The Monster Outside by Valerie Lapthorne

August 20, 2015

in Articles, General Interest

I know this feeling very well, and I think we will not be on our own. Mind you – there are easier ways to garden than this!

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Monster Outside, by Valerie Lapthorne

It sits there all powerful, knowing that I am trapped, knowing that there is no escape for me.  It completely surrounds the house, where I can see it from every window, striking despair into my very guts.  I have become its slave, reacting to its every demand, physically worn down in the process of servicing it. The travesty is that I have created this monster myself. Born of hope and ambition, this living creature, like the cuckoo chick, tossed all competition out of the nest to be the sole offspring of its unsuspecting parent.  Now in its thirtieth year, a mature entity, no longer in its adolescence, its demands are undiminished.  This Monster, my Garden.

TCgarden-room4472 Copyright Valerie Lapthorne

When we moved in, those thirty years ago, the house was a newly converted farm building and the garden a bulldozed farmyard, farm pond, and an ex orchard. Ex in that all the fruit trees were still there, but in varying stages of collapse and regrowth. None of this mattered as the children were all under eleven, and required nothing more. But we did.  The pond, which had been part of a moat around a fortified farm, was full of farm debris, so we set to with the digger, cleared out the ironmongery and, after a couple of failed linings, added a butyl liner, which meant that the children had to miss out on a summer holiday. First big expense.

Copyright Valerie Lapthorne

Gradually came the trees and then the shrubs. This was all new to us and we read about and visited gardens, iconic and otherwise. I signed up for a two-year horticultural course so that I would be able to look after this Garden properly and sat in lectures by the 1980s Grandes Dames of gardening, Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey, Beth Chatto, and John Brookes and Christopher Lloyd.  I bought a greenhouse. This was a good time.

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Then I discovered perennials, those plants that need lifting and dividing, And annuals that need sowing and pricking out and planting. And tulips that flower and then rot exponentially. And weeds, annual hoe-able ones and tenacious underground spreading ones.  And the art of compost making. At this point I needed help. Just one day a week perhaps.

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Now that I had help, I’d make a Sissinghurst white garden and order every white flower in the catalogues, and plant them even if they turn out to be grey-white, pink-white or yellow-white or have flowers so small that they could only be classed as “botanically  interesting”, the ultimate badge of shame for a garden plant.  How about some garden rooms? I need a bit more help here. Perhaps a full week’s help?

And the lawn.  Neighbour warned that underneath the existing field grass is rubble, the stones and hardcore brought in for the cows to stand on. We try to mow it as it is, but after ten years of this, we bring in the digger and take away the top fifty centimetres of rubbish and lorries of topsoil and after leveling and sieving we lay the finest turf and it looks like a bowling green.  Himself spends a good portion of his Saturdays on his knees with a potato peeler, levering out the wrong sort of grass.

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Reading gardening books, practical and aspirational no longer enough. Day release myself to the local horticultural college.  Good for practical stuff. Can graft and prune with the best of them. Garden feels this is not enough, so up a gear to a course of garden design.  Need to put new skills into practice.  Lots of digging and humping of materials.  Looking good. Asked to open for the village Open Gardens Day.  Happy to show off.  Garden knows I am caught. Pressure on to present Garden to outside world. Need to master cream teas.

Must add a potager. No self-respecting Garden is without one.  Battle pigeons, slugs and snails, moths, insects, mice, rabbits.  Spray for diseases.  Gluts of veg and fruit. Supply family and neighbours. Spend extra hours in the kitchen, freezing and bottling. Nothing nicer than a stocked larder of jams and a bulging freezer. Buy an extra freezer.   Find I prefer to nip to Tesco Express for potatoes than don wellies in the rain and search in the mud for clay caked spuds.  Work out that it is costing me £50 a cauli, if I pay myself minimum wage.  Perhaps I need some extra help.

