-growing, clump-forming evergreen plant, up to 90cm tall, with narrow, dark-green, grass-like leaves. In early summer, white, bowl-shaped flowers, 2-3cm across, are carried on erect stems and are followed by round seed pods in autumn which turn black when they mature.”

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Close up, the flowers of Libertia grandiflora are simply stunning. 

I’m not sure’bowl-shaped’ really does justice to the flowers, which are gorgeous – and the plant’s real attraction. They float above the strappy foliage on long, arching stems, forming a cloud of pure, white for a few brief weeks in late May and early June.

Sadly, either side of that short flowering season, they retreat to a supporting role, providing a green foil to other, showier plants. Their seed heads remain on their stalks through summer and autumn (unless you cut them off, which we don’t). The leaves, like many grasses, tend to coarsen and lose their charm as the year progresses: and the dense clumps of foliage are a fantastic hiding place for snails (as well as dead leaves and other garden litter, which easily gets trapped). Some gardeners cut them back hard when they have gone over, and apparently they survive, but a better option is to replace them when they start to outgrow their spot.

We have them in a couple of borders, and in the beds along the bottom of the apple and wisteria-clad archway. There is a moment in late spring when the Libertia begins to flower, along with pale pink Tulip ‘Angelique’ and apple blossom up above, which is magical.

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The apple and wisteria archway, with big Libertias flowering. These are the specimens which have grown too big for their boots and needed replacing.

Leaving the seedheads means that they will proliferate, and they do so with great vigour. Libertia likes a dryish, well-drained, sunny and exposed site to do its best – and the garden at Salisbury, perched on the top of Odstock Down, provides just that. Off they romp, growing everywhere they can – wedging themselves between the paving and its edges, and treating the dry stone walls as a de facto seedbed. On the plus side, this gives us a plentiful supply of seedlings to pot up, either for re-use in the garden or for sale to visitors. For Libertia grandiflora is always in demand with visitors. It seems to be a plant many have never seen, and are instantly drawn to. I tend to encourage caution among potential buyers, as this is a big and enthusiastic plant which owners of small gardens might live to regret – but they are readily seduced by its white loveliness. Small plants and transplants tend not to flower straight away, usually taking 2 or even 3 seasons to really hit their flowering stride: the odd customer has grumbled – though lack of flowers might be due to insufficient sun, as much as the plant’s youth.

All good things come to an end, and many of our Libertia – planted when the garden was created in 2012 – have become coarse and unruly, bullying aside other plants, and presenting the untrained eye with unattractive clumps of rather tired grass-like growth, especially as we reach the end of the season and there is less colour to distract the viewer. So, the past couple of weeks have seen us removing the largest specimens completely.

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After. You can still see some big L.grandiflora on the other side of the path, but all the ones on this side have gone, leaving some space for Tulips and replacement specimens to go in.

Thankfully, Libertias don’t have very deep roots – rather they form a dense, fibrous root system which is bulky but fairly shallow. With help from a couple of volunteers, and some deft fork-work, they will come out quite readily. The hardest plants to extract were those which had managed to wedge themselves between the steel arch, the stonework of the rill, and the roots of adjacent apple trees; fortunately only a couple had dug themselves in so thoroughly.

They don’t split very well – and anyway, divisions would still tend not to look as fresh and sharp as new, young plants. We will put in some of our pot-grown seedlings, which look really good, and establish a rolling programme of replacement from now on, never allowing individual plants to get more than perhaps 3 or 4 years old. Meanwhile, in our small nursery, we will be bringing on the next generation ready to take their place in due course. 

Back in May I saw this glorious display of Libertia peregrinans at Hillier Gardens near Romsey. This one is commonly known as Chilean Iris – perversely, Libertia chilensis has the common name of New Zealand Satin Flower – and is sometimes confused with L. grandiflora.

