Thursday, November 3, 2011

With a little help from my (blogging) friends

As part of the autumn tidy-up, I decided to revamp the pots outside the back doors. We have two sets of glass sliding doors, and in the middle, against the wall, I've always had some sort of large specimen plant. Currently - and satisfactorily - it is a Trachycarpus wagnerianus, which throws nice sharp shadows against the wall when the sun hits it.

It was in a huge galvanised steel container, which was supposed to look modern and chic. While it was busy looking modern and chic, it slowly rusted to pieces and I had to replace it. I decided to get a glazed pot, which in my experience survive frost and wet far better.
I've also edited down the number of pots in this grouping, which I think looks far smarter, especially in winter when flowering container plants (such as daffodils or irises or tulips) tend to look more upright and formal than summer versions such as pelargoniums or Lotus berthelotii, which scramble everywhere.
But what really made me look closely at rearranging this grouping was patientgardener's comment on this blog a while ago that the heights of the pots needed to be more varied.
This is how it looked in summer (below). As you can see, there are more pots, many at the same sort of height, so the effect is one of sprawling chaos.

Not that I have anything against sprawling chaos, mind - but what I was trying to achieve was the effect of the pots outside Great Dixter (below). Revisiting this photograph, I realised that while I'd achieved the effect of lots of pots (not exactly a brain-teaser), what I'd failed to achieve was the graduated height of the display. Much more tricky.
If you ever get the chance to hear Fergus Garrett, the head gardener at Great Dixter, give a lecture (and do go, if you can - he's a terrific speaker) you will be told that achieving this change of levels is one of the most crucial elements of a good design.

The point of all this is that sometimes we need an objective eye assessing what we do, or someone to bounce ideas off, or simply someone with whom to commiserate when things go pear-shaped in the garden. For me, blogging provides this in a way that family (not that interested), or friends (too polite to criticise), or books (informative, but not exactly responsive!) do not.
Many of the people whose blogs I read are professional gardeners and/or designers. Some are talented and passionate amateurs. Some have grandchildren; some have young families; some are retirees; many work full-time. But what they all share is a huge appetite for information, and an enthusiasm for their subject.
The result is access to something that is like a cross between a database and a 24-hour Q&A session. How on earth did we ever garden before the internet, I wonder?
According to the Garden Media Guild, who hold their annual awards ceremony on 30 November, there were eight candidates for the blog of the year award in 2008. This year there are 31.
Not everyone sees the proliferation of these cyber-communicators as a good thing, however. Many - not all - professional gardening writers object to being judged alongside "amateur" writers. They complain that bloggers undercut their rates, and pinch their space, on the basis that publishers, with an eye to their budgets, will persuade bloggers to write for nothing - or very little - thus depriving the professionals of their livelihood.
I used to have some sympathy for this view - writing is a perilous enough occupation, financially speaking, without having to compete with contributors for whom the kudos is more important than the cash.
On the whole, though, I'm becoming increasingly impatient with it. Most "professional" garden writers - ie, those who make their living at it - have no formal writing or journalism qualifications. As someone who has done the National Council for the Training of Journalists certificate, a two-year formal newspaper apprenticeship in the provinces, plus 30 years up the sharp end in Fleet Street, I fail to see quite how they come to be so snobbish about their journalistic abilities.
This is not to say they can't write - many write beautifully, of course. But so do lots of bloggers. And sure, they may have horticultural qualifications - but then, so do lots of bloggers.
The sharing of information - whether it's advice from a fellow blogger about how to overwinter my dahlias, or an account of a visit to a famous garden - can only be of benefit to everyone. When it comes to activities such as gardening, an increase in knowledge usually leads to an increase in enthusiasm - and that means more hits for the bloggers and more book sales for the established writers.