The Forbidden Guilt of Unfinished Projects & Unforbidden Pleasures

B_c7nmZUsAMmQBzIf the winter had been colder, I would feel less guilty, but it has not been cold.

In fact, it’s been so freakishly temperate, that many a day, I could have stepped out into the garden quite comfortably with nothing more than a t-shirt, a fleece, some trackie bottoms, crocs (navy blue, so almost permissible, I hope?), and a thick pair of socks on my feet. Continue reading “The Forbidden Guilt of Unfinished Projects & Unforbidden Pleasures”

The Clenched Fist of “NO!” – Deprivation, Abundance, Gratitude

The fist of noThere are times, sometimes a whole day or week, or maybe just moments in the day, when life feels like it is waving in our faces a large, hairy clenched fist of NO! or WAIT!: unable, or perhaps unwilling to meet our needs and wants. Our need for affection, reciprocity, self-expression, freedom to play and be creative. Our wanting to have an email answered asap, or for it to stop raining, or for a family member to show interest in us.

Whatever form this deprivation takes, however small or large, it doesn’t feel good. It’s also not uncommon for the clenched fist of NO! to move from the source of deprivation (the resistant, unyielding environment) to our inner-world, feeling like heartburn or haemorrhoids punitive in nature, as if we really are being fisted by someone or something. We might develop a masochistic taste for this experience, but on the whole we are averse to pain, seekers of pleasure, to hands that are open, welcoming, willing and wanting to clasp ours in theirs, leading the way, guiding us, accompanying us on our journey.

This winter of the soul takes on an anthropomorphic resonance as we head towards the dormant season as gardeners. Even though the icy frosts have yet to come, so much in the garden is already dragging, drooping, dying. The tomato bushes still have dots of colour to them, but it is a rancid, inedible red. The late-blooming Michaelmas Daisies of mid-October are now shrivelled, wasted, mortified.

Where does one look for abundance and plenitude when all we can see or feel is insufficiency and want? Continue reading “The Clenched Fist of “NO!” – Deprivation, Abundance, Gratitude”

The Garden as a Place of Refuge

6a9db9f3_original6a9db9f3_original6a9db9f3_original 6a9db9f3_original (1) Garden refugeFor it is, primarily that (a place of refuge), and not just for me.

In the last week, a slightly emaciated OAP by the name of Bertie has spent every waking moment in my garden; every sleeping one too.

OAP, btw, stands for Old Age Pigeon. When I say pigeon, please don’t conflate Bertie with those scavenging, winged-rodent ne’er-do-wells you trip over in Trafalgar Square, fighting over a hamburger bun, fouling foul statues.

Rather, Bertie, like me, is a child of the ‘burbs, who along with his wife Bertha, has ever since I’ve known him done his daily rounds of all the gardens in the HA3 postcode. Each spring B&B build a nest in the 40 foot fir tree in my garden, from where they produce their bairns. Continue reading “The Garden as a Place of Refuge”


procrastinationThe shadow-side of patience is procrastination. A form of forestalment, with all the discomfort of inertia, torpidity, but none of the dopamine-fuelled incentivizers. As Hesiod, one of the earliest writers on the subject gravely remarks: “a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin”. Yes, sometimes, it really does feel like that.

So this morning, I sketch out my own HGWR (Hand Grips With Ruin) account in the form of two lists. More undone than to-do lists. One of these contains all the activities I’ve been putting off doing in the garden, for weeks on end, or even months, including building two or three compost bins out of discarded wooden pallets, hoiking the half ton of gravel sitting out in the front on the pavement ’round to the back, bulb-planting, and general weeding and mulching to get the garden ready for its winter snooze. Continue reading “Procrastination”


marshmallowAll things come to he who waits, is not entirely true. Even the Victorian poet Violet Fane who coined the phrase feels the need to qualify it in the next line of her poem:

‘Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),
But something answers soft and sad,
‘They come, but often come too late.’

Perhaps the alternative motto, Good things come to those who wait, used to advertise slow-pouring foodstuffs like Guinness and ketchup, is a better one for the gardener. Continue reading “Patience”


IMG_2093 Why did I ever doubt I’d get flowers from Jenny?

Aster Novi Belgi Jenny, who after three seasons of growth, is only just now, as you can see, on the verge of bursting forth with an abundance of semi-double, purple-pink flowers.

Being a “Michaelmas Daisy” (a “Fall Aster” in North American circles), perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that just when sun-coaxing days are waning, Jenny come out to play.