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Chairs and Chelsea

A most enjoyable day yesterday, as the guest of Gaze Burvill at their home in rural East Hampshire, just a stone’s throw from Gilbert White’s Selborne. Simon Burvill, Managing Director of the company, and his team were previewing some of their new outdoor furniture to an invited audience, and I was there to represent Horatio’s Garden. Gaze Burvill have been generous supporters of the Horatio’s Garden project from the outset, and the relationship continues as we expand into new gardens in Glasgow and Stoke Mandeville. The company celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

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Simon Burvill, describing some of the complex design forms which can be achieved using his workshop’s state-of-the-art equipment.

We were treated to a fascinating tour of the company’s workshops, which combine traditional craftsmanship of the highest standard with astonishing hi-tech machinery and design facilities. The attention to detail in the furniture, as well as the company’s commitment to sustainability – heat is provided at the workshops using wood-shavings from the production process, for example – are hugely impressive. The beautiful oak, much of it sourced from France (where the tradition of ‘farming’ trees for furniture is still strong), has a scent which fill the workshops. If I closed my eyes and inhaled gently, I could have been back in the wood-turning workshop where my grandfather worked in my childhood.

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As well as seeing the production process in action, we were given a preview of this year’s Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea. One stand, sponsored by Gaze Burvill, is designed by Aralia Garden Design and Patricia Fox spoke about her journey from brief to finished design, and how Gaze Burvill’s furniture has been showcased in the garden. Catherine Macdonald of Landform Consultants was present too, speaking about her Artisan Garden design, sponsored by Seedlip. Her design incorporates a range of references to 17th century apothecaries’ manuals alongside the process of distillation, and the ingredients which go into Seedlip’s non-alcoholic spirits.

The other Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea 2017 were on display too, with sketches, plans and planting schemes to pore over. As one person said, it’s very helpful to be able to see the gardens on paper before the show, as you can see the subtle changes that occur when designs are being implemented, and also have a clearer idea of what to look out for amidst the whirl of the event.

Thanks to all at Gaze Burvill for a thoroughly enjoyable day.

 

 

Twitter-free gardening

Now, before you all complain, this blog will ‘auto-post’ to Twitter without me going anywhere near the little blue bird, so I don’t personally feel that this constitutes a breach of Lent Twitter-fast.

A week and a bit in, and my withdrawal from the Twittersphere is going ok. I do miss some folk’s tweets (not HIS, obviously). And I do sometimes find myself with a bon mot or witty riposte to an item on the radio, but with nowhere to put it. But apart from that, the time gained is a boon. More importantly, the freedom from an unhealthy chatter of gloom and near-despair about the state of the world, is truly liberating and almost certainly good for my state of mind. Yes, social media allow you to feel part of a wide online community of like-minded souls, but given the dire state of the world right now, I’m enjoying not knowing what’s going on every minute of every day.

Another thing I do miss is the opportunity to post lovely photographs of the gardens I work in, most especially the thoroughly photogenic Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury. But that’s what Instagram is for.

Isn’t it?

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Frosty January

This January was far colder and drier than any of the past few years. Although we’ve had no snow here, we have enjoyed several stretches of cold, bright days and frosty nights.

The practice of leaving perennials uncut through the winter has a number of benefits – and we follow it in Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury. Cleve West’s design includes a good number of tall perennials – Aruncus dioicus ‘Horatio’, Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’, Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’, Aster umbellatus and others, as well as the tall grass Stipa gigantea. None of these are cut-back until the early spring, when bulbs start to push through, and dead foliage begins to turn to unappealing brown mush. The benefits are several, and chief among them is that these plants provide food and shelter for all manner of beneficial creatures. From the House Sparrows dangling precariously to catch the last seeds from Stipa heads, to the myriad insects and mini-beasts which live in and around the dead stems – and in turn feed the resident robins and dunnocks – the rewards are significant.

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However, the other benefit is aesthetic. Every January the gardening press is full of delicious images of frosted seedheads twinkling in the low winter sunlight. And most winters, the damp, dull reality in our gardens falls miserably short of the ideal. But not this year. I’ve lost count of the mornings that I’ve arrived at work and gone straight outside with my camera to capture the frost and rime-coated plants. It seems hard to take a bad picture when everything is sugar coated in white and so beautifully lit.

