How much is too much downtime in the garden? Designer and writer Michael McCoy posed the question in his lecture in the Sydney Botanic Garden’s Design Series recently. (Fans of McCoy will have discovered his The Gardenist blog already; the rest of you are in for a treat!) It was a rainy cold day in Sydney in a string of rainy cold days. My own garden was a sodden mess. It’s a bog on the southern side when the winter-low sun puts it in day-long deep shade. The frangipanis are adorned with a few straggling, discoloured, rust-spotted leaves; the perennials have collapsed; and the bananas are hail-shredded rags. So, it was the right time to be asking the question, and my answer was ‘Not this much!’
But I’ll change my mind come summer, when the frangipani and brugmansia are in deliciously scented bloom, the perennials are lush and full, the gingers and bananas are unfurling and the whole thing is alive with the exuberance of new growth and masses of flower. That’s when I remember that you can’t have the fabulous up-time unless you’re willing to endure some downtime.
Of course, downtime is negotiable. Gardens can be beautiful year-round; the price you pay is change. A static garden is not the kind of garden Michael McCoy likes to create. Just the opposite; he loves a garden of seasonal drama, where each week the picture changes and develops so that at the peak of the growing season the whole thing reaches a pitch of volume and display that takes your breath away. And then in winter it’s cut to the ground.
McCoy was inculcated into the joys and challenges of deeply detailed planting by a summer spent as a young and impressionable gardener with the master gardener Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Dixter is renowned for the inventiveness of its plantings and the amazing succession of effects in its borders over a long, but not year-long, period. McCoy asked Lloyd how he managed it. Lloyd told him the secret was to pick one moment when the garden would be at its peak and to plant to that. Once the peak was settled the show could be extended with other plantings, as long as they never compromised the high point.
This is not how most of us plan and plant our gardens. Instead we aim towards something for all seasons. We make an exception for major events, like a wedding or a big party. And that experience shows just how right Lloyd’s maxim is. A deadline brings a single-minded focus to the project of creating a garden. Plant choices become clear, as does the schedule of works.
Without a date fixed by destiny, what peak would you pick? The social frenzy of Christmas and New Year, winter Sundays, your own birthday? My favourite time to be in the garden is March. I’m home, the sunshine is long and mild, the light is lovely and daylight saving stretches it into evening. Following the LLoydian rules then, I should pitch my plant choices and my pruning schedule to a March peak, and take the medicine of winter’s downtime.