Sharp focus Posted on June 10, 2008

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A week away in early June and you come back to a different garden. It was wet while we were gone, and warm enough for plants to make their main thrust of growth, to bulk up and cover ground. Last night, just home, I walked round in a daze of excitement, surprise, shock and, I confess, dither. So much needs enjoying, so much needs doing. Instinctive priorities are new plants, just planted. Have they survived my disloyal absence?

A fresh eye for your own garden is never easy to achieve. Homecoming gives you your best chance. Has the fatsia grown too bulky (yes), or the hedge too tall? Does the Robinia ‘Frisia’ shout too loud beside the purple cotinus? This is the moment to decide. But how do you prevent yourself from stopping to pull up an egregious weed…. Then another and another? Contemplation and quiet consideration go by the board once you start stooping – which is why they are fragile commodities around here.

My friends groan when I tell them I love weeding. After propagating, though, it accounts for my happiest gardening hours, most absorbed and closest to my plants. There is gross weeding, when I straighten up all sweaty with armfuls of goose grass and nettles and dock, and fine weeding which scarcely fills a trug but leaves a bed looking like a jewel box.

Both make me focus and concentrate. Weeds rampaging intertwined disguise themselves as their betters. Tiny seed leaves, mere hints of a plant, challenge me to identify them. And decide whether they are going to add to or subtract from the picture in question.

Herb Robert its everywhere at the moment. Who can possibly dislike this lusty little geranium, so agile in

scrambling? It fragile pink stems, forking and forking again, its leaves, dividing and subdividing into more andmore palmate parts, its tiny pink flowers and its odd smoky smell have a potent charm, whether procumbent, when it is a great improvement on bare soil, or clambering up on the shoulders of a stronger plant. Its giant exotic cousin, Geranium maderense, almost identical in construction and behaviour, is after all a showpiece we have been proud to welcome to our ever-warmer gardens.

Tom Stuart-Smith, speaking about his triumphant Chelsea garden last month, said how important it was to finish planting several days ahead of the show, so that plants could settle down and adopt their natural positions – a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. Of course flowers and leaves turn to take best advantage of the light, maneuvering in relation to one another like people in a crowd. It is easy to see where something has been added, or if you are weeding, subtracted. Even easier to see where the gardener’s boot has been. It is one of the joys of this time of year that beds brim with leaves in pristine condition and perfect alignment, flowers stalks getting ready to go, as blithe and beamish as schoolchildren.

Intricacy can’t be taken in quickly; a fact that Tom S-S’s garden eloquently expressed. There were brilliantly decisive touches: a single white peony, for example, against one of his grey rectangles of perfectly polished water. But between there were passages of soft planting to slow down the eye. It is a fact of garden making that big and simple is quick and easy – not necessarily satisfying for longer and quieter contemplation. The natural embroidery of many kinds of leaves rewards focussed concentration – especially, for that matter, when some of them are weeds.

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