Garden in Umbria - Trimming

Senses - Time

About Time - September 2020

September already. So where did August go? Or, for that matter, the whole six months since the pandemic descended on us.

Is it just me or are you forgetting things nowadays? Perhaps I am just not bothering to remember them.

I have been reading 'The Well Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature' by Sue Stuart-Smith, where she talks about the importance of gardening and nature for our mental well-being.

Sue Stuart-Smith reads from The Well Gardened Mind (Photo National Garden Scheme)

As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, she makes the point that there is no specific centre in the brain that perceives time, no sensory organ that detects its passing .... it has to be created through a composite set of memories of places and people, emotions and events.

Hence when those things do not change, such as during lockdown, we forget the time or date. So that's my excuse for not know what day of the week it is. A friend of mine says that in their household they lost at least four Wednesdays during the lockdown. It’s not just me then.

Time is a construct and in our modern world we tend to regard it as a straight line stretching from the past to the future. In most of our cultural history, though, time has been perceived as a series of cycles, and the cyclical nature of the world around us has made it easier for us to come to terms with life’s events. The sun circling the earth; the seasons; folk tales; life and death even, all take a circular form.

When I went to work in Singapore, I found the absence of seasons there to be quite disorienting: I was surprised to discover that I forgot people’s birthdays. The subconscious linkage between people and time must be for me through the natural cycles of plant life and weather.

We all know that working with the seasons is good for us: when in Marlowe’s play Dr Faustus brings the Duchess of Vanholt grapes in January we know that we are dealing with the Devil. Listen to this song from the ‘flower power’ era of 1965.

And this is where gardening comes in. But not in a Fotherington-Tomas sort of a way …. gardening brings with it challenges and disappointments as well as pleasures and delights. The health benefits go way beyond just exercise and fresh air: we are put back in touch with our natural rhythm which in itself helps bring us to a calmer state. Working on physical tasks gives us the chance to think over problems and events.

We say to ourselves when something fails in our garden that ‘There is always next year’. The natural cycles of the plant world give us hope for the future: as Stuart-Smith observes “seeds have tomorrow ready-built into them”.

Another aspect, which I had not seen written down before reading this book, but one that I have always found very powerful, is the imperative to follow the seasons when gardening. We have to work with nature’s calendar: ‘garden time’. We will not succeed if we sow or plant or prune at the wrong time.

We feel the drive to get out there and do things in the garden when the time is right. Now, with the arrival of rain, the shorter days and the planting season ahead of us, there is a stirring in our energies that even with our befuddled lockdown brains we cannot ignore. We feel the need to be busy in the coming days to ensure that next spring brings us a glorious show. It’s about time.

Time the magic ingredient - May 2018

The modern fashion for ‘instant’ gardens makes me feel rather uneasy. It misses out on an essential ingredient of gardening: time. A garden isn’t a sitting room to be furnished and decorated, it is a living thing in itself. Imagine how it would be if your sofa started to expand and fill the room; the standard lamp shot up to the ceiling and withered back; the carpet turned out to be a different colour…

How has your garden changed in the past 12 months? If you say that it hasn’t then I won’t believe you – unless you have only Astroturf and plastic flowers. A garden needs to be given time to develop its personality, its spirit of place.

My garden has evolved over many years and was not designed in one go. It is still changing even now: old friends may be lost and leave a gap - but this should be regarded not as a loss but as an opportunity. Change can be good even when we don’t plan for it.

We should be grateful for plants that have stood the test of time: the Chinese veneration of elderly plants appreciates the gnarled forms and contorted limbs which a fresh young sapling can only aspire to (fellow older readers take note). Wind-swept pines form a living sculpture. Ancient olives here in Umbria which have matured over centuries: each has its own personality, its own story to tell.

Pine trees sculpted by the wind over many years, near Garibaldi’s house on the island of Caprera, Sardinia

Watching the cycles of seasons and weather, over time we see everything that goes around comes around. This month forgotten Dutch Iris bulbs came up again unexpectedly in my garden. The season is late this spring but some plants are flowering early (Salvia microphylla) whilst others have not bloomed at all, such as some irises. Each year a particular plant does especially well - for no apparent reason - and this time it is Pyracantha that is flowering so profusely it looks like Hawthorn.

And what with all the rain we’ve been having … hang on a moment, did I just say All the rain? Only a couple of months ago I was complaining about the prolonged drought.
So if you want to make your garden really special, just sprinkle a little time.


The culinary herb thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is native to the rocky ‘garrigue’ areas around the Mediterranean and so it is no surprise that it does well in our gardens here. It can however start to get woody if left to its own devices. I find that thyme self-seeds quite readily so it is best to take out the old plants after a few years and let the new ones grow through.

Thymus capitatus in its natural habitat in the Dodecanese islands, Greece (Photo Lefteris Dariotis)

There are several other types which are useful and ornamental in the dry garden. I have recently ‘discovered’ Thymus capitatus which has remarkable violet flowers in July. It has a taller and more upright growth habit (40cm) than ordinary thyme.

Thymus praecox

This autumn I am trialling varieties of low growing thyme in the cracks between paving stones. Thymus serpyllum, Thymus praecoxand Thymus ciliatus are alternatives to lawn. I am hoping that the stones will help conserve moisture so they won’t need watering. (Post script: the experiment was a total disaster and nearly all the plants died - despite getting watered).

The photo at the top of this page shows the narthex of the ruined church of Monterano Antica near Lake Bracciano, Lazio
which has been abandoned since the late 18 century

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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