How to be a Better Gardener in 2020

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January has been a month of quiet reflection. There’s been relatively little to do in the garden, the house is clean and tidy post Christmas and social engagements have been thin on the ground. Unusually we have spent most of our evenings in the library reading or playing with the dogs, which almost never happens at any other time of the year. I believe this is what’s commonly known as ‘relaxation’. It feels strange, but I could get used to it.

With relaxation comes renewed freedom of thought. I experience a flood of ideas; ideas about how to improve my home, gild my garden, strengthen my relationships and develop myself. I try to write them all down to prevent myself from becoming stymied again.

Now that I have the head space, I have started to consider how I could be a better gardener in 2020. Our allotment has given me the impetus to learn new skills. Meanwhile I am more conscious that ever, as I am sure you are, about the impact I am having on the environment. I do not have all the answers here, but I think we all know instinctively what feels right and what feels wrong. We should follow our gut instinct and use our common sense to make choices that will benefit nature as well as satisfying our desire to cultivate. I have made a list of good intentions, resolutions, call them what you will. They are gentle steps rather than radical leaps, sensible rather than silly. Most importantly they are achievable. Let me know what you think.

Sneeboer – tools for life

1) Buy Once and Buy Well

I’ve always agreed with William Morris’ assertion that you should ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ and I apply this to the garden just as rigorously as my home. I loathe needless waste and always have done. I am also a firm believer in buying the best I can afford, and accepting that this might sometimes mean delaying a purchase until I can have what I want. Now that we have a wider understanding of the consequences of non-recyclable waste it is frankly irresponsible to buy anything that we know or suspect is neither fit for purpose nor good for the environment. There’s a lot of shoddy, short-life gardening product on the market – plants included – and it will remain there until we all stop buying it. When something is cheap it’s tempting to think ‘that’ll do’ or ‘if it’s not what I hoped I’ll buy something else’. That has to stop. The Internet bears heavy responsibility for the proliferation of goods of questionable use and beauty, but we fuel it. Instead of making do, consider if there’s a more sustainable, longer lasting or locally-produced alternative and buy that instead.

I’m a huge fan of terracotta over plastic pots – even when broken they are useful as crocks

This need not necessarily mean shunning materials that are hard to recycle at present. A plastic product that lasts and lasts might ultimately be better than a flimsy wooden one that will quickly break. Always buy plants from a reputable source and seek out tools that can be sharpened or where parts can be replaced. For example Felco offer a service where they will overhaul your old Felco secateurs should you not have the skills to do so yourself (I’m terrified of sharpening anything lest I do it wrong!). Sneeboer will also replace handles and make repairs to their beautiful handmade garden tools. Good tools used correctly should last a lifetime. Websites such as Buy Me Once specialise in products which are both sustainable and durable. However given a little time and perseverance you will be able to find better options in a whole host of retailers.

Last but not least, if you can find a suitable pre-loved plant, greenhouse, pot or tool and can save it going into the compost or landfill, so much the better. You’ll save yourself money and the environment will benefit. Here the Internet redeems itself with a whole host of sites devoted to the pre-loved and un-loved. Give something a new home and prolong its life for as long as you can.

2) Share

You are a mine of information and capable of influencing and inspiring the next generation of gardeners. Agree? Probably not. But neither would my grandparents, and yet they played a significant part in fostering my love of plants. They shared their knowledge freely and uncomplicatedly. They knew things that few gardeners know nowadays, but never realised it. For them it was gardening lore but they’d never have considered writing it down. Now it lives on, through me. My grandparents were patient, kind and above all not pushy. They let me come to gardening rather than pushing me towards it.

