Release the stress, embrace the mess

I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure recently for our garden to look good. In photos, in person and increasingly stressing whether it will be good enough for our NGS open days, it’s weighing on my mind.

The very thing supposed to get rid of stress is suddenly the cause of stress. How did that happen?

I’m a worrier, I worry about everything. Given the chance I’ll worry about worrying. I’ve even been worrying that I said on here that our garden would be white in spring and at the moment it’s brown. Lots of brown. Our windows need repainting and the three panels of fence on the right are about to collapse.

In reality, between Dec and Jan the garden dies right back to ground level, as if summer’s jungle never happened. It’s what I planned it to do. In photos it does look a mess. In person too. The plants are there but they’re all underground.

It’s taken some effort to remind myself that this is actually how it’s supposed to be – it’s a playground for plants, not a designed garden – and this time of year is the bit I enjoy most.

Winter is when the clock is reset and the garden begins again, familiar yet completely different to the year before. Full of surprises to come. Changing from a messy, lack-of-anything patio to a colourful jungle in a few months is most of the fun, and I want to take everybody on that.

If you look closely, more is happening now than in the height of summer. Shoots are already emerging from the ground in February’s slightly warmer than usual weather. And yes, there is already some white, you just have to get up close and personal with it.

Two autumns ago I planted 50 Galanthus nivalis Snowdrop bulbs. Contrary to the myth that Snowdrops must be planted “in the green” these have thrived and are flowering well in little sprinkles across the garden. In many years, these will hopefully have clumped up a bit. I enjoy the many unusual cultivars of Snowdrop but I still much prefer the digital look of the lined, perfectly edged green blotched inner petals of this species.
The Helleborus x hybridus pure white single has been doing exactly what I hoped, been an amazing resource of nectar for the early bees. I planted it last winter and this year it has more than double the flowers. It’s happy. In the coming years we’ll only have more and more pure white flowers.
My Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ is one of the first plants I ever bought for this garden 4 years ago now. I’ve never moved it from the pot it was planted in and it performs just as well every year. It’s not pure white as I want our spring garden to be, but it’s too beautiful to remove.
I don’t know for sure if this is Viburnum tinus cultivar is ‘Eve Price’ but it looks like it. The two standards I have are just starting to flower now.

I have to remind myself that the main month for the white spring garden is April, in spring proper when the Tulips, Brunnera and Plum tree are in flower. Patience Wallington!

Importantly, what IS happening is a gentle succession of flowers from January onwards to feed the pollinating insects with the Snowdrops, Viburnum and Hellebores performing their role in this admirably.

Instead of getting into a tiz-woz, I’m going to try to relax about the garden. It’s a stressy messy thing right now but I must remember, it always wants to grow, no matter what my role in the process is.

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Jack Wallington

I'm an RHS qualified garden designer living in Clapham, London who loves growing plants and designing with them. Follow me on Twitter.

5 thoughts on “Release the stress, embrace the mess”

  1. I love ‘Patience Wallington’. If you ever get fed up with Jack as a Christian name you have a great alternative 😂. And this is definitely the grimmest time of year for the look of many small gardens …

  2. Hi Jack, I found it interesting that you planned for the garden to die down completely and everything be underground as you put it. It is indeed fascinating to see the tiny new shoots re-emerge, and everything to start from scratch at the start of the year but is there a reason you purposely avoided incorporating more evergreens or winter flowering interest?

    1. Hi Paul, it’s funny – I actually can’t remember why I’ve created it like that – I suspect it’s led by the type of plants I wanted to include that flower in summer. The garden is planned to be guns blazing from about May through to October / November without a break. So it just happens that the plants I’ve chosen which flower or look good in those periods die down in winter. The thing with our garden also is that it’s really tiny. and on all sides is surrounded by our neighbours’ gardens with evergreen trees and large shrubs. So when I talk about our garden, it’s a raised bed and pots surrounded by those evergreens, so it does feel like it’s got lots of green in winter already. That said, I have slowly been adding more evergreen plants (like more ferns and others) , and I do have lots of small winter flowering plants like Hellebores, Snowdrops and Viburnum.

      I haven’t made a conscious decision to address it because I’ve really like that pattern of the garden going from ground level to over head height in one year, with the various stages in between. It makes the garden far more dynamic and interesting as it’s different literally every day 🙂

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