Bernhard FeistelA typical gardening day?

Even in European gardens things can develop so quickly during the growing season that one can rarely afford to stick to an intended plan and carry out what one was planning to do. Or is this due to my ill developed management skills? Although I normally start with a certain list of “priority jobs”, which will already be modified after a morning’s excursion around the area, I often end up doing completely different things than originally planned.

Santolina with lavender and sempervivum

Practical gardening with me appears to be a precarious balance between action and reaction and I am not sure whether it is pure self defence when I am telling myself that progress is as important as the aim. Weather caprices or unexpected developments are constantly playing cat and mouse with me and I often wonder whether I should be more strict and focussed or more philosophical. The latter appears particularly necessary as one so often becomes confronted with glossy books or magazines or “Chelsea Exhibitions” with the perfect and soothing gardening picture, if not highlight or end product; and all the world expects or even envies a relaxed, adventurous or content gardener pottering about in his or her flowering arrangement. However, when I see these “perfectish” pictures and arrangements an awkward sense of reassurance for my style of gardening creeps in. Since “they” tend to show the dinner table only, not the kitchen or abattoir.

Yet, how often didn’t I grind my teeth or bite my lip when friends, family or strangers were visiting and accusing me of living or working in a paradise? They often pretend not to know that I had just changed my wet or muddy clothes and made it just in time to fetch the cider bottle from the cellar after an (at least) announced surprise visit. And there we sit or stroll “pretending” that all is pleasant, savouring or accepting the general picture, ignoring the detail and perhaps the awkward fact that there is a certain imbalance between time well spent and relaxed in the garden, and donkey work. Not to speak of (even hard) days when it appears as if we had achieved nothing at all or have to accept the status quo already as a success.

Accordingly, a somewhat typical recent gardening day reads like this:

After the initial morning stroll I decided that I could as well dig up some garlic cloves, which made such bizarre figures just before their ripening period, and then mow the lawn in the herb garden, weed in the long border and prune the santolinas in their pots and elsewhere after their flowering period. Mowing was always touch and go this year because of the frequent downpours, and thus not plan-able at all.

Woodland nursery

As the rule goes, one should plant garlic at the shortest day of the year and harvest at the longest, but after this horrid English spring and summer I was more than 2 months over this rule of thumb deadline. I didn’t particularly plant in formal rows but inserted my seeds (and sometimes cloves) in occasional gaps, particularly in what I call the woodland nursery, where I position spare or left-over plants for future use.

Woodland nursery II

Since garlic has the reputation of repelling mice and moles (if you are a believer) I spread my cloves at quite different places. It is strange, but the spontaneous changeable arrangement in this area (also to be used for cut flowers) could sometimes look more charming than well planned borders elsewhere in the gardens. I am trying to use this “wild” technique more purposefully in the borders in due course.

There was a lot at stake this year

On my way to the “nursery” I discovered that particularly the Saponaria, but also the Althea and Agastache in the Herb Garden might need some staking after a night gale had blown them over a little. I prefer to stake plants only when necessary and not too much in advance in order to show sticks as little as possible, and replace them with taller ones as the plants grow on. As material I cut young ash branches from the near woodland area where ash trees have self-seeded a lot and created an almost unmanageable thicket, yet ideal for my purpose. Because of their greenish colour ash branches are a wonderful and decent material for staking.

“Invisible” Staking

Staking II, Inula helenum, background left, needed also some support

Yet, while staking in this area, it became obvious that also some roses, the Echinacea and Achillea flopped over a little. So back I went into the woods to cut more material. When I approached the other plants in need and reached for the twine I missed the scissors which I must have left near the Agastache. After the nightly rain the grass appeared particularly green, very similar to the colour of the handles of my scissors. So I looked in vain. Becoming a little desperate I remembered an old Sherlock Holmes rule to go backwards step by step and so I luckily remembered that after the “Agastache business” I went to the back of a border to secure some giant delphiniums to their old stakes. I returned and found my scissors after a while, but not only them but also my wooden handled trowel, which I used in the process to get rid of some nettles. I hadn’t missed it yet on that occasion but have often pondered about and cursed these decent looking wooden handles which are so well suited to getting lost in a crowded border. If only I would acquire the taste for pink, orange or yellow gardening tools. It would presumably save days over a gardening life.