People become interested in gardening at different life stages. They will seek out those with greater knowledge, albeit with some trepidation. If asked, give of your knowledge generously, fearlessly and gently. As experienced gardeners it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has never thrust a trowel into the soil or planted a seed. Make it sound easy, appealing and focus on the rewards as well as the realities. In the USA they have an established ‘Master Gardener’ programs that train volunteers in the science and art of gardening. Once qualified, these ‘Master Gardeners’ pass on the information they learned to the public and support the maintenance of community and historic gardens. My blogging pal Judy at New England Garden and Thread is one such Master Gardener and she explains the concept in more detail here. Wouldn’t it be marvellous, given the wealth of expertise we have in the UK, if we had such a scheme here. Perhaps I should start one.

Whether it’s knowledge, spare plants, seeds, cut flowers or produce the important thing is to share. You’ll feel good and someone else will benefit.

Wallflowers and ferns colonise the ancient walls at Sissinghurst

3) Embrace your Garden’s Imperfections

Never has it been more acceptable to have an imperfect garden. Indeed, the clinical perfection of suburban gardens in the 60’s and 70’s is anathema to most of us fifty years on. Daisies in lawns are derigeur; wildflowers, including many once considered weeds, are nurtured to attract bees; piles of fallen timber are recognised as excellent homes for insects. All enrich the biodiversity of our gardens and are no longer frowned upon. Letting your garden go fuzzy round the edges saves time and energy. Provided you have a strong structure it can also look just as good as a perfectly manicured plot. In his book ‘Wild About Weeds’, garden designer Jack Wallington explains how to become a better gardener by learning to work with weeds in ways that won’t cause you a headache.

Of course there are sensible limits to how much imperfection is healthy for your garden and you will impose personal limits too. Full-on rewilding is not for everyone and that’s OK. But striving less for old ideas of perfection – neatly trimmed edges, blemish free plants and show quality blooms – will increase your appreciation of different kind of beauty. The Japanese call it wabi-sabi – an acceptance and appreciation of transience and imperfection.

A place to rest a while

4) Enjoy the Moment

Our world has never moved at a more alarming pace. Calls on our attention are legion and not always healthy. After a busy Christmas on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, with bills to pay and jobs to do around the house I felt both distracted and crippled by the weight of responsibility.

Of course, this is quite wrong and I recognise that. I also know that there’s no better way to put things back in perspective than 2 hours spent in the garden. Reconnect with the earth, make things grow, try and fail, try again and succeed; experience real life through vegetables and minerals and regain a sense of proportion.

Searching for a suitable picture to illustrate this point reacquainted me with this lovely photograph of a garden in Cornwall I visited many years ago. It was in the middle of nowhere and belonged, as I recall, to a garden designer. The simplicity of this seating arrangement, surrounded by lush greens and with a sculpture on which to focus, is all that’s needed for a moment of quiet contemplation. It reminds me that I need to sit more in my garden, rather than rushing around like a madman.

The kitchen garden at Trengwainton, Cornwall, takes advantage of the mild climate.

5) Work with What You’ve Got

Gardeners are terrible for wanting something other than that with which they are blessed, be it different soil, more sun, better drainage, warmer weather, greater space or a nicer view. We would all save ourselves a lot of time, effort, heartache and money if we embraced our situation and worked with it rather than against it. It’s easier said than done and an area where I definitely ‘could do better’. Lack of space is a constant frustration to me, alleviated somewhat by the new allotment. That will soon be bursting at the seams and then I’ll be craving more time and energy to maintain it. I have always bitten off more than I can chew and never learn my lesson.

The garden Derek Jarman created at Prospect Cottage quite literally grows out of the beach

I know of no great open-air garden that does not respond to it’s natural environment in some way. (The Genius Loci, as Alexander Pope proclaimed in 1731, is ‘instanced in architecture and gardening,… all must be adapted to the genius of the place, and… beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it’.) Indeed many of the world’s finest gardens blend almost seamlessly with it – Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness is a fine example, as is Ninfa in Italy or Rohuna, Umberto Pasti’s sublime garden in Morocco. You have a choice – fight against the prevailing conditions and make hard work for yourself or embrace them, however unpromising, and go with the flow.

For gardeners like myself, intent on growing plants which ought not to flourish, this is a kind of self inflicted torture. Half of my plants could die in a cold winter, which has happened and isn’t amusing. Almost everything I grow needs daily watering throughout the summer. If I chose hardy, drought-tolerant plants and reduced the number of pots my life would be a lot easier. I aim to reduce the number of pots this summer, transferring a few plants to the allotment and giving others away. One step at a time, eh?

By buying less and buying well, sharing my knowledge, plants and produce, accepting my garden’s limitations and working with them, and by taking time out to enjoy the results, I will be a better gardener and perhaps a better person too. TFG.

Categories: Musings, Our Allotment, Our Coastal Garden, Practical Advice

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

Greetings Garden Lover! Welcome to my blog. Plants are my passion and this is my way of sharing that joyful emotion with the world. You'll find over 1000 posts here featuring everything from abutilons to zinnias. If you've enjoyed what you've read, please leave a comment and consider subscribing using the yellow 'Follow' button in the bottom, right-hand corner of your screen. You will receive an email every time I post something new.

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39 comments On "How to be a Better Gardener in 2020"

  1. A very mindful approach. I like the idea of placing a blue heart on a stick on a bit of the garden which is currently neglected, marking it as a wildlife area.

  2. What terrific resolutions. You inspire me to continue to make the small decisions we each control that aggregated might make a difference for all of us.

    1. Small gardens have much to commend them, but don’t let anyone with a large garden tell you that you have it easy! The challenge is to have something looking good at every point in the year. With planning it’s perfectly possible. Good Luck. Dan

      1. Thank you Dan – I’m still working on the winter version of our garden, it looks a little stark Nov-March. Really inspiring to look at all the gardeners online and see how they achieve it 🙂

  3. Insightful and thought provoking. Did you know that Prospect Cottage may go on the open market if the Charity Art Fund are unable to raise an eye watering £3.5 million to preserve its future.

  4. That beautiful mind of yours has been busy. This is a perfect treatise for this time of year especially. We all have time to contemplate what we are doing going forward. This puts me in mind of when my husband said to me ‘I don’t care what you do in the garden but only do as much as you can take care of.’ At the time I was working full time with a 2 hr driving commute. Quite difficult since I was not so young. Anyway, no matter your age this is all very good advice.
    I love the statue across from a bench. I do that with head pots so I don’t have to feel alone in the garden. They always know the right thing to say or most often not say. We can commune.
    I had gardened for years before I took the Master Gardeners course. It is a great way to learn and then interact with the community.
    I don’t have anything like a beach to contend with but I have always had to garden where I lived. So many challenges. You learn a lot with those challenges and feel so accomplished when you can get things to do what you want them to.
    I am so happy that you aren’t giving up your blog for the other social medias. It seems like when people accept the ease of Instagram they often let go of their blog. You can’t express yourself in full on other formats. I would miss you so if you go. Which is what I thought you were going to say when you said you were so overwhelmed with work etc and the others.
    So good to see you here and read your thoughts. Tell the Beau hello. Do carry on…

    1. Hi Lisa. Don’t worry about me abandoning the blog. It’s a long-term project and would be the last form of social media to be sacrificed. I can’t get to grips with Twitter and I hardly look at Facebook now. Instagram is inspiring, but no substitute for blogging.

      I am learning that I can (and should) do more or less on the blog from time to time, to keep it sustainable. I am so happy that John (The Beau) is interested in contributing as it adds an extra dimension and a different tone of voice. If we can manage one post per week each I will be happy. Dan

  5. A wonderful philosophy for life, the home and the garden. I like terracotta pots too. They remind me of my father who was a very good gardener. Now we live in an apartment I can’t garden but it’s nice to get a vicarious shot of yours. If only apartments came with rose beds.

