There is one thing I think we all wish we had more of; time. This elusive concept has the potential to dictate the pace of our lives, and yet it is impossible to see or hold. It is completely elastic, stretching and distorting dependent on the point of view of the observer.
This week, I had the pleasure of attending a speed awareness course. I admit I had been careless, and had driven faster than the speed limit. Over the course of the evening it gradually became clear that time had been key to the action that caused everyone to be there. We had all been caught in the act of trying to get more time by rushing to our destination; trying to regain something we never had but felt we had somehow lost.
We all have the same 168 hours in the week. It is how we choose to spend them that is important. I like to spend the largest portion of my time in the garden. At eight hours Monday to Friday (and a little bit on evenings and weekends) it knocks sleeping into second place. This still leaves me with a whopping 70 hours every week to play with, but what do I spend it all on?
As someone who works outside, my life is intrinsically bound to the passing of time and the changing of the seasons. Timing is an essential skill as a gardener and learning how to time tasks is a necessity. I am often asked by my family and friends when a shrub should be pruned. I am tempted to give the answer Christopher Lloyd would in this situation; “if it looks like it needs pruning, it probably needs pruning”. I resist, knowing that this would only elicit a raised eyebrow and a frown.
Truthfully, most shrubs need pruning after they have flowered. If they flower before mid-summer, they should be pruned almost immediately afterwards. This will give them the longest time to recover, putting on new growth which will flower on next Spring. If they flower after Midsummer, it is best to wait until next spring to do the main cutting back. This promotes the production of new wood, which the shrub will flower on this year. If the shrub is grown for its foliage (like a hedge) the best time to prune is when it is most actively growing in midsummer to promote dense branching and lush foliage.
The oak tree in the garden is a kind of time machine. Its lifespan bears little correlation to our own. It has stood at this spot long before the garden ever existed, before even the house, and long before before any of us were born. It will probably still be standing here long after we are gone. I often find myself gazing into its branches and wondering what stories it could tell.
As gardeners, we often find ourselves thinking ahead to the next season. In Autumn, we are planning the bulb display for the spring. In Spring we are sowing seeds in preparation for harvesting in Autumn. We are at risk of missing the current season as we plan ahead for the next.
In this last week the change of weather to much colder and wintery conditions brought a change in the work. For three days the ice never quite lifted from the garden, so instead of chasing leaves across the lawns my working area suddenly shrunk to just a few feet and I spent my time splitting and stacking logs in the wood stores and starting work on the hazel coppice.
Whilst I’m no longer walking huge distances trying to cover every corner of the garden, the work is far more intensive, requiring a focus of energy in a smaller space. Personally, I don’t enjoy having cold feet, but I do find it immensely enjoyable to be able to concentrate intensely on a practical task immediately in front of me and become completely absorbed in it. It demands that I am entirely present in this moment.
All too often we can find ourselves thinking about the next task or what happened previously. The past and future don’t actually exist and are just concepts that depend on where you are at present. The only time that has ever existed is now. Perhaps the best advice I can offer are the words of Alan Watts, (famously quoted by John Lennon and more recently, the Gallagher brothers) “Be, Here, Now”.