Retrenchment. It's not a word I've ever used before. Retrenching isn't my thing, especially in the garden where, ever since I started, onwards and upwards has been the way. Here, especially, it's upwards, since there is a 20-metre drop from the top of the garden to the bottom. Not a sheer cliff, of course, just a very steep slope.
But two things have happened that are forcing me to look at the garden in a different way, a rational, even verging on sensible, way. Heavens! There's another thing I never thought I'd say. But Kevin, who for 14 years has worked a day a week in our garden – he's made all our paths and steps, he's clipped hedges, climbed ladders to tie in roses, spread countless tons of mushroom compost – has had a disaster with his back and hasn't been able to work since last May. It's been a desperate worry to him and his family though we all hope that eventually the problem may be put straight.
Then, on holiday in Sikkim recently, I fell off the edge of a rice terrace and slightly re-arranged my leg. Again. Balancing on one leg in the flower border while cutting back the over-exuberant foliage of a crocosmia has become a hazardous manoeuvre. Mind over matter takes you only so far. Then matter gives way and dumps you in the mud.
So, even before my own accident, I'd been thinking of ways that I could cut down on the work that needs to be done here. First, I considered the pots, 41 of them (not counting all the succulents that go out in containers for the summer). These are mostly large pots, either terracotta or glazed and in the past more than two dozen of them have been planted up for two displays in a season. Usually that's been tulips (or some other spring bulb) followed by scented leaved geraniums, argyranthemums, osteospermums or annuals I've raised from seed.
Sixteen of the pots I'm now abandoning altogether, including the 12 that line the steps down to the hut in the garden where I work. Yes, I'll miss them, but tipping out compost twice a year, refilling and replanting, takes time, as well as the constant need for pots to be watered. Another four pots that used to be switched from spring to summer performances, I've now planted up for a permanent display with lilies. These grow rather well in pots, provided they are big enough.
What about lily beetles? Yes – we have them, but they are easier to spot on a lily in a pot than they are on a lily in the middle of a flower border. Lilies flower when we are most in the garden and as far as possible, I stick to the scented kinds.
The second strategy will be more difficult to implement. I've always encouraged self-seeding: Spanish daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), columbine, forget-me-not, love-in-a-mist, primroses, foxgloves, verbena, spurges of all kinds, orlaya, ammi, violets, I've welcomed all their progeny. At times, the terrace has looked almost as thick with plants as the border alongside. So has the stone-paved path up the bank. But I need a few areas now where absolutely nothing is happening. I spend quite a lot of time refereeing between the various occupants of the paths on the bank, which of course includes dandelions and bitter cress, as well as the self-seeding flowers. It'll help not to have to do that and spend what time I have weeding the borders themselves. >
But I'll need to be careful with this second strategy. By nature, I'm not a controlling gardener. I like plants to be able to express their characters, not be fenced, chopped and corseted to conform to some alien (to them) notion of tidiness. I like the exuberance of the self-seeders and when we first came here, with an acre-and-a-half of wilderness to fill, was grateful for their easy fecundity.
I also freely acknowledge that their ideas are often better than mine. Combinations of plants arise that I would never have thought of. Self-seeders put themselves in places – between the roots of trees, between the cracks of paving stones – where it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to dig a hole for a plant oneself. And I don't want to change the character of the garden, which, within certain limits, is quite a free-wheeling place. I want it always to be a place that, when I wander up the bank with a cup of coffee, can surprise me with evidence of things that I didn't make happen. I must retain that element of surprise and delight. But I must also do something to stop the spread of Spanish daisy into the gravel of the yard and the herringbone bricks of the terrace. In this mild winter, it still hasn't died back.
The third idea I've had is to replace more of the herbaceous planting with shrubs. I was thinking along these lines when, by chance, I had a long conversation with Penelope Hobhouse, the doyenne of gardener-designers in Britain. Mrs Hobhouse's style has been founded on brilliantly conceived plantings of herbaceous perennials, put together with careful thought as to their form and texture, as well as their colour.
Now, she says, she's replacing whole swathes of the perennials she put in her new garden in Somerset with shrubs. The underplanting may be nothing more than pheasant grass (Anemanthele lessoniana). Shrubs have been undervalued, in the craze for grasses and prairie planting that has driven garden style over at least the past decade. But each shrub I've introduced into the garden (especially the evergreen ones such as Drimys winteri and Trochodendron aralioides which I put in just a year ago), has improved the overall effect. The drimys has fine glossy foliage, the leaves roughly the size and shape of laurel, bright green with a blue-silver underside. Will it flower this coming spring? That'll be a new excitement to set against the 'reducing and curtailing' that my dictionary tells me must be the result of my self-imposed retrenchment.
WHAT TO DO
* Spikes of early flowering 'Iris reticulata' and crocus are already spearing through the ground, with scillas and grape hyacinths. If the earth looks sour, tickle the ground up around the bulbs and remove any seedling weeds.
* Continue to mulch thickly round herbaceous perennials, such as hosta and rodgersia, both of which are quite greedy plants. The mulch feeds, but it also suppresses annual weeds and, as it is drawn down by earthworms, gradually improves the texture of soil.
* Gently force batches of early spring bulbs by bringing pots of them into a cool greenhouse. Dwarf narcissi, hyacinths, crocus and iris all respond to this kind of treatment. When the flower buds begin to colour up, you can bring the bowls into the house.
WHAT TO BUY
* Chiltern Seeds have sent out a mouth-watering preview of their 2015 catalogue. 'Grow something new from seed' is the cover headline and it's a good resolution. Among the things they suggest are a dramatic bright-red carrot 'Atomic Red' (£1.75) and a dark-purple mangetout pea called 'Shiraz' (£2.95). To see what's new check out the website at chilternseeds.co.uk