 

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Thirty years have past in a haze of sowing, planting, pruning, mowing, spraying and the knees and hips are giving out.  I find the effort of getting down to sit and weed means I stay down long after the reachable area is finished and stretch out on the grass and watch the clouds scud by. Buy a stool and a long handled hoe.  Soon my gardening life will be reduced to thumbing through plant catalogues.

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Now you will expect me to say that, as I walk in bare feet through the garden at summer dusk assailed by evening perfumes, that it has all been worthwhile. Well I won’t and it hasn’t.

Valerie Lapthorne

Website

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Valerie December 5, 2015 at 7:16 am

I have had a number of house rentals over the years and there is little pleasure in just keeping them tidy. I used to claim a few areas for myself as you have done with your shade border and your pots and coffee spot. (Graffiti the oil tank!) and I concentrated on a small south facing back yard with geraniumed window boxes and pots when the surrounding garden was an overgrown dank Victorian mess. Is it a forlorn hope that when your landlord sees what you have done in part, he will relent and allow more? World I have met you st Gardeners World show at the NEC in 2014?

Katherine Crouch December 5, 2015 at 11:12 am

don’t think I went to GWL last year….

I guess the landlord doesn’t give a hoot what I do to the place, soft landscaping wise, like trimming hedges, making veggies patches and borders and infesting the place with a Monstrous number of pots. It’s hard landscaping issues and boundaries that let the place down. The owners see no value in improving the place at all. Still if they do sell it, it won’t sell for as much as it would if it was surrounded by what I have in mind. Sadly, that often costs more to install than is gained in sale value. Sigh. Again.

Katherine Crouch December 1, 2015 at 12:27 am

I realized a while ago that I derive much more pleasure from developing a garden from mud to maturity, and a lot less pleasure managing the maturity thereafter, despite the introduction of new plants and culling of the too old. Now in my fairly horrid (rented) garden I am happy to take the whole winter off and allow the Monster to roam free, only to be recaptured in spring. It gives us both a rest.

Valerie Lapthorne December 4, 2015 at 10:57 am

Sounds like you have it sussed.

Curiosity=what makes your rented house garden fairly horrid?

Katherine Crouch December 4, 2015 at 7:36 pm

well, it has a shady strip of lawn about 9 feet wide between the east side of the house and the road. The boundary is a bramble infested dead privet hedge separating us from the busy A358. This is now half veggie and strawberry patch which is sunless from 11am.

Along the south side under a 16 foot long garden room (good thing, now over-wintering my succulents) it was laid to scruffy grass, and is now part sunny veggie patch, with walkway to front, and about 12 feet wide. The boundary is half dead conifer, about to be reduced from 8 feet tall to 4 feet, which should see it off completely. There is a small weedy flower border to be cleared out for some dahlias and zinnias next spring. A reclaimed quince tree was planted at the west end of this patch and underplanted with shade ground cover, beside the drive boundary of choisya, berberis and mahonia.

The west side is a concrete yard between kitchen and separate large garage, home to spring and summer pots, and my succulents after mid May. It is quite nice sitting out there with a mug of coffee, trying not to look at the oil tank. A 3 foot round hole in the concrete is home to a pieris and some grasses. Whoopi-do…

On the far side of the garage is a sloping patch of grass surrounded by holly and escallonia and bramble hedges, with a hazel at the north end and a rowan at the south end, and an odd little corner at the end of a parking space which I have had fun planting a shade garden, ferns, acer, hakonechloa, geraniums and so on. The patch of grass 30 x 15 feet, is now a repository for garden business clobber and more clobber (partner is a clutterbug, worse than me). We barbecue here in the summer.

This, and the veggie patch and the pots are sort of ok. I am not inspired to do much more. I lack ownership, financially and emotionally. If it was mine, I should rip out most of the boundaries and establish new hedges of beech or yew, and redesign the spaces, but I am not allowed such major changes by the owner (I did ask) and it would be foolish to spend money on boundaries and hard landscaping in a rental.

