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16 March 2014
Ben Pentreath

It’s been a bit of a secret of mine, really, but since last summer, around about the time I came back from Italy, the garden has been completely out of control. Like an errant teenager that you used to get on with and was very beautiful and friendly but which suddenly found drink and hard drugs and went completely mad, it was utterly resistant to any subtle hints at improvement.

And let’s face it, nothing looks as neglected as a neglected garden.  Here’s a little snapshot from last September…

P1160987To be fair, it had (or is that has?) been a crazy few months in the office. From time to time I’d wake up in the middle of the night worrying about how I was ever going to cope, but then it all seemed like a bit too much to think about and quite definitely a problem for another day. Not so long ago, at a social club party, my landlord wondered if I’d abandoned the house entirely (it has been known to happen from time to time in the village).

Well, the good news has been another secret. Underneath all the apparent chaos, I have had a new gardener, Marcos, helping, and he’s been a genius. Throughout the grim winter he’s been doggedly working away on all sorts of major tasks: sorting out hedges and banks, clearing areas that had run completely away, planting new box trees, getting bulbs in, just in time. People often say to me ‘you can’t possibly manage the whole thing yourself’ but for a little while that was in the fact the case. My great friend Liz, who in the early days was helping me for a couple of hours on a Friday, got too busy with her own beautiful walled garden down the lane in the village. Her friend Midori had been helping next, but then she had to stop a while back. And for about 18 months, last year, I thought I’d give it a go completely myself. To start with, all went well. This time last year, for instance, the long, cold, lingering winter meant I could easily get ahead.  Looking back at some posts from about this time last year, it all looks rather spick and span. Hmmm. Don’t be fooled.P1160587Spot the dandelions growing through the path? Spot the little poppy seedlings in the left hand bed?  Trouble was brewing.

P1010208By midsummer, it all still looked fine…. but the garden was really a riot of weeds that are hidden in the soft morning mist. The pale purple poppies look all very pretty and delicate. But they were the start of no end of trouble.

By the time I got back from Italy, things in the garden had gone seriously mad, as you may recall if you’ve been reading the blog for a little while.  [Incidentally, if you haven’t, be sure to check out the fantastic new archive pages here, if you want to waste an hour or two].

P1170008 P1170023You see what I mean?

Things were even less well off elsewhere. Masses of rather big tasks were not happening at all. In desperation I called Liz. “Do you know anyone who could help, Liz?”, I said. And she put me in touch with Marcos.

It couldn’t have been better timing – not least because life in the office was simultaneously going really crazy, and I was finding it increasingly hard to get long visits down to Dorset. When I did, I had too many drawings that needed doing to a deadline. The garden was having to wait. So Marcos got going. We agreed a list of tasks that seemed to get longer with each meeting, rather than shorter. All winter long, in those dark, drenched months, I have to be honest – London seemed a bit less gloomy than Dorset, and I tended to hibernate in Queen Square.  My visits became more and more fleeting. But each time I did come, I could be sure to notice some subtle but important improvement.

So suddenly we’ve burst out in to spring and everything is looking under control for the first time in what feels like years. Marcos’s final major task on the winter tasks list was to completely clear the veg garden, and this week – which was the cause of some debate, I seem to remember, about 18 months ago (when I first made the suggestion) he planted a little box hedge around all the beds. I’ll be interested to know what you think? I love them. And even if the garden does go chaotic now, it will be framed chaos, and I think that makes a difference.

The weekend was sparkling…. perfect. It would be a lie to say I didn’t have any work to catch up on – I did – but by midday today it was all finished. I leapt into action and planted broad bean plants and kale, and three rows of new potatoes. In addition to a few house tasks as well. The sort of weekend that I love; being down here by myself, pottering, losing my mind entirely to the task at hand, and catching up. Supper last night with my brother and sister-in-law up the road near Beaminster. Ideal.

So here’s to a nice simple garden-y sort of blog. Uncomplicated. Flooded with spring sunshine. And rather full of optimism. I hope you’re feeling the same? Ironically, all we need now is some rain.

P1000899P1000893P1000895P1000897P1000896P1010581P1010583P1010584P1010588P1010574P1010594P1010597P1010609P1010613P1010616P1000913P1010563P1010566My final secret is that, with Will and Maggie, we’ve given up drinking for lent.  Not quite for religious reasons, I must admit, but have you ever tried it? Believe me, I’m missing my glass of nice red wine or four while I’m writing the blog this evening. But I confess to having not slept so well in years. The evenings are so insanely dull that there is nothing to do but head to bed at about 9 o clock; I sleep through the night (unheard of) and bounce out of bed, full of energy, at some ungodly hour like 5am. I’ve blasted through my list of things to do like I’m on a drug. Could life possibly get more boring? No, it really really could not.

14 comments on this post

Ben, your poppy comment made me smile: no end of trouble! Reminds me of the time I let the garden literally go to seed, thinking I was feeding the birds all winter. Come spring, I had an inches thick, absolutely solid carpet of verbena bonarensis seedlings. I’m still trying to get it under control.

