Ideas vs good ideas

Somerset Maugham wrote in his ‘The Summing Up’ that the only safe place to be in regard to ideas is to have so many of them that you don’t place too much weight on any particular one of them.  This is never truer than in the garden.

I remember many years ago having a conversation with David Glenn in which he expressed his frustration with garden writers that built whole articles around ideas they’d had for planting combinations, when it was his experience (and mine) that most ideas don’t work, or need very substantial fine-tuning or reconfiguring before they can be made to work.  At very best they lead to an idea that does work.

I’d loved the textural combo of Digitalis ferruginea (those upright spikes) and Stipa gigantea (the golden grass) in my head, but the client reported back that the constant swaying of the grass-heads (part of their charm) was causing damage and deformity to the rising stems of the Digitalis. It wound up not being that much of a problem, but who’d have thought?

It’s a bit easier to discern a good hard-landscaping idea from a bad one, as there’s less variables than with planting (the biggest challenge of the latter being the aligning of flowering times – which is never a problem with built structures).  But there’s still plenty of mistakes to be made, or at least hurdles to overcome, before an idea can really be considered a good one.

This has all come to the fore since pruning my box the other day.  This makes up short pieces of curving hedge that arc about a third of the way around each of my raised vegetable beds.  When I thought this idea up, I thought I was pretty clever. I didn’t put it in the brilliant category, but considered that it at least ticked the ‘smart’, ‘original’ and ‘whimsical’ boxes.

I also decided I’d make the raised beds up of two different tones of pretty much the same colour of Colourbond.  The idea (a good one? It was too early to say…) was to produce a false shadow line like that shown in Van Sweden and Oehme’s ‘Bold Romantic Gardens’(right).  I carefully arranged all of the joins so that they all aligned and faced the sun in the same way, just as they would if the sun shone on them.  The idea totally failed.  Not only does it not look at all like a shadow line, it just looks like I didn’t have enough of one material.  I couldn’t have known that without trying – perhaps you could have, but I couldn’t.  Pretty much since they were finished, I’ve mildly regretted not having made them of galvanized iron.

But I’m snipping away at the hedge, which is only just now, after three years, tall enough to tell whether the idea worked visually, and kept standing back to see if I liked the effect.  At some point I pulled the hedge away from the Colourbond, and gasped – almost gagged – at revealing the second biggest nest of snails in the southern hemisphere.

In the millisecond following, I knew I’d solved the mystery of where all those snails were coming from every time it looked like raining, and that I’d damned an otherwise fun idea forever.  Unless I can solve the snail problem, the hedge’ll have to go.

It wasn’t old Somerset’s intention to reduce our confidence in the quality of our ideas, but to make us unafraid to chuck ‘em out and try something else.

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