The small spaces available for gardening at least are not Monstrous, but I do hanker for a medium sized Monster of my very own to love and be tyrannized by. I am bored, and am now gardening like an ordinary householder, which is to say, not very much by my standards. It’s probably just as well – I spend a lot of time sorting out other peoples’ horrid gardens and do not really have the mental energy for Monster management. Sigh.

annewareham December 4, 2015 at 9:44 pm

Vouch for all that. Wish we could magic you into your dream home, Katherine.

Katherine Crouch December 5, 2015 at 1:00 am

one day….by which time I will need muscular help…..just picturing that…..

Valerie Lapthorne December 5, 2015 at 1:50 pm

Good landscaping does seem to speed up a sale, and if the landlord is paying a mortgage on an unlet house, doing nothing is a false economy..

Roll on spring.

Amy Murphy November 30, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Wow, this is an honest essay. My garden is only 11 years old but for the past 2 seasons or so I have been feeling less enthusiastic about working in the garden. Where once I spent every waking minute either in the garden or planning it or studying for it now my interests are more diverse. I haven’t mentioned this to anyone so far, partly because I am wondering if this is a phase that will pass, or if the garden time will come to pass. But after all the effort and sacrifices and expense and how much meaning it gave me, I am more than a little reluctant to give it up.

annewareham November 30, 2015 at 11:58 pm

Unexpected good things sometimes emerge from change. I wonder what will emerge for you – maybe a different way of gardening?

Valerie Lapthorne December 1, 2015 at 7:01 am

I think the key is “my interests are more diverse”. That sounds exciting. I think you should speak up and share your concerns. Are there others who can pitch in and help, or will you have to accept that you must look at ways to reduce the workload? That is something that is inevitable with the passing of time anyway. We paved Dad’s small lawn when he could no longer manage the mower and he gave up his veg gardening as we are now doing, using part of the veg garden to propagate our own shrubs and using Tesco for the veg. It sounds as though it is not deterioration in health or income that is restricting you, but new things on the horizon, Try revisiting other gardens again to see if you can fan the sparks back into flame. I was impressed by Carrie Preston’s November photographs of Beth Chatto’s garden and could see things I wanted to do similarly and was enthused. Others have downsized their gardens- Penelope Hothouse, Sybille Kreutzberger, (following house moves so I suppose that is not the same as reducing the workload) and Andrew Lawson went from painter to brilliant garden photographer and gardener, back to painter again. I have done things in blocks of ten years, ten years of a hanging basket nursery ( yes I know but no-one else was doing it at the time and it was trendy,,) ten years at the Botanic Garden, then photography degree and now I’m trying to finish that damned book, before I kick the bucket. So don’t feel guilty about moving sideways.

Perhaps Anne’s followers can suggest ways to “garden differently” or share how they downsized. The Bloom boys did it in the seventies with their evergreens and conifers, but would this style be acceptable today when everyone is recreating American prairies? My daughter has just moved into a house with a mature garden influenced by the Blooms, that just needs the flowering shrubs trimming. She couldn’t understand why I was leaping around excitedly exclaiming how ideal it was for a working couple. Although I did give them a small bag or two of choice bulbs.

annewareham December 4, 2015 at 11:37 am

I am just about to write a book on that very subject..(how to garden differently and so much more easily!)Xxx

Valerie Lapthorne December 4, 2015 at 11:46 am

Beat me to it! Shall be first in the queue for a copy.

annewareham December 4, 2015 at 12:03 pm

That’s encouraging. Excellent.

ali September 4, 2015 at 2:31 am

Well…Here I sit also in the Gulf Islands of Canada reading a blog about our mutual madness…love of gardening. My garden mostly survived the drought of the century. This has taught me that Mediterranean is the way to go. I also learned that I have to keep in good physical shape…exercise…so that I can KEEP WORKING THE MONSTER. Yes I hope to stay here and be carried out feet first. Oh yes…I will be 70 years old my next birthday.

