And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time

In the first chapter of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh Christopher Robin and Pooh are climbing the stairs to bed. Christopher Robin is dragging Pooh behind him by one leg and on each rise Pooh bangs his head on the step below. Pooh is sure that there must be a better way of going upstairs and equally sure that he could work it out if only his head didn’t hurt so much.

Like poor old Pooh I too have been banging my head against something hard and unyielding, in my case the creation of a garden from a field. Just as Pooh does eventually get upstairs to bed, I am turning more and more of the field into very attractive and interesting garden, but, just like Pooh, at a price.

I have not truly enjoyed my gardening for more than a year. There have been good periods of course, evenings sat sipping kir with the heady perfume of nicotiana wrapping itself around us, the first flowers on a young lilac, the herb circle loud with the buzzing of bees, humming bird moths on the Verbena Bonariensis and leisurely lunches with friends. But always for me there was a background pressure, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the work required.

And always too there was the feeling that all that was needed was a bit more effort and a bit of luck – the game of if’s and maybe’s: if I hadn’t broken my wrist eighteen months ago, maybe this summer won’t be so dry, if the last two winters hadn’t been so harsh, if I can just get this area clear of weeds, etc, etc, etc. So I would get up each morning, after yet another bad night, more tired and more dispirited than the day before. Bumpity, bump, bump, bump.

Who was it said that you don’t solve problems by using the same thinking that you used to create them? Possibly Albert Einstein. But before you can do some new thinking you have to stop, step back and see the wood for the trees.

One morning a few weeks ago I woke exhausted, the French have the perfect word for it – épuisé – literally the well is dry. I could barely drag myself around the garden, much less do anything. I switched off from the whole topic and finally, several days later, I could think straight again.

And what I can now see is that the problem breaks down into two fundamental errors:

1. We have tried to do too much too soon.
2. Our gardening practices are inefficient and labour-intensive.

Apart from that we are fine!

I can see why this has happened. Before we moved to France we had spent several years living in a motorhome, saving hard to buy a piece if land. We had not had a garden for a long time and never anything of this size and we understandably got caught up in the excitement of creating something that was ours and very personal. As each new garden space was developed its neighbour started to yell ‘Me now’ in a hard-to-ignore voice.

In the past my houses had had establishd gardens when I bought them so this was the first garden that I had ever designed. The first garden but the second design. The first design was based on an incomplete survey and badly underestimated the slope of the land – it was unworkable and had to be scrapped. The second design, done in a tiny office on a horrible building site near Reading, works well and I am really proud of it.

The second error was poor gardening practice and I am not beating myself over the head about this either. As I said, we had only ever had small gardens and my interest in gardening is relatively new and what I know is largely based on a handfull of books and television programmes. We had decided not to use any chemicals on the Iand, yet I knew nothing about organic gardening practices.

The land around here is a mixture of pasture and woodland. I doubt if it has ever seen pesticides or herbicides and consequently is rich in plant species. We have wonderful wild orchids, cowslips, pulmonaria, scabious and cornflowers plus more troublesome yarrow, fat hen, dandelions, chickweed, grasses of course and lots of other ‘weeds’ whose names I don’t know. The weeds grow vigourously in our climate, thanks to an annual rainfall in excess of 1 metre, hot summers and warm autumns.

The first year our neighbours kindly gave us tons of horse manure, which was great apart from the millions of seeds of a plant that became known unaffectionately as The Purple Jobby which appeared everywhere we spread the manure. We spent many hours the next year digging it out. It threatened to overwhelm the grass in a newly sown lawn and The Womble removed every bit from 100 square metres – with a screwdriver! We won that particular battle, we rarely see The Purple Jobby now.

You simply cannot clear an area, rotivate it or dig it over and then leave it, yet that is what we did. Or we filled it with young plants and/or seeds and watched them being swamped by the weeds. And still we continued to make new gardens, still thinking that we could win the battle with just a bit more effort. Gradually I learnt about mulching and green manures and no-dig gardening, and we are starting to be more efficient, but it takes time when you are already on the back foot.

