Cyclical worlds

2 February 2014
Ben Pentreath

garden13It’s been back to reality with a vengeance. The noise of Mexico City and the peace of Tulum seem an age away: hard to believe I’ve only been back a week. Life in the office has been… how can I say?… intense. The briefest trip to Dorset on Wednesday night; back on Thursday afternoon; a lot to do in London, and then of course, yesterday and today, great fun in the shop with our manic clearance sale. It was so good to meet so many customers, and have hiliarious chats, and for Bridie and I to watch the occasional shopper who would spend 45 minutes stalking a £1 item, but then decide, I guess, that it was not quite for them… and we were thrilled to say that the £1 china table started completely laden and ended at 5pm this afternoon completely empty! Our kind of sale. Everyone loves a bargain. And Bridie, Sophie and I just love a clean and tidy stock room.  So I hope we’re all very happy!

How do you spend your dark January evenings? For me, there is no greater pleasure than…

…. well, how can I put it…

reading the plant and seed catalogues. They all arrived just before I left and now it’s time to luxuriate in the promise of warm spring evenings and hot summer days; of the first bite of a new potato, the first broad beans, or peas picked straight from the pod; of abundant courgette plants; sweet corn like you can never taste it from the shop; of a limpid, blowsy flower border gently glowing white in the late dusk of a July evening.

Yes. The catalogues have arrived. There’s nothing quite like it. No hint here of a disappointingly wet spring, or a slug infestation, or a ghastly summer drought, or some other weirdness that attacks all the potatoes or curls the leaves of your rhubarb or means that the asparagus doesn’t produce at all. I can’t help feeling that the catalogues are like the worst form of saccharine religion; pay your dues, dig and work, believe in us… and it will all be okay.

But believe I do. And there’s nothing more spectacular than to dream of high summer in the darkest coldest wettest weeks of the year.

garden34 garden35 garden36You see what I mean?garden39Such combinations! Such crazy colours! Such Lurid, busty photographs, and astonishing descriptive text, and shiny paper… the equivalent of, well…. they are little shy of a certain variety of postcard that you might find stuffed into Phone boxes around and about the centre of London. Garden …porn.

My favourite of all, of course, is when a bit of optimistic photoshop gets rather too carried away:


I badly want some ornamental beds of Impatiens Sun Harmony Mixed, don’t you?  Well, frankly, I’d like some turrets too.

Of course, if you’re after a classier show, there is no better place to turn than our friends over at Sarah Raven.  An entirely different story!garden46 garden45 garden44 garden43 garden42 garden41

I remember years and years ago, when I lived in Norfolk, and first really started gardening, finding Sarah’s book on ‘The Cutting Garden’. It was a revelation. I doubt there are quite that many gardening books from 1996 that are still in print, but you can buy your copy today.  I love it, and still refer to it often.

One of these days I’ll dig out my ancient photographs of my first gardening attempts in Norfolk and write about them. Rather influenced by The Cutting Garden.

For now, though, while we’re dreaming our way through the dark nights, I had a fun time looking back over a few years’ of photographs at the O. P. garden, and especially the vegetable patch, and seeing how things ebb and flow, and take shape.  It started as a lawn and has ended up as something a little mad.garden01 garden02 garden03 garden04 garden05Just planted the tiny box hedges around the newly-laid terrace.garden06

A lovely weekend with Bridie, early days at the Parsonage – right around this time of year, I guess five years ago now. Not much changes!garden07The crazy process of applying a first round of rich organic manure. garden08 garden09 garden10 garden11 garden12Half way through the first summer.garden13 garden14First dahlias.garden15 garden16 garden17 garden18 garden19 garden20 garden21

I think this is year two or three.garden22 garden23The herbaceous border is beginning to take shape.garden24 garden25 garden26

garden27And by last summer, it was getting a bit out of control. One of the tasks this winter has been to make the beds deeper and give all the plants a bit more breathing room. I’m not quite sure why I always plant everything too close together. But I can’t help it.garden28 garden29 garden30 garden31 garden32Late summer last year. garden33