Valerie November 27, 2015 at 7:46 am

I have been thrilled at the comments from all over the place as a result of my post. Aren’t gardeners a nice bunch of people?
We have just changed all the grouping of pots around the front door for winter interest, evergreens and camellias and. bulbs and apologised to the postman as he stretched through the foliage to reach the postbox, and started to move pots to make room. No, no he says. Leave them. It’s the highlight of my day walking into your garden. I was very touched by this. We are now very conscious of the route he takes from gate to door, to make sure it continues to be a pleasure to him.

P.S, Whisper it-I am 71.

annewareham November 27, 2015 at 9:26 am

We have to whisper our ages. We really do live in an ageist society, sadly.

alison August 27, 2015 at 6:17 pm

What a truly wonderful, honest and amusing article. Loved every word of it (oh that I could find the words to write like that). And then came the comments – what a joy they were! I’ve not yet reached the ‘garden as monster’ stage but should I feel it coming on, I will return again to this article for solace and advice, knowing at least that I am not alone.

Valerie August 28, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Annette, forewarned is forearmed. Thank you for adding to the comments. Valerie

Tristan Gregory August 23, 2015 at 6:46 pm

Excellent

Annette August 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Oh you poor people – maybe you should take up golfing? I think gardens can easily turn into monsters but that’s all down to the gardener him-/herself and the standards you’re setting for yourself. If you want your garden to look like Sissinghurst…well then, it can’t be helped and you shouldn’t complain about a hurting back or lost illusions. I’ve also noticed -not least in myself- that ambition is a big issue and it can take control, so watch out! I’ve a large garden too but it helps that I embrace a naturalistic style. This doesn’t mean that my garden drowns in ‘weeds’ but that the planting is relaxed, all within an orderly framework though. Weeding takes up very little time and I can actually enjoy a book on my lounger without the urge to jump up when I see the ‘wrong grass’ in the lawn (by the way, I’d suggest a wildflower lawn, much more beautiful anyway). I’ve been through that as well, fighting moss in my Irish garden (hello Don Quichote). As you get older, you ought to get wiser though and the hardest part may be to decide when the time to downscale has come. Well written, Valerie, but no, my garden is one of my greatest pleasures and certainly not a monster. I just love it!

Valerie August 24, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Thanks Annette. We have already oversown the lawn with a more robust grass mix which requires less attention, so no more sorties with the potato peeler. This is a step in the right direction, I feel, but the “downsizing” word is the elephant in the room, at the moment.

Katherine Crouch August 23, 2015 at 12:38 pm

I am frequently trying to persuade country clients to have orchard gardens.

Given an acre in my fifties or sixties, I would plant fruit trees on semi-dwarfing rootstocks, plant hosts of fine leaved varieties of daffodils in mower-friendly groups, and sow with fine wild grasses and white clover, selfheal, yellow rattle, birds-foot trefoil etc. While still reasonably active I would faff about introducing more bulbs and turf tolerant perennials, mowing paths once a week, other bits once a month and the bulby bits in August and the whole lot in early winter.

In my nineties, I will blearily eye up fit young students mowing the grass and fit young tree surgeons pruning the trees in the winter, while I sit in my shepherd’s hut with six cats, smoking a pipe and drinking home made plum brandy and quince vodka.

Sadly I shall have neither the acre, hut, nor the money to squander on fit young men, but it is a nice thought. I do have the plum brandy….

Valerie August 24, 2015 at 4:54 pm

So you will have to have at least one plum tree, Katherine.

Katherine Crouch August 25, 2015 at 6:31 pm

….at least. Well certainly Victoria. Oh and a Czar. and Mirabelle, and, and, and……another happy monster in the making!

Patrick Regnault August 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

Thank you very much for this exquisitely written piece.
We have 9 acres in the subtropics and have accepted long ago to let nature take its course. Mowing takes 3hrs and is done once a fortnight in the growing season (9 months of the year) the rest is given to trees and grass to grow as they please apart for around the house. The result is lots of wonderful small birds feeding in the wild grass, pigeons and colorful rain forest birds seen flying about.
I forgot to say that I am a Landscape Gardener and very aware of the tyranny of maintenance when I design a garden.

