Why Do We Do It? Nature Calls; A Cornish Garden Party; Specialist Nurseries.

I’ve been pondering the issue of why we garden of late.

Why do we do it?

A simple five words which interestingly brought to mind for both of us a clearly remembered song from decades ago – though I’d mistakenly transposed “We for I”. Played ad nauseam no doubt from a 45rpm vinyl record. Presumably bought for both our multi-children families, by stressed parents, thinking that it would keep us occupied on a rainy day, or even because it had a good moralistic message that good behaviour was always worth it in the end. Or maybe both parent’s amusement of the co-incidence of their circumstances with that of Mrs Rabbit, with their own.  As she sings in the video below, “Happy with her lot”, and her four beautiful children; she “works for them, and cares for them, and teaches them how to be, the most respected members of the bunny family.”

For those for whom these words don’t jog memories of their own, you can click below to listen to the whole “Story Of Peter Rabbit“, by Beatrix Potter, narrated and sung by Vivien Leigh, and recorded for the dog and gramophone folk at HMV. Though neither Fiona nor I had any idea, then or until now, that it was Vivien Leigh, who read and sang, on the record.

It was the words and tune that had stuck firmly through all these years:

“Why do I do it? What can it be?

There’s naughtiness in everyone, but twice as much in me.

I’d give the world, if only I could,

Now and again, be good.”

The sustained dry weather of late has led to the usual state of physical exhaustion here as we find it almost impossible to stop when there’s a list of must do dry weather jobs – in particular logging up and shifting all the trees cut back last spring, and this winter, in our lower meadows. Not strictly garden work, but I see a real overlap or extension, between our fields and the garden, now that we’re seeing greater plant diversity beginning to establish in them.An article I read this week by Lia Leeandertz, in “The Garden” crystallised what may well be a common failing of gardeners – an inability to actually stop working and simply enjoy the fruits of their labour. She mentioned that Somerset has come up with the idea of an annual Garden Day, click here for more, when gardeners firstly down tools for a day, and secondly invite friends or family round to enjoy their special patch. Interestingly the colourful image fronting this website, shows stylised features that will appeal to many gardeners – not just flowers of all hues, but distant rural landscape, a leaping hare, robin, moths and bees.

So an appealing visual portrayal that a garden is much more than just a haven for stressed humans, and that it can be a home for all manner of wildlife.

By opening our garden for charity for the National Garden Scheme as we do, we might argue that we’ve been doing this sort of thing on a regular basis for quite sometime now. Except that it’s not quite the same as sitting down with a cup of tea, and simply soaking things up. Though one of our recent group of lovely garden visitors did indeed request that we join them at our outside table for tea, cake and a natter. Lovely.

Normally sitting down and enjoying things tends to happen just on wet days, unless we’re very careful. So is all this slog and toil worth it?

For now the answer is undoubtedly a resounding yes, and we both feel that the garden has become more of a coherent, artistic endeavour in recent years, rather than a mere collection of plants.

But is a privately owned, modest garden perhaps in a league of its own? Is there any other form of artistic endeavour which is so difficult to share? Other than by physically being in that space, at that particular time, when the garden really zings? Yes, I can write about it, or photograph it, which I clearly do with relentless energy, if not frequency, of late. And others can do the same. But often this is but a pale snapshot of what this, or any other garden, is all about.

This was brought home to me very recently when another photographer got in touch and asked if “they” – suitable ambiguity intended – could visit to do a photo shoot for a planned magazine article, written by them. We made suggestions as to timing, referred them to my monthly garden views folders, and even sent up to the minute images from the garden – several are included in this post, and gave our best estimate of how long certain flowers might last. But also explained that like most, our garden is designed to morph. As one thing goes “over”, something else takes up the baton. Apparently Monet knew how fleeting his beloved Irises could be and would give guests a specific date and time, to see them at their best.

However, being an understandably busy person, and because of commitments this end, they couldn’t make it for about 10 days. The tulips were fading a little. Beautifully, I felt, aided by some overnight frosts.

