A few weeks ago I took the train to the Cotswolds to interview nature writer and floral stylist Willow Crossley for Soho Home and I managed to sneak in some questions about her garden at the end. Willow is known for her relaxed, naturalistic arrangements that feature the best of what’s locally grown and in season. In our chat she was refreshingly candid about her attitude to her own garden, which she freely admits isn’t quite as she would like it right now…
‘It’s such a mess. I don’t have the time! We’ve been here nine years and the lovely people we bought it from had two full time gardeners and we can’t afford to have that. My mum is the most unbelievable gardener, I grew up in Wales with this massive garden which she’d done all herself. She’s taught me everything I know. But it has such potential. See those borders at the back, from here it looks all right, you go up close and it’s embarrassing. Nothing grows because of those trees – the roots go the whole way out.’
I have been exceptionally lazy on the blogging front in recent months. My excuse is the garden has just been too much fun for me to tear myself away to write about it. Does that stand up? Well it’s true; in the past few weeks the garden has proved itself more than capable of recovering from being almost completely obliterated by last year’s building work and has bounced back, lush and green and shaggy and lovely. So I’ve just wanted to wander round it, stroking bits and snipping things and generally basking.
The irony is, I’m realising, that in winter I have nothing to write about because everything’s dormant, while in summer I have plenty of material but really want to be outside immersed in it.
Like the garden in winter, I’ve been dormant on the writing front for weeks, maybe months. I guess I really do subscribe to the ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say…’ school of thought, or maybe it’s simply that I don’t want to force it. I never ever want this blog to feel like ‘work’. It’s got to come naturally to read well, but more to the point, it’s got to come easily or I can’t be bothered to do it. I’m finally coming to realise, or as I probably knew all along deep down, to admit, that I’m never going to be one of those driven, dedicated writers who rise at 5am to fit in a solid couple of hours of scribbling before attending to kids, commute, work, housework and social commitments. No way jose! Too lazy. Too many episode of Rosemary & Thyme (um, horticultural research?) to catch up on. This blog has to feel like a lark, a treat, a gentle, yoga-like flex of my writing muscle rather than a brutal session on the treadmill.
So why am I writing now? Well, call it the Kondo effect: while everyone else has been virtuously folding their t-shirts into neat little squares I’ve been brandishing my Wilko hacksaw muttering ‘you ain’t sparking joy’ at a dead, twisted giant rosemary bush in the front garden that’s been leering intimidatingly at me for months.
Following the 21st William Morris approach that everything you own already and certainly any new stuff you buy must be beautiful / useful / ‘spark joy’ I have been hesitant about replacing the monster. But finally the messy empty space got too much for me so off I went to the Old Moat on a speculative shopping mission.
By rights, surveying this bleak, desolate little wasteland should make me feel depressed. The combination of six months of building work and its associated rubble plus winter have left the garden crushed and dead. But strangely, I don’t feel hopeless, just protective and determined to bring it back to how it was before, maybe even better than before, because I know more now – about myself and about the garden – what we’re capable of.
Artist Clare Melinsky makes beautiful lino cut illustrations for all sorts of things, from Harry Potter books to NHS banners, postage stamps and, most recently, the Cowshed Christmas 2018 collection. This is exciting for me because in ‘real’ life I am Cowshed’s editor so I had the opportunity to interview Clare. And in the process, I discovered that her work is strongly influenced by the natural world, specifically the landscape of the remote corner of South West Scotland where she lives and her own garden.
I have a horror of being seeing to be trying too hard or ‘showing off’.
In that respect I’m like the Mitfords’ nanny, who was so determined not to let her charges think too much of themselves that she was constantly saying “nobody’s looking at you, dear”. Including to Diana, one of the 20th century’s great beauties. On her wedding day. Lest she get a big head. Terribly English.
It applies to my wardrobe – ‘Oh this old thing? It’s so old it counts as vintage’ and my garden. Maybe it’s my Small Garden Syndrome taking over, but I am only too aware of the fact that it is – and always will be – a small, suburban patch surrounded by houses and the back of the pub kitchen. It will never be Chatsworth. It will never be the Boboli Gardens, or the High Line, or a Persian Paradise garden. It is what it is and I honestly think my (possibly only) gardening strength is being clear-sighted enough to recognise that and work within those limitations honestly and humbly, without delusions of grandeur.
