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Gardens Blog

Sparking Joy in the Garden

Cherry Blossoms

One of the more unlikely publishing successes in 2015 came from Japanese writer Marie Kondo. Her first book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’, described the work of the consultancy she has built up to help clients with the positive aspects of tidying and decluttering, disposing of items which were no longer required, and storing the remainder of their possessions in logical, accessible ways.

Her approach, unlike that of many other personal organisers, focussed not on what was to be thrown away but instead on what should be kept, and why.  Her second book, ‘Spark Joy’, deals with this in more detail.  In essence her approach to every item in the home is to pick it up, hold it and ask herself ‘Does this spark joy in me?’. If the response is in the affirmative, then it is kept and used, appreciated for the function it performs, and stored neatly and, most probably, out of sight.  If, however, the response is neutral to negative, then her advice is to thank the item for whatever it has done – in other words to respect it – and then to recycle it. She applies this approach to everything from kitchenware to love letters – and as a result, lives a very clear, content and uncluttered existence.  Her time as a attendant maiden at a Shinto shrine, may well have influenced her attitude to items, with that philosophical belief that all things have an essence or spirit.

Her words about sparking joy resonated with me in a garden design context. In the course of my work I visit many gardens, both private and public, and occasionally I see plants, pots, ‘decorative’ items and ask myself why on earth the owner would want to have such a thing.  The answer very often is that they have just become used to it or it was a gift which had to be kept or it was there when they arrived and they never got round to moving it. Thus I am starting my own ‘sparking joy’ project, beginning with the garden here at home, looking first of all at the plants in the borders and asking myself if they spark a joyful response or whether they have actually become boring, or are the wrong plant in the wrong place, or in fact I don’t actually like them. I have only been doing this for a very short time but already I can see – and feel – a difference. For example, I have a lot of Geranium phaeum – an incredibly useful filler plant which flowers over a long period and, if sheared back, will produce fresh green foliage and further airy sprays of flowers. And do they spark joy? well, the white ones do, the pale mauve and pale blue as well, and the dark blue Lily Lovell. But the rather ordinary one, known as ‘Mourning Widow’ with its dull, browny purple flowers – decidedly not. So out it is coming, relentlessly and ruthlessly, to be thanked for its contribution and consigned to the compost heap, leaving me with spaces for new plants which do spark joy and a smile. The same applies to the Hellebores which have cross bred and developed rather dull pinky flowers – a far cry from the speckled and ruffled beauties they share the shady borders with. These too are being uprooted and removed to create further space for the more joyous varieties.  I’m sure if you walk round your own garden and look critically at each plant in turn, you too will realise that some of them are simply marking time and not rewarding you for your hospitality. So show them the door, politely and firmly, and introduce new plants which do make your heart beat a little faster with excitement.  It may sometimes be necessary to touch the plant, stroke a leaf or sniff a flower in order to make up your mind, and you may be surprised by some of your decisions, but interestingly once you have realised how it makes you feel, it is surprisingly easy to get out the spade and start.

The same principle should be applied to garden ornaments and containers – do you really and truly love the ones you have? If you do, then that’s great news. If you don’t, then maybe now is the time to give your least favourite ones a new home – somebody somewhere may appreciate them more – and source replacements which make your garden, courtyard, terrace or balcony somewhere special, and make your plants and shrubs look even better. While I’m on the subject of pots, may I please ask you to consider buying pots all the same colour or glaze – they don’t need to be the same size or shape if their finish is harmonious. An arrangement of pots is such a wonderful focus and if the pots work together, the plants contained can contrast without risk of clashing. Look at the RHS ranges from Apta, particularly the dark blue glaze which works beautifully across a range of well designed shapes and sizes, and even plain terracotta pots look good clustered together.

Sometimes, of course, it is simply a question of accepting that the plant sparks joy, but just not where it is situated and then you need to decide where it would be more effective. Perhaps with different-coloured neighbours or where low sunlight catches it? Or maybe it needs some remedial shaping so that you fall in love with it all over again.

If I follow Marie Kondo’s guidelines I will eventually ‘Kondo’ my garden tools as well – I expect we all have favourite secateurs or snips which we favour over others on the rack without really knowing why – and gradually, yet painlessly, I will declutter tool store and greenhouse as well as the garden space, until everything around the house makes me feel good inside. Certainly my current cold frames spark the opposite of joy – indeed they make me quite grumpy, being not quite tall enough and with unreliable hinges – but I didn’t actually realise this until I saw the wonderful ones manufactured by Gabriel Ash. At that point I realised that joy could potentially be quite an expensive business but what better to save up for than things – plants, pots or permanent structures – which will make every single day in the garden one of contentment and satisfaction?


Useful links

Marie Kondo:


Gabriel Ash: