Editing a garden: learning how to take out as well as put in
Adding new plants to a garden is rarely a problem, but learning when to subtract and divide the ones you love can be more of a wrench
Late last summer, I inspected my friend’s garden in-between heavy showers. She’s been gardening this tucked-away oasis for more than 40 years now, and it is heavenly: established, yes, but unprecious and kindly worn-in, like a favourite armchair. In the dying days of August it was a riot of plume poppies and scarlet crocosmias, speared through with grasses. As I admired it, she pointed out how certain varieties were garden thugs, prone to taking over. “Most of the gardening I do now,” she told me, “is editing. I take more out than I put in.”
It is through editing that good stuff happens
I’m probably a more experienced editor than I am a gardener – I’ve been paid to do the former for a decade, while this is only my second summer in a garden of my own. It was an analogy that made sense. Writing is an arguably more verdant creative act: you start with a blank page and fill it, crafting images from sentences and hoping to communicate your thoughts. But it is through editing that good stuff happens – meaning is teased out and sharpened, words are questioned and tweaked. A good editor will question and whittle until, hopefully, something gleaming and brilliant is left behind.
“In writing you must kill all your darlings,” goes the advice of William Faulkner, a largely skint Nobel Prize laureate who was familiar with editing both on the page and in the garden after taking over a dilapidated Mississippi estate and wrangling with the ruins of the previous owners’ landscaping ambitions. In literary terms, darlings are extraneous sub-plots or indulgently florid turns of phrase that threaten to topple the wider work. In the garden, the same applies: the perennials that take up too much room for too little time flowering, the impulse garden centre purchases that stick out like a sore thumb, those lacklustre biennials that haven’t delivered on the time invested.
This second-year garden is less showy – there have been fewer types of flowers
It works beyond the bed, too. One June day, I spent the afternoon in the summerhouse of a bestselling novelist who gardens. We spoke about the difficulty of knowing what to leave in a book, and what to take out. “Think of it like compost,” she advised, gently shaking an imaginary sieve. “You’ve just got to sift, sift, sift.” The next week, a large compost sieve arrived at the door – her talismanic gift. It sat by my desk while I worked on the next manuscript, and then, having submitted a draft, I went out and dealt with the compost I’d been ignoring during months of writing.
I’m still learning to edit in the garden. I built it from scratch, and dread to think how many varieties I shoved in the beds (I kept a spreadsheet for a while, but enthusiasm for such order swiftly evaporated) during its first year. The second one has been different – and arguably more interesting to witness. Aside from a splurge on bulbs and sweet pea seeds in September, I’ve bought nothing new. Last autumn I lifted and divided perennials, such as hardy geraniums, artemisias and heucheras, spreading them through the beds, and did the same with ferns in patio containers this spring.
This second-year garden is less showy – there have been fewer types of flowers – but more cohesive and fondly familiar. I do pine for certain long-lost perennials, a couple of dark purple angelicas and a giant scabious that I so enjoyed last year, but there’s hardly been room for them with the anemones and x Alcalthaea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’ bulking up. Bronze fennel took to the fore in spring and summer, and with the exception of ripping one plant out for a delectable pesto (I recommend adding anchovies). I’ve loved having it stretch out and waft all over the place, entirely where it pleases.
Soon, of course, I’ll be editing again. There’s a Phlomis russeliana in entirely the wrong place, and some of those fennel offshoots need to be dealt with. Each time, there’s more room for the plants that demand it for themselves, and more time to sit back and watch them.
Subscribe to Gardens Illustrated for Alice Vincent's monthly columns
13 issues for £30 when you subscribe
Subscribe to Gardens Illustrated magazine and receive your first 13 issues for £30!
Transform your Garden- Special Edition
Transform Your Garden
This special edition features advice on designing your garden from the world’s top garden designers, including top tips for redesigning your plot or creating a new garden from scratch.
Discover eight inspirational gardens in town and country, and beautiful planting ideas for year-round colour. Learn how to make the most of a small space, how to cope with a slope, and the ten most common mistakes people make, according to professional garden designers, and how to avoid them.
Enjoy insights on everything from paths and parking spaces to wildflowers and water features, so that you can be confident in starting to create the garden of your dreams.
Just £9.99 inc UK p&p
Gardens of the Globe
From botanical wonders in Australia to tranquil havens closer to home in Ireland, let this guide help you to discover some of the most glorious gardens around the world