What causes one plant to flower in July and another in October? Continue reading “Late-Bloomers”

The Constant (Caring) Gardener

IMG_2107If you don’t water your plants carefully and consistently, especially those not embedded in earth, but exiled in pots and planters, they’ll soon let you know, becoming pallid, etiolated husks of their former selves. Take this poor wilty tomatillo plant on the left that greeted me a few mornings back: not a happy camper.

This is the garden’s way of saying to us: “In order to flourish, constant care is what I need. So please, assigned caregiver, try as best you can to develop this habit. For me, but also for you too, for all of us.”

Only the garden gives us such expeditious feedback. If we ignore other valued life projects or goals, they generally don’t let us know they’re on the verge of expiring in the way that plants do. Continue reading “The Constant (Caring) Gardener”

Garden companions: Monty Dog vs. Maxi-Max. What’s in a name?

If you’re a Gardener’s World fan, you probably tune in as much to see what a Golden Retriever called Nigel is up to at Longmeadow (mostly activities involving tennis balls) as what his owner Monty Don might be planting that week.

Apart from the creatures already living in the garden, a dog is the perfect garden companion. Alert, and interested in everything; alive to the smells, touch, tastes and sounds of the garden, but never critical of our planting schemes, or yakking on about mortgages or school fees when we just want to get on with the weeding. Continue reading “Garden companions: Monty Dog vs. Maxi-Max. What’s in a name?”

Green unseen

Annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade?
Annihilating all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade?

The other white in the garden, if white often registers for us as achromatic, or a no-thing, is green. Green is the the frame which supports and surrounds the star attraction. Seed packets pay scant pictorial attention to a flowering plant’s foliage, even though it’s the foliage we see as we wait for the culminating bloom. It is also foliage that remains after the flowers have died away. For when we buy a packet of seeds, we’re generally getting much more foliage than flower, and yet this is never acknowledged or accounted for.

Equally our lives are made up of foliage: eating, drinking, sleeping, grooming, defecating, going to the supermarket, listening to the radio, drinking cups of tea. Continue reading “Green unseen”

Happiness Grows White

Achillea ptarmica, 'The Pearl'
Achillea ptarmica, ‘The Pearl’

It’s about ten to ten in the evening and I’m standing in semi-darkness beating out the rhythm to a Jose Gonzalez song on the stone path with a piece of bamboo, eyes transfixed by a white spray of tiny flowers glinting out of the darkness like sequins on a velvety black evening dress.

Achillea ptarmica, I whisper, ‘The Pearl’”, AKA sneezewort, a moniker that doesn’t fit this moment or this plant, blearing all associations of jewellery to images of runny noses and slow-mo videos made by the Department of Health showing fluey folk shpritzing and spouting gobs and splashes of light-refracting mucous out of their mouths and noses. Continue reading “Happiness Grows White”

If a flower blooms in a garden and no one (but you) is around to see it…

Linum Grandiflorum Charmer Salmon (bottom), intermingling charmingly with light pink coriander bolt, Broad-leaved Everlasting Sweetpea, Erisymum Bowles' Mauve, Potentilla Miss Willmott, and Hosepipe.
Linum Grandiflorum Charmer Salmon (bottom), intermingling charmingly with light pink coriander bolt, Broad-leaved Everlasting Sweetpea, Erisymum Bowles’ Mauve, Potentilla Miss Willmott, and Hosepipe.

Gardeners take a lot of pride in their gardens. Especially in those plants we’ve grown from seed or a cutting. It’s a parental pride, a feeling of having been there at the moment when the thing before you was an almost-nothing, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it seed. It’s a pride also borne out of constant fussing and nurturing of our seedling as they matured from vulnerable almost-somethings to very needy small plants almost indistinguishable from the weeds around them, to finally the pleasures of foliage, buds and Bloomsday (not to be confused, though sometimes coinciding with that other Bloomsday on the 16th of June).

At the moment I have tiny salmon-pink Linum (flax) flowers growing across two beds, and picked daily for jam-jar floral arrangements. I must confess myself to be silly with satisfaction and swellheadedness about them. If I were on Instagram, or using Twitter, it’d be Linum-this, Linum-that, with links to photographs of the flowers from every imaginable angle all the day long. Even though, both in horticultural stature and cultivation skills, Linum are not particularly difficult to grow. Continue reading “If a flower blooms in a garden and no one (but you) is around to see it…”

The Paradox of Choice

Expectant flower beds awaiting new seedlings (tomatillos in tubs keeping them company).

Having done a bit of a U-turn recently on the Cottage Garden ethos of ornamentals and edibles cheek by jowl, I’ve been clearing some sunny 3ft x 5 ft beds in the front garden with the express purpose of filling them with plants that’ll give me dizzying, eye-popping, heart-pumping highs.