Hannah Rochell aka En Brogue is a fashion journalist, illustrator and writer of the best blog about the glories of flat shoes in the whole wide internet. Luckily for me, she is also a keen gardener, so turned away from shoe-gazing for a moment (LOL) to tell me all about her patch…
‘We have a small garden – roughly 18ft by 12ft – with a patio area and raised beds. It’s just the right size for a table and chairs, although we simply move the kitchen table outside when we eat out there as we tend to prefer lounging around in deckchairs. It’s as high or low maintenance as I have time for it to be – I just have to make that decision in the spring by adding vegetables and a few new plants. Everything else comes back every year, so I just have to keep on top of weeding and cutting back ivy if I’m having a busy year (I used to be in full-time work but I’m freelance now, so have more time to look after it).
By which I mean the idea of sullenly refusing to buy into a trend – even if you really like it. Basically, cutting off your nose to spite your face. In flower terms this would be alliums* for me – I first got into them when I saw them in the garden of Fenton (Fenton!) House in Hampstead on the Open Gardens Weekend a few years ago.
The super-charismatic head gardener Andrew Darragh led us around the walled garden and everywhere we turned they were nodding their big purple heads at us. I really liked them and also felt ridiculously proud that I could remember their name – this was at the very beginning of my gardening ‘journey’ and it was eminently satisfying being able to nod sagely and murmur ‘hmm, quite nice alliums there’ when walking through a park with friends who knew even less about plants than me and would be suitably impressed.
But now… they’re popular, and I don’t want to be part of the herd. So I’m stubbornly resisting putting any in the garden. I have form for this kind of thing, adopting a similar approach with fashion. Something I’ve loved and worn for years is suddenly in vogue? I drop it like a hot potato. I suspect it stems from coming of age in the ’90s when what music you were into strictly determined your style – be that Britpop indie, goth, metalhead, hip hop kid or punk. To mix things up would have been regarded as a gross betrayal of your tribe and identity.
Because I have been TRAGICALLY parted from my garden for the summer (due to building works happening) I’m forced to get my horticultural kicks where I can find ’em. Like along the sides of train tracks on my boring commute.
There are some seriously gorgeous plants blooming along railway sidings – presumably no-one planted them there and nobody takes care of them, yet still, they thrive. I have a real soft spot for those tough sassy broads like buddleia* and morning glory scrambling tenaciously up steep embankments.
If you look up from your phone there are all sorts of sights to be seen. I’ve learned a lot about gardening and nature from staring gormlessly out of the window at the foliage passing by. The seasons change before your eyes in the shadow of the train carriages; sticky, lime green leaves of chestnut trees unfolding in spring, blackberries ripening in August, morning glory flowers furling themselves up like umbrellas for the evening as the 18:39 thunders – oh who am I kidding, crawls – through Motspur Park. When you’re trapped in the monotony of a daily commute that is unchanging in its tedium, there’s something uplifting about the way nature ploughs its own steady course, week after week, month after month. It’s a hell of a lot more reliable than Southern Rail anyway amiright?
So today’s lesson – for me and everyone else – is that we do have time to stand (sit) and stare – not at the flickering co-dependent glare of our phone screens, but out of the window at whatever happens to be passing by. It might be a buddleia in crazy purple bloom, some butterflies dancing madly over a random clump of daisies or a woman in a really cool outfit that inspires you to try something new, but it’s infinitely preferably to racing feverishly through a never-ending to-do list, trying to keep on top of ‘life admin’ (book-vet-appointment-buy-birthday-card-pay-gas-bill) while real life flashes by.
*According to this article buddleija is regarded as a ‘nuisance plant’ by Network Rail but quite frankly that just smacks of ‘leaves on the line / the wrong kind of sunshine’ excuse-making so leave the pretty flowers alone yeh?
As we used to solemnly pronounce in fashion, ‘three makes a trend’, so after seeing geraniums in the window boxes outside Dean Street Townhouse and all around Soho and my front garden, I’m calling it: geraniums are the official flower of Spring/Summer 2018.
