Sylvia Clare’s Column – September 2014

Published: July 31, 2022

A belated note about September 2014

It was a busy month for me in so many ways but one morning I sneaked out just before the sun rose properly and snapped for about an hour, just taking whatever was there. A few things looked lovely in the early morning light, especially the lovely blue Hibiscus and the golden Rudbeckias against the and Himalayan birch bark, also lots of lovely Salvias and Penstemon I planted early this year in a newly developed space.

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Hibiscus Bush
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But it is now three weeks later, we are into early October and the weather outside is atrocious, so what better to do than to sit in a nice warm study and look back over the photos and collect my thoughts about the past month. It was dry and mostly hot here, right up until last night really, so we are lucky in terms of how long the summer lasts for us, and thus the growing and flowering season. I also know that I wrote about all the lovely Asters last year so shall not repeat myself. They are glorious again of course and smothered by many varieties of bees as well as my own. This month though, I am in love with my Cotinus ‘Grace'. I cut it right back to a stump every year once it has lost its leaves and then wait in Spring for the little dark red shoots to emerge all along the knobbled lump of coppiced bole. They start off opening as almost translucent red discs through late Spring and well into Summer and the stems keep thrusting up and outwards like an enormous octopus or garden Nessie, with multiple limbs/necks. So by this time of year they are really quite long, and wave around in any breeze we have, forming lovely graceful arches of deep red foliage, which we must brush past each time we venture into the garden through this area. However as we near the equinox and the early mornings are decidedly cooler, the light dew on these dark Cotinus leaves are such a delicate delight, it is a plant that gives, almost all year around. Even the stump post coppicing has a sculptural look about it nowadays, after so many years of such treatment, must be about ten years ago or more since we put it in, not quite knowing how it would work out. Such is the adventure of gardening.

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Cotinus ‘Grace'

It also made me think about how my relationship with this acre of plot has developed over time. When we came here in 2000 it was more or less overgrown and quite derelict, with only a few trees worthy of keeping and almost everything else had died out except a wonderful crop of bindweed, nettles, brambles, ragwort, hogweed, docks and ground elder. The first year was spent reclaiming as much as possible and beginning the series of circles that was to make up the basic outline of the garden, although many of these are no longer directly visible where plants have grown across and into each other they are still more or less there. So the initial years were about pioneering into the unknown for me, having never tackled anything like this in scale or conditions before. I learned so much along the way and the last fourteen years have been an amazing journey of discovery. However it was not all delight, and there were many times when I felt overwhelmed, inadequate and almost defeated by the size of the project. I was always constrained by both time and finances since the house was also derelict, and our finances had to be directed there as a priority. We lived without a proper room anywhere for nearly eight months after moving in, so we were beset on all fronts. It was eight months after moving in that we had a room with carpets, curtains, and comfort in the form of heat. So we were beset on all fronts and it certainly did test us greatly. I almost fell out of love with the main garden and really just wanted to make it as low maintenance as possible. But by then I had made a lot more planting areas and put in a lot of plants, many of which died, but many more settled in, and are now splendidly doing their thing for us. However I was exhausted for a few years by an illness, which is now more or less gone, but this meant the garden really did slip away from me. My husband and eldest son came to the rescue by helping me to master a few more areas and make them manageable and productive, also to make it easier to keep on top of the rest. Proper space to work, to propagate and to store is an essential we had not given enough thought to in the early days, so this was also addressed to make it far easier to keep on top of the areas now tamed, and the few still untamed are being assessed for the appropriate time to make a move on them. However it has been our visitors who have come here weekly for much of the year for the last five years or longer and who have really appreciated the garden as part of their holiday, not just a space to use as a base. We love to see families eating breakfasts out there, or reading etc. I also love how our retreat visitors really enjoy using the different rooms for their different meditation exercises. So I have really fallen back in love with my garden this year. After the fourteen year struggle, I can see how to move forward with it all, what to grow and what to not bother with any more, how to live with the invasive countryside all around us, to love the weeds and the wildlife we share this space with, even if it sometimes eats our food plants before we get a look in, or demolishes a whole tray of pricked out seedlings just as they are almost ready to plant out. I have learned to be at peace with the seasons. I no longer struggle with the daily changes and challenges, but value each day as an adventure, to see what happens and take the perceptual viewpoint of ‘how it will benefit the garden', in terms of weather, seasonal changes, the sheer joy of a single plant through the course of a year, and more than anything, how quickly the years pass when you work on a monthly/seasonal basis as much as gardeners do. Impermanence is a central teaching to mindfulness and it is really a living experience in a garden. I have practised and taught mindfulness for a long time but in the garden I really live it all the time and it is such a joyful thing, no more angst about slugs, pigeons, rodents, rabbits, badgers etc. I look for ways to outwit them of course, but I have learned to just take what happens as the way it is. What next? Winter salads I think, and seed catalogues for next year's border fillers and cutting options. And now it has stopped raining, the wind has slowed right down and I shall send this off after I take a lovely damp walk around outside and see how everything is today. If I sow a tray of seeds, that will be delightful, and if not then I can look forward to doing it tomorrow instead.

Sylvia Clare

Text and photographs by Sylvia Clare, who has been an HPS member for more than 10 years.