That’s right: flowers, flowers, and more flowers – flowers being my legal high of choice. Which means I’ve needed to start thinking seriously about Hardy Annuals. The idea being that if I sow HA seed now on the brink of autumn, the Hardy Boys (and girls) will be able to toughen out the winter, setting down sturdy and substantial root systems in the Nietzchian school-of-war spirit (“what does not kill us makes us stronger”) and so be ready, come spring/early-summer, with eye-popping colour and beauty. Continue reading “The Paradox of Choice”


jasminum_beesianum_2A few months ago I planted some Jasmine beesianum (I’ll call her Jasbee for short) near one of the the wooden trellises with the hope of having her “delicate pink trumpets and a heavenly scent” (oh the come-hither descriptions of plant packaging blurb!) complement the deep purple of summer delphiniums, Cosse Violette climbing beans and their pale, maize-yellow cousins, the Neckargolders. As the Jasmine plant was a wee one, I didn’t provide any support for her, just into the ground with lots of compost and good drainage, and off we go.

IMG_2677Some weeks later: fantastic growth spurts. Look how Jasbee had seemed to work out her own system of self-support with no help from me or anyone else. This consists of three or four stems winding themselves around each other, and creating a strong, banded together reinforcement by which to hoist herself a foot or two closer towards the sky.

Cleverly, this should also allow her at some point to hit a supportive branch or another taller plant through which she might be helped upwards.

Today, I see that these braided stems are starting to droop and fall back to the ground. Unattached, self-support systems it seems can only get us so far, both in the plant world and outside it. For a climber like Jasbee this is not a catastrophe, as I have no doubt that even without me and my garden wire, she would trail around in the dirt for a while until horizontally, as opposed to vertically, she’s able to reach the Aquilegia, delphiniums, and bean trellis growing close by.

Less so for us. Continue reading “Attachment”


IMAGE_123“There is no reason to be miserable in one’s free time when the possibility of matching challenges and skills is under one’s own control and is not limited by the obligatory parameters of work. Yet, at present, most leisure time is filled with activities that do not make people feel happy or strong.”

So wrote the eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-hy Cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee) in 1989, on the very brink of what IT Idealists might have heralded as a leisure-time revolution: the internet and its all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of attention-grabbing content. And yet, if anything, Csikszentmihalyi’s research, shows that frittered away leisure-time is more dislocating, and inner-disordering for the psyche than an onerous job. Mihaly calls this state of aimless apprehensiveness ‘psychic entropy’, and his findings are even more pertinent today than they were 25 years ago.

This is because, 25 years later, we have a billion more options when it comes to splintering our free time and mental energies. Almost all of them involve the fracturing and dividing of attention and intention, which like eating crisps or salted peanuts, feels pleasant and moreish whilst doing so, but the final outcome is more often than not one of mental constipation, existential biliousness. Spend an hour or two on any social media platform, or even just a bit of aimless hyperlink chasing, and psychic entropy will soon take over your inner-world like a flesh-eating bacteria. Continue reading “Flow”

The Pleasures of Anticipation

Choisya TernataYesterday, I woke up, looking forward, with possibly more ardour than anything else in my day to come, to digging a hole.

The hole would be required as part of the process of transplanting a large choisya ternata from the back garden where I felt it had been overloading the summer palate with too much yellow to the front, where it would be set against an infinite regress of concrete driveways, and where, I hoped, it would have a better chance of coming into its own. Continue reading “The Pleasures of Anticipation”

When the gardener is ready, the garden will appear

garden wintery“When the pupil is ready, the master will appear,” is a saying sometimes attributed to the Buddha, when in fact it comes from the pen of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Madame Blavatsky to the likes of you and me), occultist, guru/charalatan, co-founder of the New Age inceptive Theosophical Society, “the mother of modern spirituality” according to her biographer Gary Lachman.

If “The Master” stands for “that which the pupil needs”, then one could exchange the second part of the equation with almost anything we find life-enhancing: aromatherapy, knitting, hang-gliding, gardening. The master, the garden, or the knitting needles providing us with meaning, pleasure, direction. Some of the ingredients of “happiness” in philosophical/self-help parlance, or to put it in a way that I find more useful and also garden-aligned: some of the components of flourishing.

This is how it was for me. Up until my early 40s I had little interest in gardening. As long as the grass was mown, shrubs in the border, for me a garden was first and foremost a place to do non-gardening activities in. Something productive like studying, or writing, or abstemious meditation.

I’m not entirely sure what contributed to my readiness for gardening. Continue reading “When the gardener is ready, the garden will appear”