Journal 24.1.21

As I type this week’s Journal to the sound of Jean Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’, I look back across a week of early starts, work commitments and a large dose of home schooling. Week three is now done, lockdown continues and finally the new weekly pattern settles into a rhythm.

Cyclamen coum from Caucasus region.

All has been very quiet on the home gardening front, with everything in its place and all ticking over nicely – there’s lots of activity to come but for now, this ultra slow pace is fine. Some grass seed that I sowed over the festive period is just starting to show through, and whilst the gravel-topped spring flower containers move not, the Miscanthus grasses frequently do with each chilly, passing breeze.

Tuesday’s workday came around and passed by quickly, and with its mild temperature gave rise to a very full day spent largely up ladders whilst trimming hedges. I’ll add a video link at the foot of this post which I paused to record whilst working away, but essentially the trimming is a catchup exercise after some of the yew hedges weren’t quite finished last autumn. It’s hard work, believe me, but hugely rewarding.

All kitted out for flat-out yew trimming at Sulgrave Manor

I love trimming hedges, especially tightly managed ones like yew or box. The activity brings the satisfaction that they’ll hold their perfect form for months to come, and for me, the more artistic their design the better. This does however mean that it’s difficult to walk away from any specimen unless I’m absolutely positive its freshly trimmed form is just right – which means numerous trips to and fro and up and down the ladders to check that all is good – wearing to be sure!

Wednesday evening brought a zoom presentation of a garden design I’ve been working on for a friend. Whilst I’ve been involved in a good few zooms now, it was another matter entirely trying to ‘walk’ someone remotely through a design plan sitting on my drawing board. On reflection I really feel for the designers out there in similar positions who must be working in similar ways to keep their business activities alive.

I know – Rusty drawing skills...

At this stage, I’m happy with the plan I’ve produced which after much work is firmly etched in my mind as a real, actively growing space full of intrigue and character. After meeting my brief, my design work will now sit for a while for consideration, for editing and developing quite possibly, and may even see creation at some point depending on numerous external factors of course.

Side Note: It’s a lesser known fact that garden designers and architects actually time travel to picture their designed garden as it matures – just like ‘heritage’ gardeners travel time travel to understand, visualise, and ultimately restore historic gardens. What talented and underrated group of people eh!

Daffodils already pushing forth with a promise of brighter days.

Thursday brought another homeschool day but I managed to squeeze in a virtual coffee morning with a host of garden managers and similar staff. There was a good deal of chatter that was entertaining and informative, with all of the venues taking part suffering, and I don’t use that word lightly, from the effects of the pandemic. Besides this though, the hour was uplifting and very welcome, offering opportunity to share some time with a positive group of people.

What particularly touched me though was the talk of garden staff jobs being cut through redundancies last year. I know this was inevitable as each business looked to weather the storm, and ultimately to survive, but it must have been particularly hard hitting for anyone involved. Let’s face it, horticulture isn’t the most highly paid career anyway, without the setback of a job loss – especially at a time when alternative employment is thin on the ground. Let’s hope that all involved have found suitable positions elsewhere by now.

Snow capped cedar needles

I can’t finish this week’s journal without a brief mention of this morning’s snow – a beautiful blanket was forming as I woke, which continued to sweeten the garden scene as it continued. Whilst lovely snowy garden pictures were quick to arrive on my social media, I’m already looking with a dose of cold reality to the week ahead, and I won’t mince my words; it has until Tuesday to disappear – I have gardening to be getting on with!

Until next time then, thanks for dropping by and getting to the end of another Gardening Ways Journal entry. Best wishes, Gary

Link to ‘Today in the Garden – Tuesday 19th Jan’ Warning ⚠️ I actually talk to the camera!

Journal 17.1.21

OK, so there goes week two, another unbalancing week in my world of gardening – and life in general come to that.

Last weekend brought much reflection on the ever developing Covid and work situation, and by Monday morning I was resigned to the fact that some things would need further tightening. Indeed, within an hour of the week getting underway, conversations were taking place that encouraged a decision to officially pause volunteering. Now, whilst this brought some comfort for all involved, it obviously meant a lack of gardening activity for some time ahead – for a team that was already limited in number to maintain social distancing.

Potted plants in a glasshouse
Keeping a watchful eye on over-wintering cuttings, the stars of summer next.

A check in gardening activity, even as challenging as it is to the constant flow of seasonal tasks; is something that can be won back over the months ahead. It might not be easy, or desirable, but it’s perfectly achievable if we adapt, manage our expectations and keep a close eye on priorities. Possibly more important though is the resulting pause to the social interaction for all garden team members – including the assistant gardener and myself with a new furlough arrangement going into place.

The many chats and discussions, the questions and debates; they all serve to entertain and engage – and it’s this we’ll all miss the most. Indeed I know it’s already had an impact on the wider staff team. Still, we’ll endeavour to keep in touch, and as I move through the next few weeks working in isolation, except for zoom meetings of course – I’ll also be working to keep the garden team as engaged, informed as possible.

Snowdrops glistening with raindrops
Snowdrops minding their own business at the foot of a very, very tall yew hedge.

On the gardening front I have yet to engage properly, as I would say, with physical work – although this will come this week for certain. I have though tuned into the garden and have worked out my priorities for the weeks ahead. Suffice to say that fruit tree pruning, tree surveying and border work are in the mixing pot, with a splash of glasshouse activity, a sprinkling of mulch, a scoop of weeding and measures of health and safety and administration. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep things simmering along nicely as we move towards spring.

Outside of work I’ve finally found my head space to get back to a voluntary garden design I began last autumn, and have progressed to the point where I now need to present to the garden owner – which shall now have to be a virtual tour via zoom.

Design & drawing – an absolute delight however I look at it… and it can only get better.

It’s been a real reawakening of my design techniques, which haven’t been properly utilised for some years, but in the sessions where I’ve knuckled down and focussed, I’ve had an absolutely brilliant time ‘walking’ through the design in my mind, placing the structural plants in their places, and seeing the design grow over the coming years.

Whether or not this design or another gets built remains to be seen, but I’ve certainly enjoyed the design journey so far – even if my skills are a little rusty! Oh and on the subject of drawing skills, I’ve also rekindled my sketching aims in a very small way – something which again requires much focus, even though I know it brings worthwhile rewards. Maybe I need to get me an online tutor to keep me on track…

Beside the design work, my home gardening was very minimal this week and simply consisted of lifting a few more containers off the ground to protect them from frost. I like to use the terracotta pot feet for this but anything stable can be used – I also use off-cuts of wood and a cast iron grate to similar effect. Whatever material, they essentially work to create an air gap between the base of the container and the ground, which reduces the chance of some frost moving up into the pot, and also helps the pot to drain more efficiently.

Details details details…

One word of caution though – if the pot contains a tall plant, be sure that the pot is evenly and securely weighted, or maybe even tied in to aid its stability. This is something I once again learned to my cost over Christmas after moving such a pot to a new and windier position than expected. A freak gust of wind toppled the pot off its feet and reduced its life substantially through the addition of some lovely new cracks – and it was a tough pot!

Evergreen oak trees at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire
A ‘clump’ or group of evergreen oak trees at Charlecote Park grown to create a substantial screen, to interrupt the landscape view, and to provide cover for grazing animals. Incredible foresight...

Finally, at the end of a very long week, we managed a family visit to our very local Charlecote Park – the last of our pre-booked outings. We are all blessed to have such a great venue on our doorstep, and even with massively reduced numbers, we’re thankful for the opportunity to get out and explore such a rich and beautiful landscape – you could feel the pressure of the week’s work and home schooling release as we carefully elbowed our way through the split chestnut gateway. I was going to describe my visit in detail but I’ll return to this in a post later this week.

Until next time then, thanks for dropping by and getting to the end of another Gardening Ways Journal entry. Best wishes, Gary

Journal 10.1.21

Hello and Happy New Year! Okay, so here I am at the end of week one 2021 with the first ‘Journal’ post of my revised blog format.

I’ll be creating this style of post every week going forward and shall look to include a handful of images grabbed during the week, with some supporting text to record my week of gardening ways, and hopefully to encourage yours!

This week has been a tough one to get my head around and not just because it’s the chilly first week of a new year. It is because, since the beginning of November, I’ve been furloughed for two days per week. This has now been extended through January.

Now, I’m a person that weighs up the pros and cons in any situation, and in the end I always plough on and keep things moving forward. This time however, and I don’t mind saying; it’s really challenging to get my head around things – especially now that schools are closed – if only I could clone myself!

However, without wanting to lessen a serious situation, I’m going to continue drinking from my favourite KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON GARDENING mug, and I’m going to continue working as much as I can to prepare my work and home gardens for the year ahead. I will be sowing seeds, planting and generally focusing on all things green and pleasant, and if I can get out for a ‘local’ exercise walk around a local green space – I’ll be sure to focus on all things natural, bright and beautiful!

Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle.
The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire.

Before the stay local rules were tightened, I was lucky to make a couple of trips out to nearby historic gardens, and I shall certainly dine out on the memories made for some time to come – they may be the last outings for a while!

The latter visit, to the English Heritage property of Kenilworth Castle – a family favourite, was as peaceful as could be and was used as usual to sweep away the Christmas cobwebs. To remember this more clearly, I’ve assembled a short YouTube video montage without sound, and will post a link to this at the foot of this post.

I absolutely love the romanticism of Kenilworth Castle. As if the massively impressive building and countless examples of age-old and very tasteful graffiti isn’t enough, the story of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley surely seals the deal. The reconstructed Elizabethan garden for me though has to be the jewel in this crown, where even in the midst of winter its enduring form more than makes up for a lack of flowers.

Unfortunately I can’t wax lyrical about Kenilworth right through this post, as Monday brought a return to work at Sulgrave Manor that was a little cool to say the least. The reduced week however still gave ample and much needed opportunity to reacquaint myself with a garden that had seemingly fallen to sleep over the festive period.