Intermingling Clematis, Hop, Nasturtiums

While being in this area I had a closer look at the wall and found that I needed to disentangle clematis, hop and nasturtiums a little to keep them balanced and yet looking pleasingly wild. In this garden they are equally strong but each has its bullying bout, and highlight. In any case, re-arranging established plants is a very pleasing task: I presume like putting the final strokes to an almost finished painting, yet, with us gardeners the painting is never finished.

A day’s work

“In this year’s English Summer the paintings almost never got dry, too”, I could have added while the next shower approached and put an end to my plans of grass cutting. Apparently the plants (when upright) enjoy these conditions more than their carers. So I secured my tools and stakes to a dry shelter and pondered about what to do next. Time had been flying that day and nothing substantially done. It only looked as it might have looked without the gale the night before. Yet, in order to show a brave and dedicated face I gathered my weather proofs and dug up some of those garlic cloves using my wooden handled trowel because I was too lazy to fetch the wooden handled fork from the shed.

Although I am presumably a ‘go with the flow type of gardener’, I sometimes wish I could more often do what I was planning to do. I leave that as a cherished pipe dream for the winter period…

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Bernhard Feistel

About Bernhard Feistel

Gardener and academic in rural England and sometimes also in his native Saxony, Germany; special interest in herb, maze and wildflower meadow designing and gardening. Norfolk, UK

5 thoughts on “A typical gardening day?

  1. So pleased to read other gardeners get waylaid and go “off task” often in the patch. I always wonder if the truly successful gardeners are workmanlike and disciplined in their “to do” lists and, unlike me, plough through them every day, week in week out. I have spent three days “meaning to” pot a bucket load of cuttings, refill other pots and containers and but somehow keep pruning and clearing and digging new holes. Feeling more like a donkey than an artist at the moment, it seems. Is it the moon? I forget and waylay forks and spades between the creek and the front garden and then bury them under a pile of rubbish in the wheelbarrow I tip into the fire and end up with them in there too and scorching them in the blaze.
    Somehow I am vulnerable to all the forces pulling and pushing me around the place here and lose focus easily when I discover a flowering rose or an iris patch breaking open. A gardening scatterbrain, alas!

  2. helen mckerral on said:

    What a terrific post, Bernhardt! I have a plan and generally the most important things get done more or less around the time they need to be, but there are always those couple of pots waiting to be planted… waiting, and waiting, and waiting! And then, that pot or punnet of seedlings miss a watering and alas, I need to buy another!
    And Julie, somewhere in my garden there is a trowel and a pair of secateurs, both lost in the one week! And of course I usually find such things about two days after I buy a replacement. One gardener told me she got so fed up with waylaid tools that she attaches reflective tape to them and goes out at night with a torch to find them!

    • bernhard feistel on said:

      Not to mention washed away or mixed up labels. Last year I bought (meant as a crash surprise course) a so-called “lottery mixture” from a reputed seed company where they mixed in perennial seeds which were over the sell-by-date. I will never do that again in the near future.

      And yes, it happens not only with tools that as soon as you lost your nerves and bought a replacement the culprit reappears in the same way as you exactly need this certain piece of equipment a day after you have thrown it away after years of taking up precious space. In any case, I would be lost without at least 2 secateurs…

  3. Reflective tape! That’s brilliant. Lost somewhere in my garden is a pair of Felco No2 secateurs where even the bright red handle did not help. I also find that sometimes the preoccupation with a particular gardening issue can lead to completely forgetting to bring the tool or plant to the place I need it. It makes for a lot of walking to and fro but it’s a nice ‘gardening otherness’ head space to be in, all the same. Meditation with exercise!

  4. Yes, the reflective tape tip is gold
    ….. will put it on my “to do” list!