But the Camassias were getting going. Narcissus ‘Merlin’ was near its glorious peak and Acer leaves were delicately unfolding. Pictoral vignettes abounded. The inevitable garden tidy, grass cut, and titivation took place the day before the visit.

But within a minute of getting out of the car, I sensed that it was, for them, considered to be a wasted journey. There were apparently no immaculate grand scale vistas to sell an article. They asked to be excused briefly, to make a phone call to cancel a planned overnight B&B. We shared a cup of tea, and hot cross bun I’d made a few days earlier, and then the visit ended, their camera never even leaving the car.

At one level, as the gardeners who have poured energy, effort and thought into crafting this garden in this special place over nearly two decades, this was extremely disappointing. But is this inevitable, if a garden is viewed as becoming a mere commodity? Something that can be written about, and photographed.

And then, perhaps, sold.

To earn a crust.

Or not.

If ‘perfection’ in the eye of the beholder, isn’t achieved on the particular day, and time of the visit.

A static, one dimensional take, attempted take, on the multi-dimensional performance that takes place every time we choose to allow complete strangers to share our love of this place.

And indeed this, place, and space.

Do those in the media who take on the challenge of capturing the essence of a garden, even see the opening of a private garden, as we do, as a performance art?

Different time of day, different light, different month or season, different flowers, different bugs – and a very different show is inevitable.

Isn’t it?

And isn’t that part of the huge joy that comes from a living garden, in a temperate maritime climate like ours?

Strangely, in several of our contacts with the media circus over the years, it seems to be more Lousewort, than Trefoil. By which I mean hemi-parasitic feeding, rather than nitrogen fixing, nectar rich symbiosis. Pictures and words are mined. And traded.

And the fertile hunting ground, dutifully basks in the warm glow of the kudos of such coverage. And the workers are persuaded that it raises the public profile of one’s plot. One’s brief moment in the limelight is sufficient reward.

Is this sort of attention that we want, though? I’m not so sure.

Though I shall no doubt mention next time, the results of much more positive visits made last year, which will shortly roll from the presses. And doesn’t all this commercial coverage go against the whole ethos of this blog, which has steadfastly been produced, as indeed most bloggers do, in a completely non-commercial way for many years, to record and share.

And even occasionally, perhaps, inform or inspire.

Fortunately, the vast majority of our charity contributing garden visitors who contribute their monies to the coffers of the National Garden Scheme do seem to get much more from their visits.

This Easter, even our older, city based, grandchildren leaped from the car on arrival, exclaiming their delight at seeing Granny and Grumpy’s lovely big garden again, and anticipating the soon to be laid out Easter Egg hunt.

And actually it was quite nice to see Granny and Grumpy as well!

Such enjoyment of one’s efforts is undoubtedly hugely appreciated. All these visits do indeed complement our own pleasure gained from this most curious perennial, evolving, interactive, conceptual art form.

So, will I finally lay down the law and say no to further media coverage? I’m currently pondering this, and will probably anyway have sealed our fate simply by voicing such concerns here. But I’m left thinking that gardens need to be visited, if possible, privately and quietly, to try to appreciate the design, and plantings and how the garden works as an entity within its wider environment. And indeed, to try to capture the spirit of the place – always easier if one arrives early, or visit with few other people.

By coincidence, we’d trekked down to Cornwall at the beginning of the month to experience some of the fabulous BIG spring gardens there. Blessed with lovely sunny weather, it was a delight we shall surely try to revisit. And whilst not wanting to bore readers with vast numbers of holiday photos, there are a few views of the gardens we managed to see in 4 frenetic days. A cramming in of Cornish (and a couple of Devon) gardens to perhaps tempt others to take the long, long road South West sometime, when the Magonlias, Camellias and Cherries are in bloom. Certainly enough gardening sustenance and inspiration to give us very long lasting memories.

Rosemoor: Docton Mill: Trelissick: Trebah:Our firm favourite, Trebah. Everywhere a vista, and a real spirit to this place, made more poignant by the memorial to such sacrifice on D-Day starting from such a currently serene environment.Glendurgan:


Caerhays:(I’m sorry, Caerhays, but the very odd use of crude, waist high plant labels on sticks, detracted a little from our visit).