Valerie August 24, 2015 at 4:52 pm

It looks as though I should take a leaf out of your book, Patrick.

Katherine Crouch August 22, 2015 at 4:29 pm

That made me chuckle!

Having freed myself from slavery (left husband and cottage and garden and allotment) I now have a rented cottage with very little garden and a concrete yard. I am now enslaved by over 100 pots which need daily watering and have turned a 2 x 5 metres patch of lawn over to herbs and vegetables. There is prospect of another allotment.

There is no emancipation, only a change of workload…..

Valerie Lapthorne August 22, 2015 at 10:05 pm

Something in the DNA perhaps.

Charles Hawes August 22, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Nice post. We are currently at roughly one day a week of getting help in the garden, though I can certainly see that increasing in the next few years. Which we may be able to afford if we keep opening the garden to visitors, but at some point we may be conflicted about whether we have someone to help us get up and dressed or whether we just rot in bed and have someone keep the garden going. I suspect that before we get to that point we are going to have to accept an even more relaxed attitude to the maintenance of the garden. But I am not sodding well leaving here!

Valerie Lapthorne August 22, 2015 at 4:22 pm

Watch this space, hey?

Jenny McKee August 21, 2015 at 10:04 pm

Valerie, You have hit my particular nail on the head. I live on a Gulf Island off the west coast of Canada. We have a dry mediterranean summer and deluging rain, wind and snow in the winter. I have laboured the last ten years (this is retirement) on this garden of 11 acres( three gardened?) and was just getting to the spot this spring when I was quite happy with the results. Then the drought of the century hit. I have lost countless trees, shrubs and perennials. What survived the rabbits,deer and birds have now taken. Downhearted at first, I am going to use this to spur on a complete garden redesign which should hopefully carry me through my old age (which is fast approaching). I refuse to move or give up but don’t want to spend every waking hour a slave. I love gardening but I want my plants to work for me not visa versa! Ultimate goal is to sit in the garden with a glass of wine and enjoy it.
Good luck to you and to me.

Valerie Lapthorne August 22, 2015 at 4:21 pm

I am encouraged by your positivity.

Sarah Coles August 21, 2015 at 6:18 pm

If the monster’s children are sickly, I don’t nurse them – I put them to death. I can’t resist growing runner beans, but only because they are easy and delicious and unstringy. And also parsley, i must have parsley, but no other veg which means we can now glory in the cabbage whites fluttering around. No tricky delicates, just the tough and tested. A friend saw the monster for the first time the other day and said ‘oh you’ve got a wild garden’ – times have changed and she meant it as a compliment and so i took it as such.

Valerie Lapthorne August 22, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Of course, because that’s the way you have subliminally designed it!

Sylvia O'Brien August 21, 2015 at 6:16 pm

Oh dear. This could have been me writing this – although I couldn’t have expressed it so well. The sad thing is that there is no cure for it. We got ourselves a caravan on the West Wales coast to try and escape but I am digging a bed all around it and experimenting with coastal plants. Having got rid of the polytunnel back home and done all those things Anne suggests it really is time to downsize, I fear, but already I am making plans for a new small garden though I haven’t a clue where it will be. Anyone want to buy a house in the Black Mountains with a few acres and a ready made garden? Hopefully we will find someone with more self control than me who will be happy to sit and look at the view while the garden grows and encloses around them.

Valerie Lapthorne August 22, 2015 at 4:17 pm

Its a good sign that you are planning a new small garden, rather than hankering after the one you will be leaving behind. You will then recapture the fun and energetic stage. Valerie

annewareham August 21, 2015 at 3:32 pm

I hope I’m allowed to add some thoughts. I do know this feeling, because we have four acres and gardens are expensive to maintain. Mainly for us because of our need for hedge cutting. And renovation – wood rots, diseases hit, plants die.