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And the beginning of February has been wet and windy, flattening a lot of the taller stems and turning foliage to mush.

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This was our cue to begin cutting-back in earnest, clearing and tidying, and in the process allowing the emerging bulbs to have light and air.

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Christmas Reading

Gardening doesn’t leave as much time as it should for catching up on reading. Yet gardening books and journals are the way for most of us to keep abreast of developments in planting style, garden design and general horticulture.

Every year I make two mistakes. Firstly I imagine that I’ll get through lots of reading on holiday in the summer. It never happens, of course. I go away with a pile of magazines and books, and end up looking at few of them – being too busy doing all the other things one does on holiday. One of which, of course, is visiting gardens – the only opportunity I really get. Norfolk, where we have taken our family fortnight every year for more than a decade, offers a good few excellent gardens – so there’s plenty to see. To say nothing of the birdlife – my other great enthusiasm – which keeps us occupied in between fish and chips, ice creams and sitting on the beach. Norfolk has a huge amount to recommend it as a holiday venue – our children have known nothing else, and don’t complain or show signs of tiring – but all those books come back largely unread.

The second mistake is similar (identical), but at the other end of the year. I have an idealised vision of Christmas, stretching lazily from Christmas Eve en famille at the cathedral (having finished our annual watching of John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights’) through to some time in mid-January. Candlelight, log fire, armchair, and that pile of books again – this time coupled with all the Christmas issues of gardening magazines. And, yet again, it fails to happen. Not because I’m not enjoying myself, but because I am busy doing loads of other equally enjoyable things.

The garden reading I do get through in the year is – like any other reading I do – squeezed into the minutes between bedtime and sleep, or snatched over breakfast before anyone else is up (a good time for magazine browsing), or possibly a few stolen moments on a day when it really is too wet to be outdoors.

There’s another error I commit annually as well: asking for more gardening books for Christmas. I never learn. In case you’re looking for some inspiration, here are three books I’d ask for this Christmas if I didn’t already have them…

Rhapsody In Green: A Novelist, An Obsession, A Laughably Small Excuse For A Garden, by Charlotte Mendelson (Kyle Books). Already a pick in many garden writers’ lists, this is a fantastic book about what you can do in next-to-no space, if you allow yourself to give in to a fanatical love of plants- specifically, edible crops. Why have one variety of tomato if you can have five? It’s not remotely a ‘how to’ book – but it’s infectious, engaging, funny, beautifully written (Mendelson is a novelist by trade) – and also a lovely book in design and feel.

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The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination, by Richard Mabey (Profile). Mabey is the true heir of naturalist-writers such as Gilbert White (whose biography he wrote), WH Hudson and Richard Jefferies. I’d gladly sacrifice most of the (so-called) ‘new nature writing’ if I could hold on to Richard Mabey. His latest book is a fascinating collection of writing about the relationships between plants, people, art and history. Tim Dee described the book in a Guardian review as “the summation of a lifetime of looking at plants and reflecting on them” – what more, given Mabey’s depth of knowledge and insight, could one ask for?

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Container Theme Gardens, by Nancy J. Ondra (Storey). An absolute gem if you have planters to work with -as we do at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury – and want to make the best of them. Ondra sets herself a strict rule of using only five plants, but manages to produce some fantastic and unusual combinations to suit styles and seasons. Sadly, her ‘Hummingbird Haven’ (Begonia boliviensis, Cuphea ignea, Fuchsia, Canna and Calibrachoa) won’t entice the diminutive birds across the Atlantic (the author is from Pennsylvania) – but would work brilliantly as a tropical scheme all the same.

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Finally, a journal to recommend. Rake’s Progress is a rather glorious thing – apparently available in selected shops, but easily obtained direct from the publisher www.rakesprogressmagazine.com. It’s full of fairly sumptuous photography and terrific words – all printed on heavyweight paper, which makes it a ‘coffee table magazine’ if such there is. Treat yourself to a subscription.