( A very close second to Trebah. A very special place).

Truly great garden making, mainly from decades ago, but maintained and curated with fantastic care and flair. Compare with my thoughts on visiting Giverny again last May.

We’ve never seen anything like these gardens, elsewhere.

From such grandeur, and often sweeping locations and vistas down to rugged coves, back home to our Welsh hillside, where Common violets, Viola riviniana, and Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, are now spreading rapidly over the thinnest soil in our hay meadow, where topsoil was scraped away years ago, to fill in a zigzag track, up through the meadow. And providing a wonderful early nectar supply for bumblebees battling with April’s chilly conditions.

In our lower meadows, the pond is springing into life with Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata, flower buds emerging, tadpoles growing ever larger, and the advancing Mare’s tails, Hippuris vulgaris, looking interesting with their horizontal barring.

No more otters, but plenty of visits from Canada geese, herons and foxes. But where are the toads this year? Have numbers collapsed? Or have I just missed their annual pilgrimage to the pond, and the subsequent predation with torn bodies littering the pond’s banks? There’ve been no signs of the long strands of spawn either.

At least swallows returned to the valley in mid-April, though as yet none have taken up residence in the barns. Then on a fabulous sunny April 22nd, the cuckoo began serenading the valley, whilst Dark-edged Bee-flies, Bombylius major, Orange-tip butterflies, Anthocharis cardamines, and emergent Large red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, seized a brief moment for the first time in this chilly late April scene.

But a day before, more signs of carnage in our neighbour’s field, and a reminder for us to be watchful as our first, very few, lambs are about to appear into this savage world. The remains of a(nother) ripped apart Canada Goose.And a strangely largely untouched dead polecat, Mustela putorius. Probably the same one I’d seen wandering around the garden, clearly in very poor shape a week earlier. Possibly affected by distemper? In the garden, we increasingly focus on specialist, and if possible local, nurseries for sourcing plants. We’re fortunate in having a fantastic nursery nearby, (Farmyard Nurseries, Llandysul, click here) who carry an enormous range of unusual plants. In particular, Richard Bramley, the owner, has been developing one of the UK’s best ranges of Primula sieboldii over the last few years. These early flowering Primulas hail from Japan where they grow in water meadows, often in dappled shade, and come in a huge range of flower colours in the white/pink/blue ranges, and petal forms, some being very intricately cut like snowflakes. Named after the German born plant explorer, botanist, and physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, who enjoyed a remarkable life full of adventure and intrigue, culminating in him introducing many new species of Asian plants into European markets. Including Japanese Knotweed! Click here for more on his biography.

We’ve rarely seen these Primulas in cultivation in gardens, and as you can see, Richard grows his in a polytunnel, so they’re obviously challenging. But last year we bought a few, they’ve bulked up well, and after being kept outside all winter unprotected, have been planted out now, and are beginning to flowering. Like all plant groups there are wide flowering time and plant vigour variations, and the advantage of visiting someone like Richard two or three times through the season means it’s easier to select a range of flowers which appeal, and also have the potential to extend the season of interest. Fabulous colour labels on his plants now means that you can appreciate the flower forms, even when out of season. I’m hoping that in a couple of years we can maintain a more open section of our meadow copse, where these plants can have pride of place to produce carpets of flowers from early April onwards into May.

In a similar way, we’ve scoured the pages of Ron and Adrian Scamp’s excellent daffodil catalogues for daffodils to extend the season of interest, (click here for more) since tulips fare very poorly here, and we really want bulbs which multiply in the ground, without the need for annual replanting.

Narcissus “Oryx”, above and N. “Tinhay”, below are both tall, late Narcissus jonquilla hybrids which fit this bill. The Scamp’s have bred many themselves, and when we were down in Cornwall, we passed a few commercial daffodil fields, as well as several of the villages which they have chosen to use for daffodil names. For example N. “Nancegollan” an early all white form.