      1. We don’t have any indoor plants except a few potted orchids that flowered once and then resolutely refused to do so again.
        If we put anything on the balcony I think the cockatoos would strip them very quickly. They are very destructive so I content myself with long walks over the hills. Very rewarding for insect life too

  6. It’s after midnight and the rain is pattering down outside here on the Devonshire coast. But the Brexit storm has passed, at least temporarily, and it does feel like a quieter time in which to take stock, consider our gardening habits as well as the wider natural environment, share knowledge and listen and learn. Great to relax and great post Dan

    1. Thank you. I wasn’t sure if I had struck the right note, but The Beau reckoned it was worth sharing.

      The rain arrived here in the early hours and has given the garden a jolly good drenching. Still very mild here so everything continues to grow.

      Please give my love to Devon x

  7. There isn’t a day, or even a moment where I have to constantly remind myself to be mindful, caring, sharing and changing careless & wasteful habits, be it while gardening, at home or during compulsory shopping. I believe including “us” (however the age differences might be), couple of generations have taken excess for granted: now is the time to heal; sharing is the remedy. Thank you for sharing your thought “poking” thoughts.

  8. Saving for what I really want has been my rule for years. The times when I’ve ignored it, I haven’t been happy with the purchase and end up some time later with the item I originally wanted.

    1. Wise words Heather. I am guilty of falling for ‘that’ll do’ from time to time, but less often as I learn from experience. Put plainly, I like nice things …. which is probably why I am not rich 😂

  9. Another great post from you and full of inspiration to this gardener, who is never too old to try something new. Can’t wait to get out there and get working, planning and sowing in my own little corner of Dorset.

  10. A lovely and helpful post, Dan ! I too struggle with lack of space, but then I keep in mind that the little land I have is already a great blessing and for too many, an unachievable dream.

  11. Im all with you on recycling, i usually get rid of all the old tools in the recycling bin now rather than letting them go to land fill, must have emptied out two buckets of them last year.
    I have a tip to avoid having to resharpen the felco stuff, as its so cheap i extend their life by waiting two years before buying them again, that way it works out at less than the cost of one coffee a week! Thats a small price to pay for helping the environment.
    If there were more people like us who recycle and use their tools for a couple of years, then we wouldnt be in this mess.

  12. Good morning! I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog – you write so well and about my most favourite subject.
    I have managed to purloin a tiny tuber of Dahlia campanulata on the strength of your mention of it and can’t wait to get it into growth.
    Good luck with your allotment. I see that it is Seedy Sunday in Hove today. I wonder if you might be going. Quite a trek for you
    but no doubt good once you get there. Regards, Sue Whigham

    1. Well, we had our own Seedy Sunday at home planting onion sets, sweet peas and nasturtiums. It was tempting to plant more but we resisted as it’s still a early and I know how plants expand. We can plant the seeds but we have nowhere to grow them on.

      Well done on finding Dahlia campanulata. It needs maximum shelter and a good hot summer to flower outside. Ours had one bud on it in November but ultimately the cold took its toll and it failed to open. We planted it out late and hope for better when we transfer it to the deep, reach soil of the allotment.

      Thank you Sue for your kind comments about my writing. I do my best and try to keep working on it. I frequently wish I had paid a lot more attention to grammar at school!

  13. Will be a few months more before spring arrives in Canada but I am inspired by your beautiful photos and your gardening philosophy. Must re-read this again in a month or two before getting back to the gardening.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment Valerie. We haven’t experienced much of winter yet – it’s been mild and wet. However anything could happen over the next 6-8 weeks. I’m hoping for a frost-free year.

  14. I’ve really enjoyed reading that. Thanks for sharing. Talking of sharing, there’s a Seedy Saturday coming up soon in Carmarthen, I wonder if you have one in your area? There’s a reclaimed garden tool stand for a charity and for the life of me I cannot recall the name, still, I suppose it’s somewhere on ye olde farceblock (I don’t do FB).

  15. Love the article. I agree with the concept of buy the best that you can afford and make them last. Too often in my past I have bought lessor quality tools only to find they rust or break.

    1. Thank you Nina. I am constantly reminded of the value of buying well, and now it’s a blessing for the environment as well. Far too much cheap tat goes to landfill and people don’t appreciate the value of well made objects.

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