But also I’m very aware of how garden practices can make keeping a garden so much harder than it need be. The mood is gentler now, more informal, ‘naturalistic’ and easy going, and so cutting grass less, giving up hard clipped lawn edges, cutting down your plants on the spot (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardeningadvice/10617545/Strim-your-way-to-sanity.html), giving up growing vegetables and soft fruit, are all painless ways of making life easier and also of improving the appearance of a garden in keeping with the current trends.

I’ve never lifted and divided a plant unless I’d just taken it out of a pot and wanted two. I don’t stake (see http://veddw.com/general/the-hampton-court-chop-stake-out/). And so on.

It makes me sad to think of people giving up well loved homes because of the difficulty of gardening in the old fashioned ways, and I’m sure they do. It’s another whole topic in itself. (or a book, and yes, I am talking to my publishers.)

richard jackson August 21, 2015 at 3:14 pm

Dear Valerie,

A beautifully written piece and I know the feeling only too well.

In fact, when moving house one of the major considerations for me is the size of the garden and how much time it will take me to keep it as I want it.

Valerie Lapthorne August 22, 2015 at 4:07 pm

My father was persuaded to leave his home and garden to move close by. We prepared an allotment for him, and asked him to come with us “to help”, but the idea was to let him take over. However, he rebelled and said forcefully that he didn’t want a damned garden. He wanted to sit on his terrace and read his library book. So, taken aback, we passed the allotment on, and he got his wish and was happy.

Edward Flaherty August 21, 2015 at 12:37 pm

Wonderfully written. A pleasure to read.

Slave you say? 😉 Yet, it pays you and all your readers with breath taking views as you have shared above. A slave working with love and dedication, that’s you. Results–spectacular. And let’s hear it for slave labor!

Valerie Lapthorne August 22, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Thank you Edward for your encouragement. Have a look at my Facebook page for Mill Barn Garden, for more seasonal photographs.

Meta August 21, 2015 at 10:47 am

I so agree with you Valerie. My garden has turned into a monster as well. All my own doings. I do enjoy walking through it and enjoy the scenery, but sometimes I wish it would just go away.

Valerie Lapthorne August 21, 2015 at 11:02 am

Glad you can take a breather and enjoy your handiwork. Thanks for your comment. V.

John August 21, 2015 at 10:42 am

Is the garden really the monster? Or is the monster in each of us, persistently driving us to look after its offspring? This article is more than well-written; it’s beautifully crafted: the humour develops alongside the garden and the denouement is expected yet still surprising. “Do you REALLY mean that?”

I’ve tamed my monster’s offspring by first stopping all veg growing. Then the number of fruit bushes and trees started to reduce. This year has seen my final crop of strawberries, will shortly see the end of my raspberries and I’m thinking of getting rid of the two remaining apple trees. The shrubbery’s all but gone too. Herbaceous perennials and a range of annuals are not hard work and I find now I only spend about nine days a week in the garden. And I enjoy every minute of it.

Valerie Lapthorne August 21, 2015 at 10:59 am

Thank you, John. I am on holiday at the moment and can be more detached and it gives me time to ponder. But what else do I do on holiday? Deadhead the geraniums on the hotel balcony.

Regards, Valerie

Catherine August 20, 2015 at 11:52 pm

Both well written and well said Valerie. Yes, I derive pleasure from my garden but there are definitely periods when I think ‘why exactly am I doing this?’ I think about the things that I miss out on that other people do, and it feels like a leaden weight of responsibility I’ve carefully tailored for my own shoulders. Anything can become an unhealthy addiction and gardening is not exempt because we like to think it’s somehow more worthy than sport or other hobbies.
In all this escalating madness, was there ever an inner (or outer) voice that said “Don’t feed this thing. It is a monster that will devour you”?

Valerie Lapthorne August 26, 2015 at 1:49 pm

Not until recently. V

Mary O Conell August 20, 2015 at 9:26 pm

I love my garden which keeps me sane. It is not a monster. When it rains as it frequently does here in the south of Ireland I feel trapped but when it is dry and more over if it is sunny then Oh joy! How wonderful life is!

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