If I’m honest about gardens, what I think I love most of all is that sense of the idea over the reality; the passage of seasons, and the inevitable optimism involved in planning your path now for results in six months time (as much as autumn planting time of spring bulbs is what carries one, mentally, in a single leap through winter). I’m even more in favour of growing vegetables than actually getting around to eating them. What is that about? The power of the garden aesthetic, maybe? I’m not entirely sure, but it is true. I will admit that a lot ends up on the compost heap…

There’s a scene in a book that I read, I guess, when I was about 13 or 14, that affects me still: Neville Shute’s On The Beach, where the young Australian protagonists, knowing that the fallout of nuclear war in the the northern hemisphere is inexorably blowing south, still go ahead and plant a garden full of daffodil bulbs… certain that they will never see them themselves. There is a poignancy in that moment that I still remember. The long, slow, cyclical ebb of gardening, where nothing is fixed, nothing is instant, everything is part of a continuum, and in a strange way does not belong to us or to this moment at all.

That’s what I love about these dark days with the seed catalogues. Do you know what I mean?




22 comments on this post

Thanks for sharing all your beautiful garden pictures! To see before and after pictures is always fun! Now I am very inspired for next years kitchen garden! All the best from Sweden

Absolutely beautiful, the kind of thing I am always trying to achieve in my garden (albeit in miniature!) I wondered if you could tell me what variety of rose you have growing up the parsonage wall?


Beautiful and inspirational! A joy to read as always, thank you Ben.


Thanks Claire! Ben


Ha, I’ve just completed a major renovation on my garden. I always do the same thing, plant too close together, and before you know it, there is absolutely no space to breath! I does look good fast though for people who are impatient for the plants to grow. Love the pictures of the vegetable garden, so attractive. You can’t possibly eat all those vegetables. They are fun to share when one has got over ambitious with the seeds. Good feelings of great bounty. Spring time ahead, one of my favourite seasons. Happy planning.


Ben – kind regards from Germany.
I like your blog and often return to it to see your latest news :-). I just finished my seed-order from Sarah Raven, so it’s nice to see you doing the same (okay – it is the time for it). I like Sarah’s venetian colour mix so much. And her book ‘The bold and brilliant garden’ made me a fan of barnhaven’s primroses.
Her garden and cookbooks are a great inspiration. But it is sad, that only seeds are delivered to the continent :-(.

I like your dark velvet dahlias, but I really get envious of your yellow lupins, the rich cropping and colourful vegetables and all the sunflowers.

Another discovery was the annuall flower garden of Dean Riddle (there are some pictures of it in the net).

Deborah Louise Wagnersays:

This is not just garden porn, Ben. It is filthy, dirty garden porn, particularly the organic manure shot. I almost missed my stop on the train this morning, I was that distracted by it. I really hope no one was peeking over my shoulder or my rep is shot.

I’ll be pawing through the heritage seed catalog, too, figuring out what vegetables to plant in my tubs in the driveway. Such is an inner city life.

Mandy Stevenson Smythsays:

A message to Deby in Canada re Somerset Ark. I am in a little town in the Somerset Levels called Langport. We are being lashed, absolutely lashed by wind and rain and I am surrounded by flood water for as far as the eye can see. On the subject of plants, we must be of like minds; what could be nicer than tulips and dahlias? Might have to sneak some martagon lilies on board though. In the meantime, I watch, I plan, I think and pray very hard that waters will soon recede

Ben, How did I know that ‘seed catalogs’ was going to be the answer to your self-posed question? Your analogy with religion is totally apt, and you are one of their chief acolytes! Here I was, innocently sitting at my work computer, munching my lunchtime pasta with some of last year’s pesto (home-made from my own basil, of course) and looking forward to your weekly post. Suddenly–BLAM!–I’m all over the catalog sites, gardening sites, garden blogs, forums–and I should’ve been back to work a half hour ago! Seriously, your Dorset garden post, replete with swooningly beautiful photos, is the best antidote to this frigid Pittsburgh winter. Thanks for the relief, and the inspiration!