Hollowed out apples litter the ground – fresh fruit for wildlife!

I tried my best to step quietly into the new working year, looking as we do to ease myself in gently. But much as I tried to tread quietly along crunchy, frozen gravel paths, the bird life in no uncertain terms let me know that I was venturing into their space.

If the alarm calls as I approached any given space weren’t enough, there was plenty of evidence of activity throughout the orchard. Artfully hollowed out apples lay beneath the trees, confirming that leaving these in-situ wasn’t all that bad after all – in fact they had clearly offered a useful food source. Amongst others, blackbirds, crows, blue tits and a thrush were spotted during the week, and even a pheasant had taken sanctuary within the garden, which combined certainly made for a lively welcome back.

Breaking out the ice, then using cool water to refill.

Keeping on the bird theme, one thing I did do was to break up the long frozen ice in the bird bath. Other than maybe in other gardens beyond the boundary hedge, there’s no fresh water easily obtainable for our feathered friends – so this will be a frequent task in the chilly weeks ahead..

Apart from some TLC for our garden animators, other tasks included frisking the glasshouse plants to let them know that we still cared and to check for pests or decay, and also to add a drop of water here and there. We also added, finally, a touch of gentle heat to keep temperatures above freezing.

Elsewhere there were a few handfuls of bulbs that escaped the pre-Christmas planting frenzy, and these were potted up for later transference to border areas. These were placed outdoors and covered over for protection from squirrels and mice, and nearby the cold frame was worked through after discovering that a snail had taken a liking to a batch of Salvias.

Apart from the tasks mentioned above, some standard maintenance and cleaning of heavily trafficked areas, and a lengthy health and safety tour with a consultant, it was a week of planning and preparation for the weeks ahead – diary and calendar filling and such like. It always seems like such an insignificant thing, but I like to start the year knowing exactly where I’m heading – if I stop to think about it, there’s irony in there somewhere…

In the moment, in the garden… a stubborn hollyhock!

Away from the workplace, my last picture above shows a stubborn hollyhock flower beside a local village garden. The bloom was stoically persevering whilst overnight snowfall had tried its best to drag everything down. I enjoyed a few golden moments trying to capture its beauty, and more since looking back at the pictures – one of many natural delights seen during a local ‘exercise’ walk with my boys before home schooling lessons had to begin – yes, we’re back to those again…

I’ll leave it there for this week, but I want to first reach out and extend an invite for you to get in touch if you feel the need – either via comments, on Instagram or Twitter (DM’s are fine). I know how isolating this whole situation is becoming, and if you’d like to ask anything about gardening, or indeed if you just want to say hi – then please get in touch – if I can help I will. 🌿

Until next time… All the best, Gary.

(Here’s that link to my little video from Kenilworth Castle – Volume up!)

English Heritage website: Kenilworth Castle

My Gardening Ways

Garden blogging – what’s it all about eh? Why do I invest good money in a WordPress blog site, only to invest more valuable time in the creation and editing of articles? (Articles that generally get caught up in the tiniest corner of a loose outer strand of the World Wide Web anyway!)

A recent article of mine…

It’s cathartic and therapeutic, that’s why. It gives me opportunity to ponder the incredibly diverse world of plants and gardens, to consider the never ending revelations, and it gives me a very personal and creative outlet. This I believe is more important than the ‘stats’ behind any blog, stats that I don’t make time to study and play to anyway.

Yes, I’m writing words that I hope people will read, and I’m selecting images that I trust will add to the story, or indeed stand alone as artistic examples, but nevertheless; I’m writing for myself. I create each piece in the best way that I can, and in the time that is available, I’ll hit publish, and away it will go – out into the universe for better or for worse.

A lone pot marigold fixed in time…

To this end, last year I assembled a ‘Journal’ post each week, pulling together an article that told the story of my week in gardening. I enjoyed the process even though the year was very challenging for obvious reasons. Towards the end of the year however I made the decision to pause my garden journal due partly to a change in working situation, and also to allow more time to explore some creative writing – and I’ve certainly enjoyed the creative freedom that brought.

I have to say that the change in post style and frequency certainly helped over the last few disorderly months, but I have found myself missing the regularity of creating my old style Journal posts. I feel like there’s a big gap in my diary, and that I’ve misplaced my ability to stop and consider the week that has passed – and to learn from its lessons.

Having considered some options over the festive period therefore, and from this weekend forward, I’m going to make a change to my New Year 2021 posts and their frequency.

I’m committed to assembling at least one post each week in my old Journal style, in order to record the challenges and experiences each week throws at me – whilst also continuing with individual articles on various garden related themes as they present themselves to me.

My garden journal returns for 2021..!

Looking ahead then, if you wish to tune-in to my gardening week, do look for some new Journal posts that will take five minutes or less to breeze through – that at least is my target. Otherwise, if you’re looking for some more gardening food for thought, do look to my other articles with individual titles – all will be published through my GardeningWays WordPress blog.

