I have been on a Sissinghurst kick recently. This happens every few years and I collect all the books at the library about Sissinghurst and read them all over again. I have never been there, but it is a garden after my own heart in many ways. Obviously, it is nothing like mine, it is larger, more formal and heavily staffed (and I lack mellow Elizabethan brick walls, as we generally do in this country), but I love Vita Sackville-West’s abundance of plants, and her willingness to mix all sorts of plants in the same space. In one book the detailed planning which went into Sissinghurst’s creation is described, and summarized thus: “In the first two years, 1930 to 1932, they made a complete plan of the garden which was never basically altered, a lesson to all gardeners to think before they plant.” (Sissinghurst The Making of a Garden, Anne Scott-James). The italics are the authors, and obviously represent a strongly held position!
I was taking a friend around my garden and she both flattered and surprised me by asking if the garden was planned in advance. I have tried to plan a number of times over the years, but have always been stopped by the extreme tedium of the process. First the garden space has to be measured and mapped in a detailed way. Then all the structural elements have to be put in place (what has recently been called the hardscaping, although that is not a term I really like) and drawn to scale, and then the plants arranged in what is essentially the space left over. Every time I have tried to do this I have gotten bogged down at the mapping part of the process. I am pretty sure that the previous step, the measuring, hasn’t been all that great, either, but mostly I have a number of very out-of-scale maps of different parts of the garden that bear no resemblance to how it has actually turned out. My garden is totally driven by the plants. I acquire lots of gorgeous plants and then I have to figure out where they want to go and everything else works around that. For example, the development of the Dell was entirely dictated by having lots of hydrangeas.
In reality, the garden has just evolved to its current state. That is not to say that I have done no planning, but the planning I do has been very short term, measured in the work of a few days, or the space of a few square feet, and is done entirely in my head. Each decision feeds the next decision, which then informs editing the previous decision (translation: moving the plants I planted two weeks ago), and so on. Two steps forward, one step back. I use a few rules about scale and proportion, but not even mathematically. These are mostly along the lines of “the garden needs to extend out from the house at least the height of the house, or it will look skimpy” (which involves mentally tipping the house over onto all of its planes while calculating; very exciting). I also try to graduate the height and size of my plants–no impatiens encircling the base of a huge tree. And finally, I always try, and almost as often fail, to given each plant enough elbow room. What I have started to realize is that I give every plant an identical amount of elbow room, which must be why this usually fails. A chrysanthemum doesn’t need as much as a space as a cedar. I am currently working to process this on the ground.
However, in order to get ready to open the garden I am beginning to think I need to do more real planning. Maybe it isn’t just antique brick that differentiates my garden from Sissinghurst. After all, they get thousands of visitors every year. Maybe I need a serious plan (and a million dollars). Maybe a real garden is too complex to leave to chance and the seat of my pants. I still don’t want to draw plans, except the after-the-fact mapping of plants which I have already discussed and which has yet to get off the ground. I am an inveterate list maker, though, so perhaps I can use lists to start prioritizing. I have never made lists for the garden because I didn’t want it to become drudgery. I use lists everywhere else in my life because I always have too much information to process and lists keep me from dropping too many balls. In my house everybody knows that unless they are written down things just do not get done. However, I always struggle with the dictatorial aspect of lists–that I must do these things. As a result I can often feel myself starting to resist the list. I usually get over it, and get on with what I am trying to do, but I never wanted to feel that way even a little in the garden. I think the time has come to get over it in the garden, also, though. After all, just because it is on a list doesn’t mean I have to actually do it. The gardening police are only in my head.
So, the very first item on my list is that there is too much plastic in the garden. And, to my mind, plastic in any form and gardens just do not go together. However there is one area of gardening where plastic is almost irreplaceable, and that is the ordinary plant pot. Terra cotta looks so much nicer, so rustic, so mellow, but it dries out in a trice, which stresses the plants. Plastic isn’t ideal, and plants don’t love sitting around in pots, but it really works well. I have literally thousands of black plastic pots of all sizes in the garden. I have all the pots for our plant sale, and then all the pots of my own plants. Not only do I not keep up with planting all my plant purchases, but I have a serious propagation habit, and can conjure a few dozen new plants in no time at all. Some I keep, most I donate to the sale, but all have to be stored here in those ugly black plastic pots. In addition, I use larger size (the plants are mostly in gallons) black plastic pots for all sorts of utility items. I weed into the giant sizes. I haul and spread bark dust in a flotilla of two-gallon pots because they give me a lot of control in spreading the bark. I keep homemade wood chips and rotted manure for soil amendment in the five-gallon sizes. Likewise my potting soil, one batch for me, another for the sale, lives in five-gallon pots. Since I do all these activities all the time the large number of pots littering my garden makes it very ugly.
So the first step in planning has got to be to get rid of, or conceal, all of these pots. I can do one thing right off the bat, which is to tidy up all the empties lying around, and keep them is a discrete corner. I have never had a dedicated utility area, which every garden needs. If I have one all the ugliness can be kept in there, and only trotted out for work sessions. It is pretty basic, isn’t it? And it is another lesson I seem to just have to keep re-learning. You can’t put something away unless there is a place to put it. So, I will develop a place, and I will put all of my extraneous stuff there. It won’t make this Sissinghurst, but it’s a start.