Friday, 27 July 2018

I'd love your gardening advice

Long-time readers might remember my God of the Garden (ahem!) post where my husband transformed our back garden (it looks SO neat in those photos - I can't quite believe how much the garden has grown up since then. The laurels at the back of the garden are now over 12ft high and completely obscure the house you can see in those photos - I never really noticed them growing....a bit like the children who featured in that post, who now tower over me as teenagers).

Unfortunately, our front garden was never overhauled in quite the same way. I've noticed online that in the US and Canada, people really use their front gardens and spend time in them, often having a proper porch with seating; in England they generally seem more decorative than functional and so we've always been slightly mystified by the front lawn we inherited twelve years ago when we bought the house. It's was covered in weeds, but even after we returfed it, it quickly became a strange mossy thing that baffled us with its wilful dedication to looking hideous. We used to go on walks and play hunt-the-lawn-that-looks-as-awful-as-ours in an attempt to reassure ourselves that this was normal, but we soon realised that our lawn was unique and that we were quite alone. And this picture was taken before the heatwave began in earnest.

We have a really long, thin driveway that runs the entire length of the house and have always thought we'd pave over the lawn and the path to our front door at some point to make a more usable driveway space, but when we started looking at the gardens we really loved locally, we realised they're all ones that have kept the garden as a garden, so we decided to stay with our impractical driveway and turn the lawn into some flowerbeds bordered by little pathways. After a six year hiatus, my husband felt oddly excited about the prospect of marking out paths and laying paving again.

On the left, you can see the original path from 1927 that goes up to our front door. It's quite cracked, but has an odd charm that would make me sad to dig it up, so we spent a morning at a reclamation yard looking at old tiles that might sit beside it sympathetically. We very nearly came away with some red hexagonal paving bricks that spoke to my love of English paper piecing, until my daughter rightly pointed out that the scale of them was too big for how small our paths are going to be, so we've gone for some old square tiles. They're paler, but I'm hoping that won't matter so much once it's  all planted up.

So, this is our half-finished front garden - I can currently hear my husband tamping down more tiles as I type, which seems a curious activity when it's thirty degrees outside, but he seems to like it. There are going to be four new beds (where you can see the patches of earth). Two rectangles diagonal to one another and two squares. The rectangles measure 0.8m x 1.5m and the squares are 1.5m x 1.5m and it's my job to fill them. My usual approach to planting is based around hebes. I think we have well over 30 hebe of all kinds between our front and back garden and they're my very favourite plant - I love that they're evergreen, low-maintenance and produce masses of flowers a few times a year (we have some that flower in summer and others in autumn and winter). They have served me well as a one-stop plant and have filled the gaps in the back garden. Although I'm keen to continue with this hebe-concentric gardening to some extent, I also feel I could be missing out. So, I have some questions about how I can step out of my comfort zone with these new beds and I'm hoping that the green-fingered amongst you might be able to give me some advice.

As it's a front garden that we'll walk through all year, I want to try and avoid any fallow, bleak periods in my planting, but I also want to celebrate each season with annuals and perennials. And it's here that I'm confused. I'm aware that you need some evergreen shrubs to give a permanent backbone to each bed, but the annuals and perennials bit is confusing me. On our back patio, I plant up masses of pots in spring and summer, but I tend to let most of them lie fallow in winter, save for the odd cyclamen, so I don't feel like I've gathered much experience of in-the-earth planting.

These are the thoughts and questions flying around my head:

  • How can you preserve a space for swathes of annuals like daffodils and tulips, without having large areas of bare soil for the rest of the year? 
  • I've seen some amazing displays bordered by a low box hedge, but I'm not sure I'm disciplined enough to keep a box hedge neat and I don't understand how to plant one so that it all joins together to form a hedge. Are there any other alternatives for less structured gardens that would do this same job? Or some other way of creating a space for annuals?
  • Are there annuals for winter, as well as spring and summer? Maybe this is how you end up without the bare soil problem?
  • Perennials confuse me: you have a beautiful plant and then it dies back and reappears the next year...but that must mean a lot of half-dead looking plants in the long in-between periods - how do you plant to minimise the appearance of the gaps this creates? And how do you decide which season to have your perennial in? Do you plant one for each season in each bed to give a good overall spread, or do you go all out for it looking amazing in one particular season?
  • How do you remember what's an annual and what's a perennial in order to know what to pull up? I'm guessing you must make a plan of the garden to refer back to and update it each time you plant something new?
  • Because of our little paths, I don't want plants that are going to overflow too much, although I do like that slightly messy english country garden look. Any ideas for lovely compact or upright plants? Or just ones that fill a space really nicely without taking over? 
  • If I was planting against a fence, I'd try to do that clever thing that proper gardeners do where they actually think through having tall plants at the back, medium height in the middle and low ones at the front, but these beds aren't quite like that as there isn't a back and I don't want the front beds to completely obscure what's in the back beds and so I feel unsure what to do about different heights. Any thoughts? 
  • Or should I plant low to high and enjoy a different view depending on whether I'm going up or down the path and not worry that the front beds obscures the view of the back beds?
  • Where do you shop for plants? We have an amazing nursery locally that we visit regularly, but I'm seeing all sorts of plant names that I don't think are available there. I'm wondering if there's a good online source where I can fill in the gaps. Is Crocus any good? 
  • It's an odd time of year to be planting perhaps? Lots of the plants I've researched don't seem to be seems like there may be some waiting involved in planning out year-round beds?  
I have a gardening book that I've been pouring over (The Encyclopedia of Garden Design by DK) and the whole of the internet, but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed - sometimes it's hard to root out the answers to specific questions from the masses of information. I've looked into schemes like Garden on a Roll, but I think they give you quite small specimens that really take a few years to grow into the space and I'm impatient and also aware that we may only stay in this house for another four or five years, so I want to enjoy it now. Also, I don't think garden-on-a-roll answers my wish for a mixture of evergreens, perennials and annuals.

