Am I alone in discovering that different activities can teach you to view the world differently? I grew up with a very artistically gifted younger sister, and somehow I turned this into a belief that I wasn’t artistic, wasn’t creative. Not being able to paint or draw could have come in to it… It wasn’t until I started taking more photographs that I began to realise that I wasn’t totally lacking in that department, that I had a reasonably good eye for what made a good photograph, even if my technical skills might fall short of allowing myself to realise what I imagined.

When I first came to gardening, in my late twenties, I discovered a whole new world of texture and colour, and became fascinated by the challenge of envisioning what plants would look like when they were bigger, or when the season had changed. A multi dimensional puzzle of changing season and growth patterns rapidly turned me into a fanatical committed gardener, avid to learn more, reading and watching voraciously in search of inspiration. More recently still, I have begun to take more notice of how plants grow in the wild, so that instead of being an almost academic exercise in combinations of colour and form, gardening has become informed by the surrounding context, a sense of place.

And now here I am, in a new place, a new climate, a new garden.

clearing the back border

To the casual observer, I have been on a mission of destruction in our back garden. Where once we had dense cover all the way across the back border, there are now huge gaps. You can see the fence, our neighbour’s shed. Our neighbour’s house!

I found myself sitting, mug of tea in hand, staring at the above, a huge grin on my face. Am I mad? Where others may see destruction, loss of privacy, might even mourn for the loss of the spotted laurels, I see potential. My mind’s eye is full of leaf shapes and colours, playing with different combinations. It has been hard work, digging out the stumps of mature suckering shrubs, but so satisfying too.

blank canvas

I suspect that part of the reason for my excitement at this huge unplanted space is that I haven’t been able to plant new shrubs or trees for over five years. My previous garden was chocker, in fact I had already found myself needing to move, thin, remove, shrubs that had outgrown their place. It’s funny though, I can envisage shrub combinations, but I am lousy at accurately gauging how much space there really is until it is physically clear. My spatial awareness just isn’t up to it. So where as I suspect lots of people could have gone all the way through the planning and dreaming phase without having to remove a single unwanted shrub, I have to clear the space first. Not that I haven’t been plotting and planning, I have, but the last bits, particularly to the right where we still have two large conifers, just refuse to come together until I can actually see the space without them. So I clearly have lots more to learn about different ways to see!

After all the destruction, the piles and piles of shredding (thank you TNG!), the battling with rootballs, the loss of, so far, one spade and one fork to the effort to clear space, I have finally managed to plant something. Nothing terribly exciting, just a Fatsia japonica, but ever since I saw the Drimys lanceolata I have wanted to see the large shiny leaves of a fatsia alongside it.

newly planted Fatsia japonica

I cannot adequately describe how good it felt to finally put something in to the garden rather than the vigorous “editing” that I have been engaged in. It is a wonderfully healthy looking plant, though ironically cannot currently be seen from the house, as it is hidden behind a fern! But in my mind’s eye, it is already 2m tall and the same across, providing privacy and a perfect foil for the altogether more refined form of the Drimys.

Weather permitting, our next door neighbour has promised to bring his chainsaw out to play this weekend and remove the two conifers. Again, many (including him!) would think me mad, taking them out. They provide evergreen privacy from people who wander round the back of the snooker hall in the park next door. They provide shelter from the worst of the south westerlies. But when I look at them, I see bare trunks to 2′ high that will never again be covered in branches, roots snaking throughout the border drying out the ground, and a completely static block of uninteresting mid green where, given the sun levels, I could have colour, flowers, berries, as well as evergreen privacy. I can even have thorns, in case anyone gets inspired to brave the nest of brambles in the attempt to take a closer look at our garden! So more destruction, to be followed by more grinning, and more planting. Onward!

46 thoughts on “What do you see?

  1. Hi Janet,

    I know what you mean about clearing a space; I’ve struggled most with the areas of the garden that were already planted when I moved in. Yet when I create a new border, I can easily plan the border without much hesitation.
    Of course I can also understand you removing the conifers, as they do cast an awful lot of shadow – even if they do provide privacy – I’d much rather have something which provides privacy AND interest such as berries, blooms or nice foliage.