Until next time then, I hope you’re finding your feet again after a pretty unusual start to the New Year, and that you’re noticing the day light hours already lengthening out.

I hope you’re seeing some green details outside the window, and that maybe an icy chill has kissed your cheeks on a wintry exercise walk. If not I hope a house plant or two will hold your gaze whilst you study their veined leaves and rich colours, or that you can wander through a far off garden via the pages of a book, a youtube video, or even via a nicely assembled blog post!

In the garden, in the moment…

However you’re connecting with nature, plants and gardens, even if just for a few minutes a day, I hope it brings you some of the comfort, hope and optimism that you need to sustain you over the coming weeks. I’m holding my garden and gardening ways as close to full centre as I possibly can – as it’s my lifeblood, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Have a great week, & remember to say hello on Twitter or Instagram!

Trust In The Gardener

Many people have ownership or responsibility for an outside area, a conservatory or balcony. The idea though of actively working one of those spaces into a garden, of cultivating plants or improving that space does not always come easily.

I’m not a gardener,” and “I know nothing about plants,” are statements I’ve heard many times, and it’s often through a fear of failing, of being judged or maybe, of having a space for growing but not knowing how to approach it.

Time’s well spent in the garden….

Now I’m not for a second going to judge or wag a green finger of disgust, because everyone is their own person, in their own unique situation and gardening shouldn’t be a forced activity. Indeed, gardening actively for some people can be next to impossible.

I empathise of course, and understand that if you’ve not been bitten by the bug, you may feel that gardening just isn’t for you. You may simply feel happy with a pot plant or two, and in keeping the yard tidy, but you wouldn’t consider yourself a gardener – and that’s fine.

But what if I was to suggest that by stepping into a gardener’s boots, or at least adopting a gardener’s mindset you could transform not only your gardening, but the way you approach life generally?!

Life is complex, I understand that, and you might have so many plates to spin that there doesn’t appear to be any spare capacity to dwell on things like gardening. But let’s hold things there for a moment. Let me offer some very real benefits that can come from looking at this subject from a new perspective.

To support my point I am drawn to a quote from the writer, artist and gardener Gertrude Jekyll, who practised in the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s. The quote contains some very wise words learned through a life in gardening:

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

Jekyll’s words like a fresh breeze describe for me the far reaching benefits that gardens offer, along with some of the core actions unwittingly adopted by those who benefit the most from gardening.

Let’s look first at Teaching, patience, and careful watchfulness. In short, I’m using these words to remind me of the gardening mistakes I’ve made; of the valuable lessons I’ve learned through some incredible teachers and situations; and of the steadiness and calmness gained from working with the seasons. All of these experiences have impacted me personally, on my work and thought processes, and have given benefits far beyond gardening itself.

But what of Industry, thrift, and trust; what do these tools bring to the gardener’s mindset? The former two connect me positively with the doing, not just with the actions and skills but the mental resourcefulness a gardener or horticulturist must develop to turn out the complex thing that a garden is. They remind me of machinery failures and weather challenges, of when people have let me down or pests gained the advantage, or when the going was just incredibly tough. Industrious attitudes and thriftiness therefore, along with those others have seen me adapt and survive.

I’m still left with the latter word trust of course, or entire trust to be precise. This I believe is the key attribute or glue which holds together all my gardening ambitions, in fact most things in life when I come to think of it.

Few gardeners will stand back from a freshly planted sapling and speak words of trust, indeed the nearest I’ve ever heard after some tree planting was “now grow yer bugger!

Yet, when a gardener plants something, their actions in selecting the right plant for the place, in using the latest known planting technique, in carefully spreading its roots and tying-in its delicate stems, and in its ongoing watering and tending for me lead to Jekyll’s words entire trust. All those physical actions lead to a point when, even though the gardener told the plant to grow, he had to resort to trusting and believing that all would be well.

So what do Gertrude’s words and all that gardening activity bring us?

To trust in something, a garden or gardening in this case is the ability to have faith; because deep down we know that few things in life are guaranteed. To trust or to have faith therefore is a very personal element in a gardener’s toolkit that is needed, and which could be said to underpin the previously mentioned patience, careful watchfulness, industry and thrift.

Faith, hope, confidence, call it what you will, but ‘trust’ in gardening and in many ways of life – is essential. If a plant fails, we learn from the experience, as we learn from all other experiences in life. A gardener can be housebound with dark skies outside and rain beating on the windows, yet peer out into the garden and see plants enjoying their fill of fresh water. They’ll know instinctively that days ahead will be brighter, new days will come, flowers will shine and fruits will follow.

To this end, I’d like to leave you with the idea that whilst you may not be encouraged to pick up a spade straight after closing this post, that you might consider looking at things as a gardener can. I’d suggest putting my words aside and taking a closer look at Gertrude’s quote to see if you can draw any parallels, and to see if you’re already thinking as many gardeners do.