But daffodil breeding is clearly a patient game. In researching for my separate webpage, featuring many of the daffodils we now grow (click here), I discovered that the daffodil just named by Ron as N.”Capability Brown”, below, and spotted by us on his stand last year at Cardiff Flower Show, as an unnamed seedling, was actually bred by him in 1996.Finally, as this performance fortunately reaches its last few bars, a reminder that we all need time not just to look, but to see.

Mum, a zoologist by training and qualification, who was fortunate to study at Birmingham under both Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar, and Solly Zuckermann, FRS, and whose carefully typed up Msc thesis involving anaesthetising and cannulating pigeon’s blood vessels, was passed down to me for safe keeping, would often excitedly tell her brood, having spotted something in the world around us which she thought we should observe and appreciate:


So, did you spot the Fox moth caterpillar, Macrothylacia rubi, basking on the mossy saxifrage in the earlier photo above? Much more foxy than the large mature adult. A noticeable furry, orange brown, basking in a sea of pink and green. Catching my eye as I sat for a cuppa on the terrace table, 6 yards away.

And did you spy the mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, and six ducklings amongst the mare’s tail?

Have another look at the earlier pictures.

The ducklings are a first, at least observed, for our ponds at Gelli Uchaf, and bring back yet more memories, of a chase up and down both banks of the Afon Clywedog in mid Wales, for a couple of hours, as an excited pre-teenager desperate to “rescue” a lost duckling, struggling with the current, with no parents or siblings anywhere to be seen.

Eventually I captured it, and kept it “safe” overnight, in a cardboard box in the caravan.

It was dead in the morning.

A veterinary career beckoned.

And a life of looking, and struggling to see.





19 thoughts on “Why Do We Do It? Nature Calls; A Cornish Garden Party; Specialist Nurseries.

  1. As always – an amazing post! And, actually, far too much to comment on because you manage to hit so many chords (as usual)! I cannot think what was wrong with that journalist. If it’s any consolation, I find that, although my garden is not as beautiful and mature as yours, it is highly disturbing that even my friends often find nothing nice to say about it. The good thing is that this is making me more philosophical – after all, I do this because I LOVE it and I HAVE to do it!
    Your garden, on the other hand, one can see is sheer delight, inspiration, unexpected beauty … and hard work. Any real gardener would recognise the artistry and dedication involved.
    And then … after looking at your own garden … to be treated to the Cornish gardens (I have fond memories of Trebah). And the darling mallard babies. Thanks so much and keep on doing what you do! It’s perfection. Maybe some day I might be able to see it in the life.

    • Hello Cathy,
      Thanks for the very kind comment. Perfection our garden certainly isn’t, but actually thanks to opening it up, and visitor reactions over the years,and more self critical analysis, I think it has improved – though we were only saying today, that I think we may be peaking….physically it’s demanding to keep both garden and land in good nick as we get a little creakier.
      I rail now at any criticism of creativity or artistic endeavour (particularly from critics who do it for a living), and who have probably never attempted anything similar and thus have no concept of what the “creative spirit” has been trying to achieve. This incident clearly wasn’t in that category. More I think a little thoughtless? But at the end of the day, maybe it’s the media outlets who commission the work who need to be a little more imaginative.
      Do we have to see perfection? Can’t we enjoy images of decay; or features with the same garden photographed under different conditions? Or even different sources of photos? Most of the media folk I’ve spoken to say that this is a no-no as far as magazines are concerned. Why?
      We have a large group scheduled to visit us on Sunday, and the forecast is for the first heavy rain, and strong winds, for weeks. But hey, that’s Wales for you, and I’m sure will enjoy the experience, even if its just warming up by the stove with tea afterwards!
      Appreciation of gardens is certainly not for everyone – but as you say, the fact that we get so much enjoyment from our plots overcomes such indifference on the part of some visitors. At times like this I remember the quote from the introduction to Frank Cabot’s book “The Greater Perfection”, which I referenced back in mid November 2013…The title is part of a quote taken from ‘Of Gardens’ by Francis Bacon written in 1625, which I think merits inclusion here :

      God Almighty first planted a garden; and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures;

      it is the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man;

      without which buildings and palaces are but gross handy works:

      and a man shall ever see, that, when ages grow to civility and elegancy;

      men shall come to build stately, sooner than to garden finely;

      as if gardening were the greater perfection.