    It may well look drastic now, but it’s not like you’re going to leave the area bare; I’m sure whatever you choose will look far better :)

    1. Hi Liz, there is something rather therapeutic about clearing things away, a bit like finally getting around to tidying a drawer and discovering things you had forgotten you had, and also that you have more space than you thought. Though that could just be me, I am rather untidy!

  2. Your mind must be buzzing indeed with all these possibilities with your new garden. A new outlet of creativity (and yes, you are artistic and creative). As the saying goes, you can’t make a cake without breaking eggs first. What may seem like destruction is actually all for good later on, and even better :)

    1. Thanks guys – am currently gearing myself up for moving a bamboo, which is always a fun enterprise!

  3. Very satisfying to clear a space and really *see* your ‘canvas’. Gaps are opportunities, so no wonder it puts a grin on your face to look out now. The very first day we completed on our house we were in the garden pulling out conifers too, they were so big and dark and seemed to sap everything – light, moisture, nutrients – from the garden. Instead of a twenty-foot wall of darkness we now have a four foot fence, with some lighter shrubs beginning to build up along the fence line to give a little more privacy back in time, in a more open way.
    A great feeling to be planting again, too. Your fatsia does look very healthy and happy.

    1. Hi Sara, I can just see the two of you out there, battling with conifers and reclaiming the space! I’m still waiting for D to bring his chainsaw round… The fatsia is looking very happy in its new home, now I just need to garner the energy to move the bamboo to its place along side it…

  4. I can remember when we moved here, how much room we made by removing conifers. To be able to visualise my new trees and shrubs, my poor husband had to stand in the border and had to pretend to be one or the other, just as well no-one could see us!! Whatever you plant will be a great improvement and far more interesting.

    1. Hi Pauline, that made me laugh – I have plans to get various people standing around out in the front garden, moving around, so that I can plan the sight line and avoid hiding the view, and this will be very public… How else am I going to work out where to put the seating area?!

  5. My sister suffered from the same syndrome – being younger than me anything I was good at she shied away from. AS for the fatsia we recently had to dig one up as it greww into a monster – it’s surprising how quickly they grow.

    I do like them but it just took up too much space in our garden.

    1. Hi Sue, they can be monster plants, that’s how I knew that it would fill the space quickly and well – at least you can cut them back, but I am not surprised you decided to get rid of yours. Interesting about your sister – I know mine always felt over awed by various things I could do that she didn’t, being younger than me.

  6. I’m so happy for you. What a great feeling it is to put something in the ground! I love Fatsia’s, It will be fabulous where you’ve put it. I’d love to put one under the Mulberry, it would need a shady spot here. Christina

    1. Hi Christina, it was a great moment, firming the earth around the fatsia. They are wonderful plants, and should be more interesting for our neighbours to look at than the aucuba it replaces, too.

  7. I’m not sure it’s possible to mourn the loss of spotted laurels!

    I can’t draw or paint either but need to be creative and I’ve found gardening is a great way of expressing myself. I’ve got a lot to learn about planting combinations and like you I really struggle with spatial awareness. It’s going to be great fun watching as your new garden takes shape. I think I’d have to get rid of the conifers, too. I think they are difficult plants to incorporate with other plants. They foliage is often dull and dark and whilst I can appreciate the benefit of their evergreeness I don’t like how they don’t change with the seasons. I would much prefer plants that give better value, with berries, blossom or even just more interesting foliage.

    1. Well, someone must like them, there are loads for sale around here!!

      I agree, gardening is a fabulous way to express oneself, and you get fit(ter) too. And get to eat healthy stuff. Good point on combining other foliage with (some) conifers, though I am feeling vaguely guilty, as I don’t, in fact, hate ALL conifers, just the really large dull ones… But, in a smallish space, I want everything to work really hard for me, and provide more than just one “face” to the world. So, flowers, berries, shelter,plant supports, scent, something more than just screening!