And finally, I’d like to suggest that gardening is about more than simply growing plants. Gardening develops into a way of living that can, if we let it, cultivate our mind as well as our green fingers and green spaces.

Don’t get confused with all the garden jargon. Give growing a go if you can, trust in your garden, and develop trust in yourself – it’ll all be OK in the end!

Just a Rusty Old Garden Tool?

If you’re of a like mind, I’m certain that at some point in time you’ll have found yourself wondering through a historic property, maybe past garden buildings at a Georgian Manor House, or through a farmstead developed through the Victorian period. Maybe it was a rural museum you strolled around, peppered with Tudor structures and land managing paraphernalia, or even a cottage garden where you stepped carefully along wiggling blue brick pathways wide enough just for one.

Photo of an antique garden roller At Calke Abbey
An Ironcrete garden roller enjoying retirement at Calke Abbey

Whatever place it was, I’m sure you’ll have happened across a rusty garden implement or two – and I’m not talking about the gardeners!

Nailed in a barn to a worm holed board or nicely displayed with a description tag or occasionally, and worst of all – parked in an awkward corner out of the way to continue its crumbling journey to the point of collapse; you will have seen old garden tools for sure. But if you’ve taken a moment or two to study their form you might have tuned in to more than their weather worn handles and aged patina.

Mixed garden tools on display at Hill Close Gardens
Mixed garden tools on display at Hill Close Gardens

Old tools, like old gardeners often display their life journey for all to see. Hand-worn handles on a big old digging spade, its once crisp edges worn round; wear also the hands of the gardener. Each knuckle numbing spear of a spade into stony soil leaves a mark on the spade as it will the gardener, and straining to prise those heavier than expected sods from damp ground pains both the spade’s shaft and the gardener’s back; even if both are built for graft of one form or another.

Aside from the characterful wonder of an old tool however, there’s a whole other level of engagement on offer if you can look a little further, and that is the connection of an item with one or more users – in this case the gardener.

beautifully shaped pair of pruners​
A beautifully shaped pair of pruners

How I’ve hoped to develop a talent for ‘reading’ an old item – and to see into its past – If only to discover who might have placed a tool back in the shed that is broken, or still covered in mud! Moreover, I wish I could take a well used garden tool and read the mind of the gardener who cared for it, and who might have toiled away with many of the same hopes and dreams that I myself hold.

Who were they? What was their daily routine like and who did they work alongside? What was the climate like, how long did they hold this tool for, and when did they last use it in anger so to speak? So many questions could be asked of that, or any given old garden tool.

Without wanting to dream of all the possible answers, most of which would be far from truth, I usually just look upon each tool with admiration, wondering either at its original use or indeed whether it continues to hold any residual strength. I gaze upon its lines and curves, the gouges and indentations that show its tough love, and I look to appreciate its very own history.

A short spade on display at Hill Close Gardens

As a practising gardener I know my tools, and I know that to possess a quality, hand crafted item is to own a thing of beauty. Appreciating too that many tools are now, and have for a long time been mass produced, I like to imagine the days when the local forge was not too far away. I like to link the sight of an unusual or adapted tool to a vague conversation between a gardener and a blacksmith, who might ultimately have gone on to create the unique and personal item that sits before me.

Whichever way we chose to look at old tools and gardening items, the one thing we can’t separate is their inextricable links with people; both the artisans who created them, and the gardeners who pressed them into use.
We might have to imagine, but we can’t forget how lovingly each item was created, or at least the pride that each item’s creator would have felt as they handed their product to the person who would hopefully treat it with the same degree of respect.

An ironwork scroll on a very old garden roller
A beautifully formed piece of ironwork on a garden roller at Sulgrave Manor

Next time you see an old garden roller outside a potting shed, or some pruners in a museum, remember for a moment that they might have been chosen and used by a caring soul once upon a time who cleaned and oiled and sharpened them regularly. Wonder whether they’ve been gripped by strong or tired hands, and whether, through skilled use they helped to grow food that nourished a family, to produce award winning flowers or a velvety lawn, or indeed whether they played a part in the historic Dig for Victory campaign.

Love wasn’t far from the mind of this garden roller’s creator!

Stop for a moment longer and treasure every item’s wonderful form, touch and attempt to read its time-telling marks and picture it in action. Pity its frail form if you have to, but appreciate its importance and real value that it held for someone, at some point in time.

Until next time…. enjoy your garden (& garden tools!) 🌿

Gary Webb. Dec 20

A Love for Trees

In my formative years as a gardener, I can honestly say that I never thought that trees would play such a significant part. I mean, I learnt about them, planted a few, chopped bits off a few more and did my fair share of ident’ sessions, but did I really get to know and understand trees?

A backlit autumnal oak ​at Sulgrave Manor, with the setting sun right behind
A backlit autumnal oak at Sulgrave Manor

Naturally I grew up with trees all around, as most people do: trees in our family gardens and down the street, a huge conker tree in the school playground, even the Christmas tree in the corner each December. (OK, maybe that last one was a bit of a stretch!) But did I really take proper notice of them?