I'll leave you with a photo of one of the pots on my back patio that's in bloom at the moment and a thank you for your time if you're able to answer even one of my loopy questions.

Florence x

Ps. The hebe at the top of this post are in a bed to the other side of the path that leads to our front door - they make me so ridiculously happy that if all else fails I could continue to be a one-trick pony,  but I feel compelled to at least try to learn some new tricks...

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Thoughts about blogs

Thank you so much for all the entries on my book giveaway over the last few days. It was really lovely to read all your comments. The eyes-closed-and-pointy-finger-while-scrolling method means that the winner here on my blog was Fran Apolon (do get in touch with your address, Fran), and over on Instagram, @nickifranklin_needlework.

After a bumpy start (you can read more here if you're interested and didn't catch my last post), I'm delighted to say that my book is now finally available in all the usual places. If you'd like a copy and want to shop online, here are a few links: Amazon UK, Book Depository, Waterstones or Foyles, otherwise it's lovely if you'd like to request a copy at your local bookshop or library. I am so grateful to the UK arm of my publisher who went the extra mile to get my book back in stock so quickly. The photo above, by the way, is part of the quilt pattern that features in my book.

Moving on, some scattered thoughts about blogs and blogging. A few months ago, I had an email from a reader that began: "I know housekeeping is something everyone hates but could I put in a polite request for you to check and update the links to other blogs? I just tried out three at random. Only one is still current, with one being a blog that has been removed and another is no longer current." I didn't have time to look into it right away, but recently I took some time out to click through the links in my sidebar. Many of the blog names there felt like old friends and I can still remember a time when they were updated several times a week, so it came as a shock to realise that many hadn't actually posted since 2015.

Many of those bloggers I now follow on Instagram, so I hadn't had a true sense of them going missing (more just a sense of my feedreader having less and less content) but I was sad to realise that one by one so many had abandoned their blogs. It felt like the end of an era realising this. For anyone on intimate terms with every scene of Dirty Dancing (my sister and I spent our teenage years ensuring we were), at this point you can think of me as Max Kellerman, the owner of Kellerman's Holiday Resort standing stage left, saying: You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that's what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days. It feels like it's all slipping away. (But we all know what happens shortly after he utters those rueful words: Johnny Castle comes and takes Baby out of the corner and sweeps Max Kellerman's nostalgia-fuelled misery to one side as the dance floor becomes a wonderous hotbed of wild moves and gyrating dancers of all ages. It has to be one of the best scenes in the history of film-making, even though I can hear my husband in my head vehemently disputing this as I type. But I have never trusted his judgment on this matter; anything that makes your cheeks ache from over-smiling as you watch it has to be good, no?)

But why does it even matter if blogs disappear when the same sense of community and friendships being built across the globe is on offer at Instagram? Well, in many ways it doesn't, but as I seem to have an abundance of thoughts around the subject, I thought I might share some of them here. To clarify, I am a most enthusiastic Instagram user, but as it's primarily Instagram that seems to have taken the place of many blogs (and the frequency of blog posts....I know I used to write more here before it existed), an element of comparison naturally creeps in when discussing this, but it's not intended to an either/or argument...more highlighting why I'm in favour of using both.

Increasingly, I'm trying to think of things not in terms of how much instant enjoyment something might offer, but more in terms of the residual feeling that doing that thing leaves me with. When I think about it in those terms, the things that leave me relaxed, happy and fulfilled can actually be boiled down to a relatively simple list: spending time with family and friends, walking Nell, reading books, writing, sewing, photography, eating scrambled eggs at my favourite coffee shop, listening to podcasts and audio books, cooking, pottering in the garden, and yes, writing my blog and reading other people's blogs too. Although I really love Instagram and social media while I'm actually using them, the residual feeling they leave me with is of having done things fast - as though I've attended a big party where I've stopped to talk to people for a few minutes, while flipping backwards and forwards simultaneously having different conversations with other people also at the party. It's fun, but its freneticism means there will probably always be room in my life for slower-paced mediums, like blogs, too.