The biggest lesson I feel I have learnt is that you cannot fight nature. It has been at this game longer than us and it will win. You have to work with it. Just about the time I started to go into free-fall I heard about forest gardening, a very different approach which does just that – it works with nature. I am now in the process of learning about it and seeing how I can incorporate its ideas into the garden. For the first time in a year I feel very positive about what we can achieve here.

I am now taking a break from gardening for the summer, doing as little as possible simply to keep things ticking over. The garden will not look as good as it did last year, and I don’t mind that. I am giving myself the time to do other things, the time too to just sit in the garden and look at what we have achieved and what we will achieve in the future. I’ll restart in the autumn, rested, newly enthused and with a plan. I am determined that from now on we will do things at a manageable pace. And I am going to enjoy my lovely garden once more. What other reason is there to have one?

• Pictures (for no particular reason) are of valerian, Corsican mint and Pogo in relaxed mood

• I borrowed the title for this post from an excellent song by Gerry Rafferty.

• A big thank you to Ikea in Toulouse for the use of their WIFI – a tad faster than my usual connection!


24 responses to “And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time

  1. patientgardener

    Goodness I do think you have been unkind on yourself and set your targets far too high. I have visited and read about a no of gardens developed like yours from fields but they have generally only done one or two areas a year. There is no rush for it to be complete.

    Hope you feel more positive and friendly towards your garden now!

  2. Kate Bradbury

    Well I think your garden looks gorgeous! I guess you can’t have everything all at once, and if you did, you’d probably be sat around twiddling your thumbs. Enjoy your rest. x

  3. Gilly, I so enjoyed this post, not the fact that the garden has taken so much out of you, but the fact that I do not feel this way by myself.
    Like you I am designing a (largish) garden from scratch(at least from lawn) and have limited time as I live in another city all week. It is hard not to keep adding beds as I know what the design will be in my mind, and I want it to look like that now, but I also have to maintain the beds that are there now, and I am failing miserably at it. I am tired after working all week, for some reason I get a lot of company and they expect a clean house and food, go figure. But I just keep plugging away hoping that the garden will mature and hide a lot of my sins.
    Enjoy your summer, have a few (ok, more than a few) kirs, everything will look better in the sutumn and you will be rested and have a new lease on life, that is what I am going do do (hopefully).

    • Deborah: It is the pictures in our heads that keep pushing us on and telling us how far we are from where we want to be. No-one else sees that. I hope you too have a lovely summer. How you work and garden and run two places I do not know. Well done you.

  4. How lovely. I feel much the same about discovering forest gardening. It is a lot of work at the start up (now) but should make for an easy and beautiful garden in the long run. I think you need to go through this process of failure and reassessment to get something really good in the end. Just think what unbearable smart arses we would be if we had sussed it from the start!

  5. Gilly – I love the top image and I have enjoyed reading you heartfelt post.

    It is good to step back for a while and appreciate the garden for what it is at the moment and the glorious countryside around you.
    Forest Gardening sounds so interesting and I am sure that you (and Lia) will have a good time exploring the concepts and including them in your garden.


  6. It’s very good to read this, I went through kinda the same ! anyway i’m got well into forest gardening now and it has huge rewards. I have robert hart’s book and he has some videos on youtube, sadly he has passed away. But there are others who have done similiar. I also practice permaculture and this garden has been planeed around that and the forest gardening style, after the initial work, it has dropped to a day a week. Enjoy your summer, it took me many years living here to realise i was an idiot working through it !!!

    • Li: it’s great to hear you are forest gardening too. Yes, I have read Robert Hart’s book and also an excellent new one by Martin Crawford called Creating A Forest Garden.

  7. Gilly, good for you for realizing that you can’t do it all at once! and for putting into words what I’m sure many of us feel. I too have a large property (weedy lawn) that I’m trying to garden and having to design for the first time. I’ve made a list of only a few things to do this summer so I won’t get overwhelmed but even so, working full time, I find myself running hither and yon and not getting much accomplished. It’s disappointing at times and lately I have felt that I’m not doing other things that I love, biking, kayaking, walks, etc. But when I do those things I worry that I’m not getting my gardening done. A catch 22. I shouldn’t feel so stressed about things that I love. A self imposed break might not be such a bad thing.