I have always admired trees for their sheer diversity and interest across the seasons, and in my gardening years have come to know them for their varied aesthetics and for the fascinating folklore that is attached to some of them. Nevertheless, through initial training or a lack of personal vision I guess, (and I don’t know which is worse,) I think that initially I undervalued trees and too easily consigned them to the ‘bigger plants to be used in the design of gardens’ box – what an example of poor judgement that was!

However, times change, and as my formative years in horticulture turned to management roles, my attitudes changed too – as trees in my gardens started to demand attention and respect. No longer, and I’m talking more than twenty years back, could I work with and around trees without taking their needs more seriously.

Quite simply, it was through training for health and safety and ironically, for chainsaw use, that my love for trees grew. For this I’m indebted to my previous employers who with their incredible tree collections enabled me to learn about selecting, growing and caring for trees.

One of many parkland sweet chestnuts at Charlecote ​Park
One of many parkland sweet chestnuts at Charlecote Park

All that training obviously prepared me for the responsibility that my roles carried, but more than that; it gradually increased my awareness of the real value of trees, and of their incredible presence. Along with colleagues way back when, I remember looking at tree physiology, or the study of how trees grow. I took my first proper look into the world of fungi, to learn how their growth impacts woody tissue, and I started to learn about the fascinating folklore and histories some of our best loved trees hold.

Of all that information though, largely through role and priority changes, much has been put to rest. It’s either sitting somewhere down memory lane or sandwiched somewhere amongst other leaves and folders on solid wooden bookshelves. However, whilst the information is never too far away, one over-riding aspect of all that imbibed wisdom has stuck with me all the time – that new (now old!) found love for trees and for all joy and goodness they bring.

If only I could pinpoint exactly where I was when properly struck by a love for trees. Maybe it was on one of those study days with colleagues amidst lofty specimens in the woodland garden at Knightshayes. Maybe it was on a field trip through the historic deer park at Burghley when I was lucky to join some Ancient Tree Forum experts on a walk.

Maybe Cupid’s arrow might have struck when studying the stately and rare trees that were growing in the shelter belts at Croome Park. Might I have fallen, literally, when planning restoration works to trees growing on the steep slopes at Dunster Castle, or whilst replanting for wood pasture or the historic avenue at Compton Verney?

Tree silhouetted on the lakeside atVompton Verney
Super Silhouette. Need I say more?

Or maybe it was more simple love affair, developed whilst on countless woodland walks with our boys, or when clambering up well branched specimens with my fearless daughter… who knows?

What I do know, is that my appreciation and understanding of trees has been massively boosted on many occasions by working with some very talented individuals. Through the eyes of arborists, mycologists, curators, artists, authors, rangers and even the odd scientist, I’ve really learned to look harder, to appreciate and to love trees.

Now, given that most people reading this won’t have to manage trees professionally, I’d like to confirm that you don’t have to complete courses to appreciate trees; although in a typical year there are some excellent courses available. However, by taking a little more time to understand a tree, any tree, a whole world of interest will open before you.

🎶 Branches in the torchlight 🎶

If you’re intrigued by what I’ve said, I’d like to suggest that you find a tree, any tree but preferably a mature one. It could be one in your garden, one down the road, or any tree you can observe closely.

Even if you know its name, do a little research to find out some more. Where did that species originate from and what other trees are in its family? If it is a none-native tree, when was it introduced and can you find out who first ‘discovered’ or introduced it? The history of trees alone can become a fascinating voyage of discovery.

Beyond the what and where from, I’d next suggest that you study the structure of the tree. What shape does is take, is that typical of the species? Does it have scars or damage to its limbs, is it supporting fungi, is it growing strongly or maybe in decline? There are many questions that could be asked of your tree.

Photograph of a long damaged yew tree trunk,  that is gradually repairing with a heart shaped wound
Lost branches & decay, but a valiant attempt to repair the wound.

Take some photos through the seasons, maybe pick up a dropped stem or two for a vase at home, to enable closer study. Visit the tree when it’s windy, when the moon shines through its twiggy canopy, or when snow sits on its branches.

Get a good guide book, I’d suggest the Collins Tree Guide but many more are available. Do some digging for knowledge and post a photo or two for help with identification or simply to ask questions – plant people love a good ident’ challenge! Maybe even select a special leaf to sandwich between the pages of that book – it’ll remind you of your special tree.

I’ll pop some book titles at the foot of this post should you wish to start your journey, but if I can be of any real service through these words, it would be to empower you to take time, soon, to look harder at a tree. Look with critical and searching eyes to explore its scars and ripples and damaged tissue, but also look with appreciative eyes, for the value it provides and for its very well rooted presence.

Close up photograph of a silver birch tree, its trunk bearing an eye-like wound where a branch once grew
Seeing Trees…

Trees if I’m honest have brought me a good deal of trouble and strife over the years so yes, there is another side to the story. But without hesitation, I can also say that trees have also brought me so much joy, and that my life would be so much poorer had it not been filled with those big billowing beauties!