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Farewell to peat

The environmental damage caused by the commercial extraction of peat is now both well-documented, and undeniable. The UK alone uses a staggering 3 million cubic metres of peat each year, 60% of which is imported from Ireland. And yet, until the 1970s, no-one used peat in gardening. Home-made compost, and loam-based mixes, were the only option – and plants still grew perfectly well. Peat is supposedly appreciated by the large growers for its predictability and its low cost (in cash, if not environmental, terms). It lends itself to the commercial mass production of plants – particularly those plants then left to wither and die in their hundreds outside DIY sheds and supermarkets. But the environmental impact alone does not justify the continued use of peat as a growing medium by ordinary gardeners.

What, then, are the alternatives? I have used ‘New Horizons’ peat-free compost for a number of years, and both seem to be perfectly good. At Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury we are in the process of switching to peat-free growing for plants which we either use to re-stock the garden, or sell at our events. Last Friday we had a delivery of Sylvagrow peat-free compost, which we’ll be using from now on. This compost has been endorsed by the RHS and has come out top in Which? surveys of composts for both containers and raising young plants. It is 100% peat-free, and doesn’t contain any green waste: it’s made from bark, wood fibre and small amount of coir – all from sustainable and traceable sources. With credentials like those, I am confident that it will make a big difference to our plants.

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Of course, one of the keys to all compost use is not to treat it as a single substance. ‘Multi-purpose’ never means multi-purpose in quite the straightforward way many gardeners would like to think. Compost always needs to be mixed with grit, loam, leaf-mould, perlite, sharp sand and the like to produce the best possible medium for different kinds of growing. Seeds need a growing environment quite different from that which suits cuttings, and the compost needs to reflect that. I am also keen on sieving composts, as even the best will invariably contain the odd lumps which need removing – certainly for most seed-sowing it’s essential to have a layer of sieved compost to sow into.

Similarly, the drainage and nutrient-retention properties of peat-free composts are not the same as those of peat. It tends to benefit from more regular watering than peat (little and often), but also to need the addition of grit or sand to aid drainage in winter. If dropping the use of peat requires a little thought and changing of gardening habits, then that seems a small price to pay.

 

 

New Blog, New Beginnings

September marks the beginning of the new school year, as well as the turn from summer to autumn. It is a time of change, of new beginnings, and of taking stock: far more so – for me, at least – than New Year itself. Having grown up in a household of teachers, and having been governed by the academic calendar myself for much of my life, there is something essential about this time of year. It is a time of nostalgia, as well as a season of looking forward.

My new beginning has been the wonderful opportunity to take on the position of Head Gardener at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury. The garden, designed by Chelsea award-winner Cleve West, is adjacent to (indeed, part of) the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Injuries Unit at Salisbury District Hospital. It provides garden therapy, and a restorative environment of peace and quiet, for patients who are adjusting to life-changing spinal injuries.

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Having served my time in private gardens of one sort and another, the chance to work alongside passionate and committed volunteers, to the benefit of patients and their families, is an absolutely amazing thing. To do so in an award-winning, beautifully designed and gloriously planted garden is horticulturally even more exciting.

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For one thing, gardening can be a very solitary business. Not that I mind altogether – in fact I have written before about the pleasures of working in one’s own company – but talking to fellow volunteers, patients and other visitors on a regular basis is more than welcome.

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And here is a garden which bears very much the imprint of its designer. This is, and will remain, ‘a Cleve West garden’. It is my job to act as custodian of Cleve’s vision, whilst taking the garden forward. Having talked to Cleve about this, he is adamant that the garden cannot remain static – but there is an ethos, a spirit and a sense of place to be retained whatever changes the future may bring.

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I hope you will want to join me on the journey.

 

The sculptures featured are by Dorset-based sculptor Simon Gudgeon.