Have you got enough poetry in your garden?

June 11th, 2014 Posted In: Garden style & living

I hadn’t thought about poetry in my garden until Sarah Salway told me about her new book ‘Digging up Paradise: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of England.’ Sarah is an author, poet, writing coach and garden lover. I first met her in 2012 when she was Canterbury’s literary Laureate – which was when she started the book. She’s visited some of the loveliest gardens in England, so I asked her what three things she found there that would also work in a middle-sized garden. Here is her reply:

poetry at Canterbury Cathedral

Poetry on a beautiful old wall in the gardens at Canterbury Cathedral

‘When I was growing up, my mother – a garden writer and historian – would regularly open our garden to show off the Elizabethan-style herb gardens she’d created.
I’ll always remember lying out on the grass to read my book one afternoon when two visitors came to sit on a nearby bench. They hadn’t noticed me and when I suddenly sat up, they looked so affronted that I felt like I was the intruder.
Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated in how people make private corners for themselves in even the most public park or garden. Just look at families picnicking in their local green spaces, and imagine stepping over the invisible boundaries they have drawn for themselves.

So when, as Canterbury Laureate, I started to write a portrait of Kent through its gardens, it was this aspect I was first interested in. Can – and should – we ever make a garden completely ours? Any keen gardener, unless they have started from scratch, will understand the strange pleasure of seeing flowers come up that someone else has planted. Never do anything with a garden for the first year you take it over, my mother always used to say. Let it surprise you first, and then you can make your decisions.

All the gardens I visited were open to the public, some as a business, others on certain days of the year. And here’s where I must confess that I am not a trained gardener or plantswoman. I did learn names of flowers and trees as I went along, but because my interest was always as a writer, I tried to tour the gardens instead through my senses, listening to my emotional responses. It was a different way to engage with the space, and for every garden I visited, I wrote a poem. I included some writing prompts and ideas in my book, Digging Up Paradise, and the nicest reaction I have had is when people have told me that they too have been encouraged to take their notebook into their gardens, even if they don’t think of themselves as natural writers.

poems in gardens on gardens

Sarah wrote a poem for every garden she visited – here her poems blow in the wind, tied to a garden obelisk

Perhaps there is something about gardens, and being outside that can encourage our creativity, and bring out the childish sense and joy of playing that we too often lose.


write about gardens

Take a notebook with you when you visit a garden, so that you can write about it.

Maybe also it’s a way of making our own private space in what can feel like a too public world!
Alexandra asked me to pick three things I’ve seen on my tour that can be adapted for a middle sized gardens. Just three! That’s like having to pick just 26 gardens from the wealth offered in Kent. But here goes. I have kept them connected with writing and reading, and I’d love to see your own ideas too. And your poems if you feel inspired!

1. Create a quiet reflective corner. In many of the gardens, I noticed that there were certain spots where people sat just to watch the garden, to read or to write in a journal. Often these were slightly hidden, and, like this one at Finchcocks, had honeysuckle or scented roses growing behind to appeal to the senses.

Bench at Finchcocks

Place a bench in a quiet spot for reading and writing, like this one at Finchcocks.

2. Incorporate some poetry into your garden. It doesn’t have to be yours, but maybe a short garden poem or even your favourite line from a book. The poems in Canterbury Cathedral gardens definitely added another layer to the design, and I love the idea of making your garden more personal this way. You can use stone, but I’ve also written poems on paper, tying them in ribbons so they can blow in the wind.

Stone carved poem in Canterbury

Poem carved into stone in the gardens of Canterbury Cathedral

3. Walking round the beautiful Mount Ephraim with Sandys Dawes, I was touched by his memories of the garden and certain plants that had grown there since he was a child. I love the idea of turning a small corner of the garden, or even a flower bed, into a memory box. You could choose flowers with particular colours you loved as a child, for example, or plants that have a special resonance. I have never forgotten the first time I smelt mint, and now always make sure I have some growing in my garden as it still has an emotional pull.’

Gardens and memories

Gardens are part of people’s memories: this yew topiary at Mount Ephraim will have been cherished over many decades.

Digging up paradise

Digging up paradise

Buy Sarah Salway’s new book ‘Digging up Paradise: Potatoes, People & Poetry in the Garden of England’ here: here

My favourite tip is the one about the poetry. I’d like to find some secret corners of my garden where I could have a short poem. Something that I might forget about, and then come across when I’m cutting back or weeding. But what poems would be right? Anyone have any favourites?

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2 comments on "Have you got enough poetry in your garden?"

  1. As long as it isn’t about Lovesome things or other revolting cliches.

    We have an enclosed space with a seat. Mary Keen complained that it has now view or focal point from it. She clearly doesn’t have seclusion and privacy with a book on her list.

    1. Seclusion and privacy with a book – heaven. I’ve never found any outdoor seat as comfortable as indoor ones for that – but your comment reminded me of a garden chair I’ve left out – my mother’s Edwardian steamer chair, bought at auction about 30 years ago and never re-covered. It has the short legs and high back, so I’ve added it to the piece.

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