      I will be interested to see how the garden develops too – particularly once the ratio of removal to planting has tipped the other way.

  8. I know what you mean about conifers – my neighbour has one right on the boundary line so it shades one of my raised beds and it is permanently dry – nothing will grow under it. Grrr. You are lucky to be able to envision what the empty space will look like once your new plantings have grown I can’t even do that – my plantings and planning are a bit hit and miss.

    1. Hi Elaine, how annoying, that the conifer isn’t under your control! Our next door neighbours are sufficiently horrified at us wanting to take them down – because they provide screening – that they aren’t going to lend us their chainsaw!! People get very strange about conifers…

      My main challenge with the newly cleared areas is in exercising patience and not over planting to try and speed things up. I know I will only waste money and make extra work for myself if I am not disciplined, but patience is NOT my middle name…

  9. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting a big project like this completed, or at least getting a good start on it–hooray for the neighbor with the chainsaw! I am “spatially challenged,” too, so it makes perfect sense to me that the empty space makes it easier for you to plan what you want to plant here. Somehow, I always envision my garden areas bigger than they are, so that in a year or two all my plants are crowding each other:)

    Something with brambles sounds like the perfect foil to your neighboring snooker hall!

    1. Hi Rose, sadly the neighbour with the chainsaw is not going to help out after all, because his wife thinks we are utterly mad to get rid of them! Ah well, to the yellow pages…

      I do the same thing as you, think I have more space to fill than I do, over plant, and then find myself having to thin and move two years later. A very tight budget might help me avoid this here, but oh, the temptation…

  10. Make your mark, plant what you want!!! I know how excited you are with your new place. I wish Fatsia wasn’t so enticing to deer, would love to plant some in my garden. I have the shade, but too many critters that would love to eat it.
    Go forth and plant!!

    1. Hi Janet, thank you, I knew you would “get” it! Shame that deer love fatsias, I could just see one in your garden. I have two more plants to move, and then I can place a plant order…

  11. I think that all gardeners do that in various degrees ways as a garden is never static year to year even without our constant intervention.
    Next year will start to see the results of what you’re doing now in creating your garden.
    I can’t draw or paint either so don’t consider myself artistic but like to think that I take the occasional good photo. xx

    1. Hi Flighty, exactly, one of the things I love about gardening is that things are constantly changing. And you definitely have a good eye for a photo, and plant your allotment to be beautiful as well as productive, so definitely not un-artistic!

  12. Like you I see fabulous potential…it is so exciting to imagine a new space, but I also have to live with it more sometimes to really see it. I need a bit more patience with my garden to really see it these days…maybe planting less and living with it more would help…looking forward to hearing more about your plans Janet.

    1. Hi Donna, I do find that some areas come together more quickly and easily than others. Sometimes I immediately know what I want to do, like planting a fatsia where it is in the back garden. Other areas are harder to get a feel for and take more time. I have an area in the front garden like that now. What I love is that moment when you suddenly get the spark of inspiration that means something you have been struggling with suddenly comes together, however long it takes.

  13. Fatsia not terribly exciting Janet!! Well I think it is, especially when they don’t survive outdoors up here in Aberdeen and they have lovely leathery glossy evergreen leaves, beautiful, not unlike the lovely spotted Laurel minus the spots, or as I prefer to call them Aucuba, well, the leaves on your Fatsia may be a more interesting shape.

    1. Hi Alistair, I think I must have expressed myself badly, I only meant that fatsias are not exactly unusual plants, at least down here in slightly warmer areas. I had been thinking about some more unusual alternatives, but I love fatsias so much that a fatsia it had to be. And I am a big fan of Aucuba japonica crassifolia, hence my delight in finding one lurking under the shade of its more vigorous and spotted cousin!

  14. Ah, yes, I agree with you on just about everything–especially the first part describing your discovery after many years that you were creative and talented in your own unique way. I’m not as brave as you are, though, when it comes to clearing away plants and starting over. I need people like you to help me do that part. Enjoy the “rebuilding” project!

