re-interpreting the garden

Q:        When I walk out into my garden this afternoon what is the most helpful ‘thing’ I can take outside with me?

A:        A different attitude of heart and mind.  A mind that is prepared to give up control and to embrace trust and a heart that can love everything equally within the garden.

The conventional garden mind is about control and subjugation – which characterise just about all our human relationships with the natural world.  This attitude has had calamitous effects and I keep reading and hearing that as we contemplate the catastrophic consequences of our way of life we need a new way of relating to the natural world.

If we can but start to see with different eyes, if we can pause and give our hearts time to catch up, we can discover that our gardens are offering us the chance to learn and embody a completely different relationship with the world around us.  A relationship that has abandoned control and embraced trust, that is founded upon mutual reciprocity and equality and which challenges us to the core of our beings to embrace radically different ways of thinking, feeling and (most importantly) behaving.

For me this means understanding first in my head and then in my heart that my garden needs to be created and to function as a mini ecosystem; that is nested within larger neighbouring ecosystems and ultimately that it is inextricably linked to every other place on the planet.  And for this to be the case my garden has to find a dynamic balance between all the living beings that live in it or that visit it – a balance of which I am part.  And that means re-evaluating what I can see happening in front of me.  I am pledged to do the minimum in the garden and to learn by experience as I let nature get on with finding the way forward.  Amongst other things this means that I don’t take any action at all to guard against or to remove any living beings, whether they are considered to be ‘pests’ or not.  And this is one of the points where the conventional gardening mind can start to go into panic mode.

Yesterday I saw these lily beetles mating.

Looking them up on gardening websites etc gives plenty of scope for being horrified as in this piece from The Telegraph which describes them thus:

“Lily beetles, the scarlet-coated horrors that (with their equally destructive grubs), do so much damage to lilies and close relations, hibernate in the top inch or two of soil, sometimes but not always close to lilies, and also in other undisturbed garden debris.”

No single plant is of supreme importance in my garden, everything is there because it contributes its own unique qualities to the overall garden.  The lilies are in this polyculture bed, which is about as diverse as it could possibly be, with fruits, onions, root vegetables, herbs, ornamental shrubs and plants and wild flowers.  The lilies are just one element of the overall complexity but they do have significance for me because I was given them by someone I love.

Either way, it is not for me to interfere and certainly not for me to abhor these little creatures.  Lily beetles eat lilies (which is a natural thing to do because all herbivores are busy converting vegetable matter into animal matter).  And something else will eat lily beetles.  And something else will eat whatever it is that eats lily beetles.  And so on.  That is how nature is.  And I leave it to nature to fill in the gaps.  I think we all need to learn how to leave this to nature.*

There has been a great deal of publicity and concern recently about the massive declines in insect numbers overall, like this piece in The Guardian.  And this looming insect apocalypse begs many questions.  Are our flower beds really more important than global ecology?  Are we going to persist in labelling some of Earth’s valuable and vulnerable creatures as ‘pests’ whilst lauding others as ‘beneficials’?  We must each make our choices whilst our gardens and all of nature wait to see what they will be.

principles of forest gardening

Forest gardening is based upon the structure, composition and functioning of a natural woodland including the resultant ecosystem and its emergent properties. In a forest garden biodiversity means health; a living soil and increasing biomass mean increasing fertility, and together health and fertility mean abundance.

First stop; don’t do anything until you need to and, in that prolonged pause, let go.

Everything the forest gardener does takes full account of the whole of the forest garden ecosystem – what has happened, what is happening and what they intend for the future.

Watch and wait.

When you have to do something, only do the minimum.

Plant polyfloral polycultures everywhere.

As far as possible the trees and plants in a forest garden should live for their full life span and reproduce themselves naturally and unaided.

Support nature’s transformational magic.

Whether in abundance or not, harvest only enough.

Demonstrate appreciation in meaningful and tangible ways.

Polyculture learning is slow learning.

Welcome the wild.

*My book ‘edible perennial gardening’ explains how and why this can be done.

About Anni Kelsey

I love forest gardens and forest gardening, nature, reading and everything good about being alive. I have written two books - the garden of equal delights (2020) - about the principles and practice of forest gardening; and Edible Perennial Gardening (2014) - about growing perennial vegetables in polycultures, which is basically forest gardening concentrating on the lower layers.
This entry was posted in Borderland Garden, ecosystem, Polycultures, Principles of forest gardening, Relationship with nature, Waiting, Watching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to re-interpreting the garden

  1. tonytomeo says:

    The main difficulty with landscaping a home of early American architecture (which are very rare here), is that their traditional landscapes were very plain and expansive. They were designed to keep nature at a distance, just because nature was considered to be chaotic and bad.


    • Anni Kelsey says:

      We too traditionally consider nature to be chaotic, bad and generally unwanted, though things may be changing a bit with the rising understanding of the ecological catastrophes we have been generating.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tonytomeo says:

        As a horticulturist who knows how completely unnatural the production of horticultural commodities is, and how most of what we grow is exotic, I find it amusing that so many enjoy houseplants as a means with which to bring a bit of nature into the home.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. hmk71 says:

    I read this post yesterday and have been thinking about it overnight. I’ve never been a gardener who tries to exterminate everything and I find I’m increasingly tolerant of ‘pests’. If I squirt all the aphids with soapy water what will the ladybirds eat? I do confess to a more zero tolerance approach to slugs around my annual veg (the chickens get those) but that leaves plenty of other places where they can develop a balance with their predators.
    Lily beetles was an interesting example though. I don’t have lilies in this garden (at the moment) but did in the previous one and I squished any I found. Not because I was especially bothered about holes in my lily leaves (my gardens have never been pristine) but because their next plant of choice are native fritillaries and I assumed as a non-native species they wouldn’t immediately have any predators. Ladybirds are avoided by birds because they taste bad, or at least so I’ve been led to believe, so are lily beetles the same, or would birds avoid them just in case because of their colour? I’ve had a quick search and can’t find anything conclusive. One random claim that ‘they have no natural predators in the UK’ with no evidence and mostly debate on whether or not to use chemicals on them. I might need to do a bit of research into them, I’m intrigued now.


    • Anni Kelsey says:

      Thank you for raising such an interesting and pertinent point. I have been thinking about what you say and found out that in Europe lily beetles are predated by four types of parasitic wasp, two of which are also found in the UK (, but not in great numbers.

      Whilst I am very focussed on letting nature get on with establishing a dynamic balance and harmony in the ecosystem of my garden, I do also see myself as an integral part of that garden ecosystem. Whilst I have given up control / domination and having to make the garden do what I want, nevertheless I have a responsibility to take action where it is needed as well as desisting from action that is not needed or counterproductive etc. Accordingly I watch what is going on very closely and try to find a way of being with the garden that is gentle but focussed. I will make sure I watch the lilies, lily beetles and fritillaries particularly closely from now on and try to find out more about them.


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