Go on – start your tree love affair now!

A book list to bring light to the dark days of winter:
Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Thomas Pakenham.
The Wisdom of Trees, Max Adams
Around the World in 80 Trees, Jonathan Drori
For the Love of Trees – A Celebration of Trees & People, Vicky Allan & Anna Deacon (A new one on me that looks to tick the tree lovers box!)
And for the seriously historical folks: Sylvia: A Discourse of Forest Trees & the Propagation of Timber, John Evelyn

& a few more for good measure… 👍🏻

Gardens and the Best of Times

Welcome to another GardeningWays post, where this week I’m going to say a little, wait for it – about the importance of gardens.

Oh here we go again I hear you say! Seriously though, gardening for me feels somewhat different this year. Times have changed – but then I’m sure they have for everyone.

Sunrise over the Sphinx bridge at Compton Verney in Warwickshire
Sunrise beyond the Sphinx Bridge at Compton Verney ©️Gary Webb

When I look back, just one year has passed since I released myself from a working role which, through ten years of growing, saw me change immeasurably as a person. When thinking of this last year, I hardly need close my eyes before vivid images across those four seasons come to my mind; a time of intense and very rewarding activity I have to say.

I recall images of digging old ground and discovering broken tobacco pipes from a gardening past. I recall weighty wheel barrow pushing, summer heat, compost building, summer scything and balancing high against deep, strong and resinous hedges.

Morning sunshine beams through a holly tree to a Cotswold drystone wall
Let the light in… ©️Gary Webb

There were gloriously clear sunsets that lit up solid rows of chiselled dry stone walling, softened only by Cotswold cushions of lush moss and dabs of lichen. And I remember a long winter of rain that, with its watery weight, dragged down foliage and seeped through boots and proofs and skin. Night after night damp jackets were dried in the hopes of a better tomorrow. But then things changed; there was a shift in location.

Towards the autumn I found myself taking turns around another horticultural playground with a very different outlook; not better or worse, just different, yet equally as beautiful as before.

Now I find that in these closing months of the year my daily vision has moved to see long flowery borders, formal walls, peacocks and metres of established hedging. Yew, thorn, hornbeam, beech, it’s a hedge playground and yes; they were each ready for their trim. One head-high section after another, sharp corners hither and dither, and curves to send me around in circles. If ever a garden was sent to test my trimming skills; this would be it.

Peacock heaven ©️ Gary Webb

This new outlook therefore is to new vistas, and a largely flat and wind kissed part of Northants. I guess that is why, a century ago, those hedges were deemed such a necessary feature for the garden’s success. Beyond the high boundaries though, exercising hooves echo along the lane, just as before, and beyond that numerous lofty trees and picturesque cottages break up the fields of view. To be sure, this year has seen more change than I expected, and certainly more than bargained for.

Yet, whilst I have been working steadily away in those gardens my mindful cogs have continued to whir. As is the nature of the job, there are many moments when you find yourself deep in thought, and of course I’ve spent many a minute considering where, when and how so much change has come about.

There have been moments when I’ve reflected on my journey and asked myself why I was at a place, any place, at any given point in the past – considering the alternative places my boots could have taken me. Indeed I’ve pondered if I will ever know where the place I am at any point, will be the right place. I haven’t dwelled of course, time’s too short for that, but I guess you could say that I’ve processed the what, why and wherefore, whilst potting and pruning and preening, but always – whilst getting the present job done.

Keep calm and carry on gardening
Don’t worry, be happy – in the garden… ©️Gary Webb

Across this last year though, indeed across the last twenty or more, there’s one thing that I’ve come to realise that has always been a constant for me, and that has been the opportunities I’ve had to spend time in all those gardens. Whether it’s been time at work, or time spent visiting a good few places, it’s safe to say I’ve enjoyed a good few hours amongst the flowers.

Across the pond at Edinburgh Botanical Garden
Time spent with plants – never wasted! Here at Edinburgh Botanics ©️Gary Webb

Gardens, amidst tedious or unpalatable moments of strife, offer respite. Gardens can, in a most sorrowful time of hardship or pain, respond with moments that often capture first your eyes, then your mind and heart. They can, and I know through experience, smooth the curve of the sharpest bend that life puts before us, and at any given moment, can remind you that you’re in the most perfect spot on earth.

It should go without saying, that gardens also offer spaces to spend the best of times. Walks hand in hand, little ones picking flowers, bigger ones climbing trees. Stolen moments on a bench with a view, picking a currant from a bush or rolling down a grassy bank. Golden garden moments are many and varied, and will always be there for the taking – so just make sure you do!

The Keep garden at Dunster Castle in Somerset
Fresh flowers, fresh air, & fresh legs at Dunster Castle ©️Gary Webb

So when I look back, whether I’m walking at pace behind a mower, tucked up in a toasty office to create a planting plan, on my knees in the rain whilst digging a tree planting pit, or chasing my kids along a garden’s winding path – it has always been the best of times.