Thumbs up on the petite box hedge! I tried to do something similar years ago with germander, which I’d read had been used in medieval times for making knot gardens. A case of a romantic association taking precedence over practicality. Stick with box!

You are so lucky to have Marcos—not to mention so successful as to be able to afford hired help! I have none (occasionally I commandeer my son) and my garden shows it. It’s been shrinking as my arthritis progresses and my free time goes elsewhere. So it is wonderful to have your garden of delights available for vicarious visits. Many thanks!



Am utterly in love with those glass cloches! Don’t they look like a little village in the middle of the vegie garden?

I, too, went mad on our garden last year, planting with no thought for the future, and certainly with no thought that the plants might GROW. Six months later, the salvias have shot to the sky, the box balls are crowding out the lavender (actually they’re fighting and it’s getting rather messy now), and the geraniums are as high as hedges. Do you follow the gardening rule of a $20 hole for a $10 plant? Well, we dug $200 holes, throwing all manner of blood and bone and compost into the beds and the plants clearly thought they were at a horticultural party, swigging on crates of Chateau Lafite. The only plant that didn’t do well was the Barbra Streisand rose (like her namesake, she doesn’t like making appearances). So this weekend we’re pulling everything apart and thinning out the ‘garden party’ a little!

But isn’t that what gardening’s all about? A constant tussle with Mother Nature to see who wins?


Lovely to behold. The stuff of dreams, even the weedy pictures. Such a difference from our pots of veg sitting on the disintegrating city driveway.

I gave up wine last year after decades of 2 glasses of red every night. Everyone says it so healthy, but it’s actually all sugar. Swapped to locally made, organic moonshine. No sugar, no carbs, and the flavor stands up very well to water.

It has fallen to my dear husband to drink his way through our cellar, and he is not complaining. He has a good constitution.

Your gardens are so gorgeous no matter what stage they’re in–at least your photos of them are eye candy to me. It looks like such a productive garden too. I can only manage to give up wine a few days here, a week there during Lent. I find if I can get past the happy hour period I’m okay. Yes, more productive on those days.


It’s definitely a relief to know that your gorgeous garden sometimes looks less than its gorgeous best. I wonder if your house ever has an unruly teenager moment? Would love a peek!!!
My new house in Dorset is still at the toddler tantrum stage, and the garden too, so you give me hope. If only I had your energy and discipline. Am planning mown paths through long grass dotted with oxeye daisies, and relying on the ‘borrowed landscape’ , which I have to admit is pretty stunning, for the wow factor.

David Decker-Dranesays:

Teetotaling for Lent here as well. Agree with you on all counts.


Thank you for being honest about your gardening. I’ve always tried to strike the balance that suits me between too much control and too much letting go, and for my pains I’ve got serious box blight. I’m in East Devon, only a hop, skip and jump away. Monty Don is digging his box hedges up finally and burning them. What can you do? Nature wins! Again!

Ben, Everything looks wonderful—love the boxwood hedge. I need a Marcos in my garden!
xo, lissy

Liza Vandermeersays:

Thank you, Ben, for being so up-front about what was really happening in your garden – I often find blogs discouraging, since it seems that EVERYONE else is managing to keep everything running smoothly and looking lovely ALL THE BLOODY TIME – I know that’s not really true, but it’s hard not to compare one’s own life and see it fall short of the apparent blogosphere standards. So glad you’ve got a good gardener to help you out, and here’s to a satisfactory 2014 gardening season. Where I am in northern Ontario (Canada) it’s still -20 at night, and over 75 cm of snow on the ground – but spring will come, eventually!

Erica W.says:

It looks wonderful and I vote in favor of the hedges. Can’t wait to see them grow up and together. I love looking at these photos of life emerging from the ground — we’re still frozen solid and have lingering snow where I live, so these are such a treat.

so what i think you’re trying to tell me is that i should drink more. am well versed in the up at 5 routine.

the garden is looking glorious. but i was fooled by last year’s unruly teenager as well.

southern galsays:

LOVE the box hedges…. have some in my wee garden. (and its very wee).

so glad you found a good gardener to keep things in check for you.


i love the little box edging and of course, you know i absolutely love every single thing about your garden.
we’re sliding into autumn here in australia and i can’t wait for some rain.
have a great week.

Sometimes this blog seems to hover, tantalisingly, in a magical realm, but this post transports it squarely into the human. So instead of being dissolved into a puddle of pure, unalloyed homesickness, I’m reminded that other people also drop the ball once in a while, hide out in London, struggle to keep it all together. It’s a good reminder and a wonderful post and I thank you for sharing your ‘secrets’.

And yes, isn’t not drinking a pain in the arse, rendering life much more boring and more virtuous, while at the same time bringing benefits that are so undeniable?

I like the box hedges and I am utterly slain by the primmies.

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