    1. I find it heartening to discover that my experiences are not unusual re the creativity thing. You say brave, others say reckless! It is more to do with preferring to clear the spaces of things I don’t like to better envisage what I can do instead. And being patient enough to give some things a chance before uprooting them in a fit of misplaced energy… Plant/uproot in haste, repent at leisure?!

  15. every artist needs a clean page and you can’t create YOUR garden without starting with the structures. After all your Japanese aralia will need plenty of room. Have always admired your eye for colour and textures – the artist runs in your veins too Janet.

    1. Bless you Laura, thank you! Having just had an earful from our next door neighbours on why it is a really bad idea to take down the conifers, it is good to hear from someone who understands where I am coming from.

  16. Oh what fun you must be having Janet :) I think that those artistic genes have not by- passed you but have revealed themselves in a different and equally valuable form. Hope that fatsia soon takes off and is soon joined by other plants of your choice.

    1. Hi Anna, lots of fun, lots of day-dreaming. The neighbours and passers-by must think me nuts, given the amount of time I spend just standing and staring at a patch of garden…

  17. I agree about the destruction. I need to rip it all out and then keep what I want before I can really see a new design take shape. It’s very freeing to see the space as ready for you instead of just a reflection of the previous owner.

    1. Hurrah! A kindred spirit! I tend to rather horrify some people with my willingness to rip things out…

  18. My goodness, you are brave – but you’ve found the way of doing this which works for you, so why not? Give it a little time, and it will all look so much better (love that Fatsia, by the way – what a beautifully healthy plant)…


    1. Hi Kate, I don’t feel brave, it is just the way I work. I can’t cope with staring at something that I have left because I couldn’t quite garner the patience/energy to take out, it nags away at me. The fatsia is still glowing with health and already putting on new growth.

  19. I do recognise what you write about an artistic or creative eye. I could never draw either but I find I can do combinations of form and colour, not always to my satisfaction but sometimes, for a week or two! Starting with the bare soil is much the best way – good luck!

    1. My biggest problem tends to be not knowing plants well enough to understand what they do all the way through the year – I can put a combination together that works for – as you say – a couple of weeks but which then looks dreadful because of something about plant habit that I hadn’t realised. I have decided that the first time I plant most things it is trial and error, and that I will probably have to move things around once I have lived with them for a while before getting it “right” – by which I just mean “pleasing to me”.

  20. Glad that I’m not the only one who is spatially challenged. I have the hardest time visualizing in the garden and especially projecting visuals into the future when plants will be bigger. I’m glad you have the courage though to take out all those plants, I think I would have been terrified of doing so but you will likely find it much easier to ‘see’ the space without the plants there.

    1. Hi Marguerite, I find something liberating in removing or moving things that don’t work for me. Mind you, getting rid of large plants is also exhausting! I will be happier when planting is more frequent that removal.

  21. Wish I had dug up the laurel when we moved here – it’s now huge. I hacked it back this summer and reclaimed about four feet of garden but that seems to have encouraged a growth spurt! Love the Fatsia – my neighbour has one fan trained over a fence so she keeps the height but controls the width.

    1. Hi Patricia, laurels are like that, particularly once they have a really big root system. Have never heard of fan training a fatsia, clever idea in limited space.

  22. catching up on blog reading I’m a bit behind!
    I hope you toasted planting your first major plant after all that hard work of moving those shrubs. You needed to do it though, you can’t have plants in your garden that you don’t love, the garden is your creativity its seems to me so embrace it. I’m enjoying watching as you transform your garden.

  23. Hi there, I’m sure I’d commented on this (catching up late again, bad gardener me) how exiciting to start afresh and just hack away. Very theraputic! Fan trained fatsias – HMMMMM I wonder if I can do that with mine against the wall of the beaujou new patch. Its more upward space than its footprint. Ponders……Goodluck with it all Janet!

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