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.


  1. Noooo! please leave the hedge! It’s the second most magnificent snail gathering spot in the Southern Hempisphere… had a similar experience in my own veggie patch where a large clipped bun of thymus grew on every corner (about 10). For months I wondered where on earth did the snails emerge from in the evening and behold under each bun was a snail gathering. Shattered with the thought of ripping out thymus buns to reduce snail habitat, decided to utilise the buns as a trap and placed just a small amount of snail bait (well out of the way of our Border Collie, Meg) and voila! The thymus buns are now covert snail traps…. possible to try this with your buxus?

    1. Further evidence (in addition to that gathered from my uselessness at chess, nearly all team sports and complex argument) that I’ve had some sort of strategy-lobotomy in the distant past. Why didn’t I think of that?

  2. I look upon your two toned tin with guilt. I was pretty enthusiastic about that idea. I had it down as the first of a world-wide movement of dual toned raised garden beds. I think I actually liked it for a bit. Not so much anymore. Sorry about that. In my head, though, it still works – it just loses it’s way in reality.

    1. It hadn’t occurred to me to blame my friends, but when you think about it, it really is all their fault. They should have known better, even if I didn’t.
      Perhaps Bluescope should share a bit of the blame, for insisting on making Colourbond in muted tones, rather than rich burnt oranges, which might have been really cool coupled with the grey.

      Nah, worry not, W. I probably would have gone ahead and done it anyway, despite your discerning warnings. And anyway, my whole point is that often you can’t tell a great idea from a good one, or a good one from an ordinary one, or an OK one from a bad one until you try. This was never a bad idea as such (good heavens, I’m now defending it..), but it’s clear that its not going to instigate any world-wide movement, of any sort.

  3. Reminiscent of my first veggie garden, edged it in buxus, watched it grow, trimmed it and trimmed it, watched the vegetables grow smaller and smaller each year. It wasn’t just the snails it harboured, it was the mat of encroaching buxus roots! I ended up with beautiful healthy clipped box hedges and not much growing in the middle.

    1. I think I’m safe from marauding roots, as my veggies (I so wanna spell that with one g, but spell check won’t let me) are elevated about 700mm above the roots of the hedge. Having said that, I’ve planted mint in the gravel at the base of one of the beds, and I’ve started to think that it could easily make the climb..

  4. Oh Michael, Maugham, never did say a truer word!

    I am a passionate gardener and gardening ideas come and go like the vagaries of the wind or the light footstep of an angel. Mostly they live and grow in my head and fail to take root (scuse me!) simply because there is not the opportunity to exercise their reality.
    Of all the ideas that persistently sprout the easiest to materialise are planting combinations. I am always striving for sublime planting symphonies . Over the years more that a few have grown to stand the test of time and influences of nature. In a neighbour’s garden Rosa Canary bird and Syringa laciniata harmonize every spring. In another, Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’, Daphne genkwa, and Callicarpa giraldii. Years ago at St Erth i remember turning myself inside out trying to find the right Knifophia of an apricot orange hue to bring attention to the complex colours of the central cone of Echinacea purpurea. This year I nearly hyperventilated when I put Phlox Minnie Pearl near Syringa persica Alba.. All this excitement aside the skill is extending these little cameos into full planting schemes. That is when ideas become labour.
    Depressing Delacroix once said, “Artists who seek perfection in everything are those that cannot attain it in anything” No matter how hard we strive in the garden perfection is elusive. Snails will invade or it wont rain. The joy of gardening is such that next year , with a little more diligence,a more conciliatory nature, or a little bit of tweeking we may get closer to perfection.

    1. And people with your experience, Cathy, clearly minimise the number of mistakes or false starts with plant combos.
      Then there’s freaks like Michael Dale who, even before his year gardening with Beth Chatto, could think of at least fifteen complimentary companions for any plant we were considering before I could think of one…

  5. Michael,keep the box hedge,then you can find the snails,it will eventually hide the two colours,,keep the soil cooler in summer but most important don’t put your foot on the snails,get newspaper put them on there,roll up then put your foot on them then into a plastic bag and into the rubbish. Years ago I had a garden full of snails, kept despatching them by treading on them, an old friend a Vet was staying and explained that though I had squashed dead the snails,their eggs survived,we had millions. after that I never trod on another unless it was in newspaper and bunged into the rubbish tin. Hadn’t seen one for months until today when I had far too many
    Ideas!Although exhausted by them,for only one snail I still got newspaper etc.Thankyou for blog

    ideas! although exhausted by them,for only one snail I still got the newspaper etc.

  6. You’re so right (and so honest; well done you). I only have my own gardens to design, so mistakes are never too serious, but hardly any ideas seem to work the way I imagine they will. One plant underperforms, or another is too thuggish, or just the exact wrong shade of pink. I can only picture how things will really work when they are already there. Then I adjust. And adjust. I am going to stop saying my hobby is gardening, and start admitting it is ‘moving plants around’.

    1. I remember Carrick Chamber’s opening lecture at the Australian Garden Design Conference in 1989, in which he mentioned that he had complimented Tony Schilling on the superb pastel borders (I may be remembering the colour scheme incorrectly, but the point still holds) at Wakehurst Place, an outpost of Kew Gardens, London. Tony’s answer was something along the lines of ‘they should be looking alright. I’ve been working on them for 20 years!’
      A friend/client once told me that her kids call hers the ‘velcro garden’
      Keep up the fine-tuning!

  7. I agree! Leave the hedge!!

    water damage Seattle

    1. Hedge remains. I intend forgetting that the snail-trap notion wasn’t intentional

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