      I hope that you enjoy a benign and happy gardening year,
      best wishes

  2. Thank you Julian for sharing such wonderful photos of your stunning garden and others. Again, such a great deal of information and interest to enjoy and ponder. We loved our visit out today to Upton Castle Garden – there was only one other couple there! Just seeing other gardens and wandering through woodland paths and alongside borders with different vistas to see connects one back to earth…we all need gardens- especially one as beautiful as yours. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Hello Marianne,
      Thanks for the kind comment. I hope you’re going to do a post on your trip to Upton Castle garden ? We missed out on going with a group to visit it a few days ago because of too much going on… I’ve often thought if a few more of our politicians were keen gardeners, the world would be a better place, but maybe the 2 interests are more or less mutually exclusive (actually I know this isn’t the case) , but patience and careful observation are good attributes for many walks of life…
      best wishes

  3. An enjoyable read as usual. We get quite a few ‘accidental’ visitors (because we are near the public footpath) who are usually appreciative but many don’t really ‘see’

    • Hello Ruth,
      Thanks for your perceptive and interesting comment – apologies for not getting back to you – we shall head down your way again sometime soon, have just not managed it yet! – regarding daffodils we have some of the following varieties in pots – if you let me know which you prefer, we can bring some down and drop a pot off… Merlin, Tresamble, Double campernelli, and the one we bought as Keats, but isn’t! (pics of all on my Welsh daffodils page),
      best wishes to you both,

  4. Julian, Your blog always makes my day when it arrives! I used to live in the temperate NW climate on the other side of the Cascades , and the BOUNTY of your garden reminds me of western Oregon gardens, unlike the High Desert area where I now live. I just love to sip a cup of tea and feel like I am in Wales walking though your garden! Jenny and I were there in 2010 and loved it, and would love to re-visit it! Maybe Wales and Cornwall in 2019? I did not know about the connexion of Trebah with the US… that was touching to read about. I love your blog, and I am sure thousands of us gardeners and garden-appreciators feel the same as I do. Kudos to you and Fiona for all your hard work, and DO take time to stop and smell the flowers! Suzette in Oregon

    • Hello Suzette,
      Thanks for the very kind comment and lovely to hear from you again.. the high desert sounds both dramatic, but daunting if you’re a gardener. I think you and Jenny were our first ever overseas visitors, and we can’t believe it was all those years ago. How time’s rushed by. You’d see a huge difference in both the garden, house and fields, which have all changed a lot – as you’ve picked up thanks to the wonder of blogging in reaching global visitors…
      It would be a real delight to see you both again – Fiona still organises the volunteers at the quilt centre, which continues to have fab. exhibitions – but if you could manage Wales AND Cornwall in spring, it would be an amazing mix… But if you do plan this, I’d suggest you check out school holiday times for Cornwall – it’s much busier than West Wales, and we even had to revisit Glendurgan ( the garden with the maze), because we arrived just before lunch, in holiday time, and so many families were going because of the maze, there were just no car parking spaces… a week earlier, and we’d have missed the holidays,
      best wishes

  5. We often ponder on why we invest so much in the garden, even though it is not a work of art like yours. Our low points come when we are tired (not surprising.) You have treated the “why” much more eloquently than I can and it is very complex. We feel very strongly that the pleasure in the garden needs to be shared but only with people who appreciate it. I think the National Garden Scheme in the UK is a great way to share your garden with like-minded people for a day. However, I love the idea to have a special relaxing day in the garden and invite friends (not necessarily gardening friends) to the garden to enjoy (not necessarily to examine the planting). I think special days can mobilise you to try harder and can become a tradition. I have learnt such a lot through my blog from other gardeners and I have had the pleasure of sharing with people who love gardening. I think my interest could have withered as I have very little stimulation in this area of France. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia, and thanks for a very thoughtful comment. I find the gardening blogging community like indeed the community of interested gardeners a very supportive and friendly bunch. I just wish I had more time to spend reading other’s work. But I think you’re right about tiredness and its effects, and the extra external tasks which have landed my way recently have pushed me to the very edge of my comfort limits. But strangely one can still cope with sufficient positive feedback – yesterday saw us not getting to bed before 1.30 am, then up at 5.45 with lambing sheep, followed by our largest group for ages (of 29) being shepherded round the garden in an afternoon visit in wind and rain, then inside for tea and cakes to revive. But they were all brilliant, clearly loved the experience and we and our invaluable 2 volunteer co helpers enjoyed the day greatly.
      So all this does indeed help.
      Ever thought of starting a physical or virtual French/local gardening club? From what you say would there just be insufficient local interest?
      We’ve found our local club a brilliant support network and useful occasional social mixing place – particularly since we live in such a rural dispersed environment.
      Best wishes