In terms of how I view people's work on Instagram, while it's a delicious pool of awe and inspiration, it's also easy to scroll past something never knowing the meaning behind it, the process or journey the maker went on as they made it or what was going on around them as they sewed and what they were thinking, simply because it isn't the right medium for sharing the whole story. Without those things, I think the work seems to lose some of its value for the onlooker. There might be clues in the photos surrounding the picture of their finished quilt if you stop to click through to their profile and look, but it's harder to link all those things together from the default scrolling position. Divorced from these things, it's easy for amazing works of art or beautifully crafted clothing to carry less weight and for us to be less invested in their story as an onlooker. When people make things, it's all the geeky details that I want to hear about...somehow that doesn't happen in the same way on Instagram. To me, the mixture of words, photos and more words offers another layer that invites people in a little more.

I also think blogs offer something special in terms of their format - the banner, side bars and layout make every blog unique - when I arrive at one it feels like I've called in at a friend's house where I'm fondly familiar with their sofa and wallpaper...they might not have updated those things for over a decade, but there's something lovely in that. With Instagram, our photos sit within their brand's framework of evenly spaced squares against a white background - it's enormously appealing from an aesthetic point of view, but doesn't offer the same feeling of visiting someone's house.

And in terms of being the actual poster, I love spending an hour or two writing a blog post - thinking back over a project or formulating my thoughts into some kind of order that's fit for sharing with others (debatable at times, but I try). I rarely know what I'm going to write about when I sit down, so it's always a surprise to find out what's been sitting in my head bubbling away without my even realising. And sometimes, I'll wonder when something happened and search for the answer on my blog and in rereading the old post I'm reminded of a thousand tiny details that would have been lost forever in the sieve of my memory had I not recorded them here.

And then there's the issue of ownership and control. On Instagram, I've chosen to follow particular people because I want to keep in touch with what they're making and what's happening in their life, but invariably Instagram allows only a limited number of those people to show up in my feed and when they do the content is often several days old (it's strange to see people hopefully placing their vote two days after election results have been announced). When I check into someone's profile directly, I often find I've missed the most amazing things because Instagram's algorithm has chosen not to show it to me, which seems a real shame as it stops me from building up a complete picture of who that person is and how their projects have unfolded and developed.

My feeling is that the main issue with blogs is that it's more time-consuming to leave a comment - I'm guilty myself of leaving so many more comments on people's instagram photos than on blogposts...I wish the blogging platforms would make some changes to simplify that, as I'm sure that's part of the problem. A case in point is the giveaway at the top of this post: there were 444 entries over on Instagram and 107 over here on my blog.

I know services like Bloglovin' allow people to comment within their blog reading platform, but I'm not sure that's a solution - it's not always easy to keep track of comments there and it feels sad to take the conversation away from the home of the actual blog - I love the conversations that begin in the comments section here and I like that they're all still there for people to read through when they look through my archives, rather than split up over different locations that aren't a part of my blog. And how to keep up with replying to comments on all those possible platforms too?

So, with that rather random collection of thoughts on the page, let's return to talk of the sidebar and the original request for housekeeping. My links list has always been divided into four types of blog: quilting, dressmaking, general sewing goodness, and 'other things', so I set about visiting each blog in these sections and deleting them from my sidebar if they hadn't posted for several months. There were some that were harder to do this for than others...and I actually allowed myself to leave two in there, on the basis that they are pieces of history, excellent resources irrespective of how recently they've posted, and also because I'm not willing quite yet to let go of the idea that they might actually return to their blogs. By the end of this exercise, some of these sections had only one blog left standing though.

But when I stopped to think about it, I realised that many of my favourite bloggers were still writing on blogs that I'd somehow never added to my sidebar, so I started putting them in and it was one of those strange mind webs where more and more names popped into my head and I discovered that many had blogs I either didn't know about or wasn't following in my feedreader. If you want to take a look at my links list now (scroll down all the way past the patterns and tutorials in the left-hand column), you'll find it updated with so much goodness and I've added in a little widget that shows when people last posted so that you can also see instantly if there's anything new. When I first started blogging, I actually used to use the links list on my blog in place of a feedreader (I don't think such a thing actually existed until about eight years ago...or maybe I just hadn't discovered them).

So, although so many blogs have disappeared, there are still lots of good ones around and I've noticed an increasing number of people saying recently that they've realised they're missing writing their blogs and are thinking of starting them back up again. It feels like Johnny Castle really could be about to burst through the doors and take Baby out of the corner.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this (although I'm not sure I can enter into a reasonable debate about the merits of Dirty mind is not for changing on that).

Florence x
A few of the books/products that I link to on Amazon from my blog contain affiliate links and very occasionally, I'll mention a product that I've been given free of charge. I choose the things that I recommend carefully and my priority is to only share things that I love.