To gardens therefore, and all that they offer I dedicate this post. A simple and somewhat measly gesture I know, but I want to record, celebrate and remember how, throughout my life gardens have comforted, refreshed, nurtured, repaired and inspired me. Whether through work or recreation, many of my fondest memories have been in gardens – I have experienced many and hopefully there’ll be many more to come.

Ultimately I guess, I don’t know where my Gardening Ways will take me, but I know that wherever it is, it’ll be the right place, at the right time.

Here’s to Gardens!

Until next time, do you believe in the power of gardens?

Regards, Gary Webb

Raising the Hedge

Welcome to my GardeningWays blog, where this week I shall attempt to give rise to the significantly trivial formal garden hedge.

Hedge trimmer resting on the hedge top between trimming sessions... at Sulgrave Manor in Northants
Hedge trimming underway at Sulgrave, although that blade can be tighter…

You see, we finally managed to make a start on trimming the yew hedges in the garden at Sulgrave Manor, and whilst there’s a long way yet to go, at least we’ve made a start.

In preparation, I found myself sharpening, and sharpening and sharpening the trimmer teeth, and whilst lost in the moment I started thinking about the formal hedge I was about to trim for the first time. I also began considering formal hedges in the wider world of gardening, and particularly about their reputation.

The thing is, when looking at a formal garden such as Sulgrave, the hedging is almost always the most dominant feature that strikes you, even if they can and are, in many circumstances, overlooked. Hedges root any garden and its design firmly to its spot, and are always a very carefully considered element of any formal garden. Just imagine Hidcote or Sissinghurst or Sulgrave Manor for that matter, without their hedges?!

High hedges at Kiftsgate Court
High and mighty hedges at Kiftsgate Court Garden

Hold up, let’s just back up a moment. Before I start to sound like a hedge support group, I’ll quickly add that many other features are also important to the garden scene, and could easily vie for first place in what I’m certain would be a hotly debated ‘priority list of must have garden features’.

A neatly mown lawn allows eyes to wander, smoothly leading them to features here and there. A lawn gives breathing space in the garden and an openness, which being clutter free can feel safe, unthreatening and refreshing. We mustn’t forget that a lawn is also a living breathing thing itself and often artistically created and tended.

Lawns and lines…

Planted borders also weigh-in heavy as contenders for top of that priority list, indeed can a garden be called such without a range of plants? The tiniest of alpine beauties, energy packed perennial powerhouses or sensational shrubs – the list is almost endless with a varied mix bringing texture, colour, movement, scent and attention grabbing seasonality, not to mention personality.

I could very easily go on: trees for anchoring a garden and drawing eyes upwards with their seasonally clad stems; structures, be they lichen peppered walls, matured fences or sundials; ‘simple’ footpaths with their leading lines and textures can do more to fix and lift a garden space than would initially be imagined; and ponds and summer houses and so on.

Architectural hedge work at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire
More than hedges, the architectural forms at Hidcote Manor.

But hedges, why all the fuss and why so often underrated?

Now, I know that for many, a hedge is a hedge is a hedge. ‘A row of closely planted shrubs or low-growing trees forming a fence or boundary’, my dictionary simply says – if I ignore references to investment funding that is. So hedges can have a mundane existence; there’s probably a functional boundary affirming hedge not too far from any of us at this very moment. Yet, when they’re included within a garden they can become something altogether different, not just fading away as green backdrops, but becoming special elements integral to the success of any garden garden – and I don’t necessarily mean topiary hedges.

Many people are familiar with the ‘garden rooms’ idea, often created by softer hedges as opposed to walls or fences. Rooms provided by hedges can be intimate, can filter the elements and offer protection from the world outside, and a feeling of security. But hedges keep evolving too. They need to grow and refresh their leaves to remain healthy, and as individual plants, when gathered in a row form lasting relationships – sometimes for hundreds of years.

Hedges on stilts at Waterperry Gardens
Waterperry lifting hedges to new levels!

When I’m looking at formal hedges therefore, I see many things. They can be links to the past, often some of the few elements that were hand drawn into an historic design, or signed off by the architect of that space. I also see hedges that cleverly hold your attention until you pass through their door to an unexpected scene, and I see how they wrap their extending arms around individual spaces to protect and nurture.

Let’s forget the priority list of garden features, for they’re all important in their own ways, and to different people. But let us not overlook the humble hedge, for each structure brings character to the garden. As beautiful as they are, the artfully created miniature hedges or parterres of our world are seasoned performers and much appreciated. Yet if I can achieve anything with this post, it would be to elevate the ‘standard’ hedge to an equal footing as the flower border or sprinkling fountain, for its repetitive yet artistic tending through the years contributes more to the formal garden than is often credited.

To the designers who carefully selected and designed them, to every steady handed, back aching gardener who ever tended one, and to all of the hedges of our world; I admire and salute you. May your trimmers be sharp and your motors smoke free, may your lines run true, and may your shoots grow unblemished through each year – long live our formal hedges!

Until next time… tune in to a formal hedge near you 😉