    • Marguerite: I too have been missing out on doing other things because of the garden. It’s not good, we need balance and variety and to be kind to ourselves. I hope you have a wonderful summer enjoying the garden.

  8. Well whatever happens you know you will get lots of support & encouragement from the community of bloggers, tweeters & lunatics you have found on the internet.

    I am sure that the things you have learnt will be more meaningful as you have found it all out for yourself. And don’t forget, you are more important than your garden!

    • Ms B: I agree absolutely. The blogging and tweeting gang have kept me going the last few months. I feel very fortunate to have made contact with so many supportive and knowledgeable people. And completely bonkers too!

  9. As problems go, these are good ones to have. The garden is too big – I can’t handle it all!! Loved reading this as I do have the same problem at my house. My gardening eyes were bigger than my stomach- stomach meaning the time, money and energy to do everything I wanted to do.I look around at the piddly amount I have been able to do and often feel only frustration, instead of joy at the little sections that are working fairly well. Add nature taking gardens back-grass completely filling in former cultivated garden beds and it can be so discouraging. One strategy I am using now is killing grass by smothering with newspapers. Looks like hell for time being but garden will eventually be rescued.

    • Sarah: I’m sorry you are also finding it hard. So many people are, it seems. As for mulch, I’m tending to cover weedy areas with black polythene. As you say, it isn’t pretty, but each time I look at it I breathe a sigh of relief that at least that bit is under control. Let’s all start enjoying what we have achieved – otherwise, what is the point.

  10. You have captured my thoughts and frustrations.. and many other gardeners’ too by the sound of their comments. How well you put it all into words! I too am struggling with over-designing and under-implementing my brand new disturbed-earth gardens. What a challenge. I thought it would come together so much more easily. This was a great post… thanks for saying what I have been feeling!

    • Laurrie: Oh dear, you too! It really is hard, isn’t it? I love Sarah’s analogy of our eyes being bigger than our bellies. But we will do it, just not as quickly as we thought and maybe not exactly how we thought. Good luck and thank you for the kind words.

  11. The pictures look amazing! My Dad has a similar problem – big visions for his garden – so many ambitious projects started over the years absorbing lots of time and energy – then his job got busy and it disappears under weeds, nettles bindweed and brambles. So sad that something that has the potential to give so much satisfaction becomes a reason for depression instead. Seems a common problem!

    But hopefully the trials will make the eventual outcome even more satisfying.

    My Dad’s started focusing on keeping the good bits going and not trying to do it all at once – and he gets a few weekends a year from his kids to reclaim bits. (Can you draft in a temporary army?) In 6 weeks he retires and I shall give him a week’s hard labour and we’ll try to claw back the last ten years!

    • Sarah: No volunteer army, I’m afraid, but with a more realistic outlook and better husbandry I believe I can make it work. I am already seeing ways to make improvments simply because I have taken the pressure off myself and have time to sit and look and think. Good luck to your Dad in his retirement.

  12. Loved this post. I have felt, (and still feel every July, August and September) overwhelmed and crazy for having such a large garden and never getting it all done. Then, winter comes and by Spring I have forgotten it all and have new plans for perfection. I am a slow learner, and I am just now getting it- mulch, mulch, mulch! And, to quit biting off more than I can chew.
    I have never heard of forest gardening, so I will have to look it up.
    I have a little jar of soil that I brought back from the south of France, gritty, dry, and oh so lovely and nothing like the heavy clay soil that I have here. We always want what we don’t have I guess.
    I hope this Spring finds you renewed and full of hope for a new Season in the garden.

    • Susan: I wrote that post almost two years ago and it’s really only now that I can finally say ‘I can’t do it all’ and to feel OK with that. And I’m sure it’s not coincidence that I have more energy and enthusiasm for the garden this spring than ever before. Am I finally learning? Let’s hope so. And good luck with your garden too.

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