Joyce Morrissays:

Oh The Cutting Garden, so fabulous, so inspirational and still referred to. When I first discovered Sarah I loved that she had done a lot of the work for us by finding seeds and plants in the colours that we all craved. Her bulbs are always very healthy and reliable, again often in the most desirable colours. I have lots of Bill and Ben pots lasagnes up with her tulips, I can’t wait.
LOVE your blog.X

Deby (in Canada)says:

MTSS… sorry you are under water- we are under ice and snow-
Where are you in the Somerset levels- I love that part of England?
For the ark I would bring tulips and dahlias- what will you bring?


Yes, Ben, I know what you mean. Thanks for sharing your stunning garden.


Beautiful, beautiful garden. I too am sitting here with a copy of Sarah Raven’s catalogue (the Parkers is in the post) planning my new garden and wondering how many years before it remotely looks anything like I want it to. I used to think five years, but it’s probably more like eight or more. Important not to hurry I think. Watch, observe, plan. All this optimism and I am gardening on the Somerset Levels currently awash with biblical level water! Perhaps I should be building an ark not planning a garden. I wonder what two plants readers of this blog would take on my Somerset Ark?

Ben,I love your beautiful garden—makes me want to get started on mine. Please post more garden inspiration.
xo, Lissy


Ben – I share your tendency to plant too close together and it means that there is a wonderful moment before it all tips into chaos when it looks superb. Until all of a sudden it doesn’t and the plants are squabbling and hell has broken out. (Rather like parenting actually.) And I too think it can be nicer to grow vegetables than to eat them. They’re often gritty. Need loads of cleaning. Have holes in. Come in uncontrolled portion sizes (Like how many Cavolo Nero leaves do you pick and cook when you’ve got a field full of them to get through before November?) The sheer quantity of them makes them less precious! I hope that one day your dream of having turrets comes true x

Michele Sdougassays:

What a lovely piece about the optimism and human need for gardening. I also wanted to complement you on the lovely piece in the FT Weekend.


Feel like I have had a mini break after viewing such gorgeous pics xx

Nessa Ryallsays:

Lovely pictures to warm a cold damp day.Looking forward to sowing seeds in a new greenhouse yet to be built on my allotment.

Elizabeth Cornwellsays:

What a gorgeous garden! i too love the garden catalogues which I peruse avidly.I then plan & colour co ordinate the plants,& find when they come into bloom that some have obviously moved when I wasnt looking because it never turns out how I planned it!You must have very disciplined plants!

What gorgeous photo’s. Out here in the antipodies (Melbourne Australia) we are sufferring a mammoth heatwave with temperatures passing 40 degrees so everything in the garden just gets burnt to a frazzle so not looking too good. However it is lovely to look at gorgeous seed catalogues in the evening with a cup of tea and dream. I am looking at lots of photo’s of snow and ice to ccol down. Cilla Rule

Nothing more delightful than sitting by the fire (in snowy Wisconsin) imagining this year’s garden with one of my favorite local catalogs that came in yesterday’s mail. (Not quite like On the Beach, but each Spring when my white daffs bloom, I remember planting them in the fall of 2001 as my Sept. 11 memorial.)

Deby (in Canada)says:

Ben Such wonderful seed catalogue porn! and so welcome in the depths of Canadian winter… we are having a mild weekend and it warmed up to zero for a few minutes! All your pictures bring such hope- and I agree about the turrets, think you could create a lovely room for planning the garden in one! The early pictures show what an alarming slope your vegetable garden is on and gives further evidence of your great optimism…
Glad the shop clear out was such a success…
Thanks for sharing and bringing much cheer

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