      • The positive feedback must be wonderful after a schedule like that but you must have yearned for an early night nevertheless :). New ideas are received very slowly here, we join in local functions and the gym club. I would not attempt to initiate doing things differently.

  6. I can see why you were disappointed with your photographer’s visit but it seems to me that it’s probably her loss … maybe just not her ‘thing’ or just not her day! Grand vistas and stunning views grab the attention but actually it’s the quieter, more intimate moments (and photographs that capture them) that last the longest – and are the more difficult to achieve. Your intimate knowledge, and love, of your garden and everything in it (both nurtured over decades!) shines through and enables you to share it so beautifully with others – something a flying visit will never achieve.
    ….. and I assume, much like my photography, that we do it for our own pleasure.
    In the immortal words of Dr. Frank N. Furter when neither Columbia nor Janet are overly impressed with Rocky …. “I didn’t make him for you”! 😀

    • Thanks Noeline for the interesting comment ( though I confess that I shall have to look up your quote reference which I’m completely ignorant about!).
      I thought long and hard about doing this piece – but heck, it’s an area that never gets discussed in the mainstream gardening published media ( why would it?) so I felt a valuable topic to kick around.
      But I entirely agree that photographically one can usually capture something really interesting and build a story round it – maybe the issue is that the pic taker/word writer just can’t easily flog more imaginatively created articles to the mainstream publications? That of course again is where I’ve always seen a private, non financially motivated effort as giving huge creative freedoms to the author.
      best wishes

  7. Julian,
    That was a beautiful and thought provoking essay. My wife, Amelia (aFrenchgarden) often shares with me your writing and I enjoy reading them as well as Looking and Seeing the lovely photos.
    Who needs a journalist or a photographer when one can partake the beauty of nature and verse with ‘friends’.
    But why do we do it, as you so appropriately ask? Each of us do it for a different reason. Some do it to escape ‘the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune’; others do it for its worldly gains. For me, I have always held the view that we do not own ‘our’ garden. We are only the tenants for a short period. Surely the birds and the bees can claim a greater ownership. It is their garden after all; they have been here longer; they permit us to share their garden.
    Why do we garden? Perhaps to measure our inadequate wisdom with that of nature.
    I was born in Iran and our national poet, Hafiz speaks thus:

    FROM the garden of Heaven a western breeze
    Blows through the leaves of my garden of earth;
    To-day the beggar may boast him a king,
    His banqueting-hall is the ripening field,
    And his tent the shadow that soft clouds fling.

    Thank you for sharing your garden and your thoughts.

    • Hello Kourosh,
      Thanks very much for such a brilliant response. You have indeed put your finger on a critical point which we jointly both feel about living where we do, and doing what we do….that we are mere stewards of this special place, and trying our best to leave it for the next occupants in a better state than when we took it on. And as incomers, speaking a different language to the locals, we also reflect on the fact that we’ve never picked up any bad vibes or language issues from all that we encounter in the bountiful natural world that shares this space with us. Nature seems oblivious to boundaries drawn on maps!
      And I love your line about measuring our inadequate wisdom against that of nature, and your wonderful poetry quote. These exchanged, thoughtful nuggets are what make interactions between private bloggers across the globe such a special form of social interaction, I think
      In turn, I’ve learned a huge amount from your regular honeybee posts, and hope that it proves to be a benign year from now on without too many pesky Asian hornets showing up, to threaten the hives.
      very best wishes

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