Of course, for me, they’re my official flower every summer, because for once in my life I’m an early adopter – I’ve always used them in window boxes. But I’ve realised I’ve been taking them for granted, and it took seeing them going up in Style’s ‘barometer’ for me to give them their own ‘why Miss Jones, you’re… beautiful!‘ moment.
Humble, hardworking geraniums, impossible to kill, such good value on the market (£1.50 per pot, but two of the ‘white’ ones I bought turned out to be salmon-mousse-pink, vom) and every year faithfully providing me with a cool snowy white scene to rest my eyes on while reclining on the sofa in my living room and looking out of the window. Of course they look pretty sassy in lipstick red too, as the folk at Dolby helpfully demonstrate here:
And that’s why for me they’re the blue jeans of the floral world. They’re never exactly in fashion, but that means they’re never out of fashion. You might take them for granted, or find them a bit boring, but then suddenly in the midst of outlandish prints, patterns and colours, the idea of a palette cleansing blue-jeans-white-tee outfit feels just right. Calm, self-assured, with the ability to be jazzed up with a red lip and heels, or scruffed down with leather sandals and a beaten up straw basket. Very Jeanne Damas, or Jane Birkin depending on your vintage. So, lesson learned: if I’m ever feeling overwhelmed by trends in fashion or gardening magazines, blogs and so on, I will reach for my blue jeans / white geraniums and all will be right in the world, my garden and my wardrobe.
Introducing the second in my series of interviews with stylish creative types who love gardening too. Pat McNulty is Editor at Made.com and one of my fellow fashion-turned-gardening-obsessed Insta-pals. I quizzed her on transforming her own bit of Hackney soil into an urban oasis.
“My patch is minute. Two skinny strips of land around the corner of the flat I bought in Hackney. During the renovation I’d have various workmen turning up with instructions to leave building materials in the garden if I wasn’t in, and they’d frequently call me up ask if it was the ‘front garden’ they should leave stuff in – I’d be like ‘er, that’s the whole garden’ – and it’s probably half the size of a normal house’s front garden.
OMG I forgot about irises! And here they are! For some reason I thought they flower earlier in the year (I think I saw some tiny ones in the herbaceous borders at Polesden Lacey months ago but they must have been a different variety) so I assumed if mine hadn’t come up it was just hard luck, but HERE THEY ARE!! And if Instagram is anything to go by, they’re right on time (‘riiiight on tiiiime…’)
I’m not sure why exactly, but irises always feel like a ‘fashion’ flower to me. Forget peonies (adorable, but let’s be honest, pretty basic) and lilies and even roses, there’s something about an iris which is so statuesque and elegant, like Grace Jones in an Alaïa hooded gown or an high-born 1950s mannequin. They’re just chic.
I’ve got indigo and white ones popping up all over the place in the front and back gardens – I think I took the bulbs and mixed them all together before planting, so they would come up randomly. They give a bit of height to the little borders in the front garden which draws the eye up nicely – something I always seem to struggle with, managing ground cover and trees, but not the bit in the middle. They’re almost too perfect to be real. And laughably easy to grow. I don’t know why I’m still amazed when things I’ve planted actually come up, but I am. It’s like forgetting you get to have a birthday every single year (I actually do this) – a delightful surprise.
But the loveliest thing about irises for me is they were already some in the garden when we moved in, meaning someone planted them ‘for me’. Ok not really for me, clearly, but they’re a little gift from a previous gardener – a silent high five across the seasons – and I appreciate that very much. A more obvious example of this would be trees – when you plant a tree you’re really doing it for future generations who’ll see it fully grown, and it’s a form of paying it forward, in thanks for the victorians or edwardians or whoever who planted the mighty oaks and london plane trees and chestnuts that provide a shady green canopy over even the dustiest, most unprepossessing urban thoroughfares.
From bulbs that come back year after year to mighty oaks that take centuries to reach their full potential, I’m starting to learn that the power of gardening is the cycle – not of the seasons, although there is that – but of inheriting the beauty and enjoyment of someone else’s efforts, then paying it forward.