Natalie Thomas of @peonies_and_pencils is a gardening influencer. We discussed planting tips, the healing powers of nature and the importance of patience.
What inspired your love of gardening?
Being a mum of two and primary school teacher doesn’t leave a great deal of time for relaxation, but gardening is definitely my opportunity to ‘escape’.
There really is no dramatic story underpinning my love of gardening. It’s the type of thing that one just slides into – or, at least, that’s certainly my experience.
I remember watching my parents settle down to watch Gardeners’ World on a Friday evening as I was getting ready to go out partying with friends and declaring, “I’ll never be that sad”. But, time marches on, and with a career and busy home, relaxing on a Friday evening with a glass of wine to watch some pretty flowers is often just the tonic.
When we bought our first home, my husband and I didn’t have a clue about gardening, but since then, and with a lot of trial and error, we’ve created a small cottage garden that’s perfect for relaxation.
When you have young children, gardening is an opportunity to create something beautiful and safe for your family and is an easy way to express yourself. Ultimately, however, gardening is just an excuse for grown-ups to go and play outside.
However, over the past few years, I’ve taken gardening a little more seriously. I’ve learnt from my mistakes and discovered that careful planning and reflection is key to achieving the garden you want. I’ve particularly enjoyed learning from other garden enthusiasts on Instagram and recording my own progress @peonies_and_pencils.
I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to work in three gardens; my own small suburban cottage garden, a beautiful rural allotment and the garden at the village primary school where I teach.
At home, the garden is a traditional cottage garden – filled with spring bulbs and followed by a wide variety of perennial favourites, punctuated by roses (by far my favourite flower). Our family allotment is focused on providing fresh fruit and veg, but also has the advantage of being set in a beautifully wooded valley with space for the children to run and let off steam.
Our school garden is wonderful – I worked in it quite a lot during the height of the pandemic, aiming to provide an inviting outside learning space for the children. Recently it has taken a back seat – but I’m hopeful to do more in the future.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start planting?
It won’t happen overnight and it will never be ‘finished’.
Unless you have lots of money and can commission a designer to build immediate gardening perfection, you have to have patience. Even the best gardeners get things wrong and need to adjust their planting plans from one year to the next in order to achieve the desired effect. Part of the fun is spending the winter thinking about what you’ll plant the following year and then longing for fine weather in the spring to put your plans into action.
I’m guilty of going to garden centres like sweet shops and buying pretty flowers in bloom and worrying about where they’ll go later. However, it’s probably best to think about what spaces you want to fill and the position in your garden (shady, sunny etc) before you head to the shops.
Who are your favourite gardeners?
I garden in a typical cottage garden style, cramming new plants into every corner and trying to ensure a succession of colour throughout the year. To that end, I take huge inspiration from Gertrude Jekyll. I love those deep beds surrounded by a walled garden, packed with flowers.
To be honest, however, my gardening heroes are the gardeners and volunteers at National Trust properties throughout the UK and major gardens in Europe. I can’t stop myself visiting country-house gardens. Put me in a walled garden, bursting with flowers and I’m in heaven.
When I was last in France I visited the stunning hilltop gardens at Chateau de Marqueyssac in the Dordogne, with its famous clipped hedges. An early morning walk through the garden before the heat of the day was the highlight of my holiday.
How do you wind down at the end of each day?
Having put the children the bed, the hour or so before I climb the stairs is very much *me* time. In the winter, I enjoy cosying up with a book – most often with a glass of a good Malbec.
In the summer, however, I’ll end up outside the garden – even after dark – and often in my pyjamas, deadheading the flowers, searching for snails and feeling the grass between my toes. I find those moments of calm are the perfect opportunity to wind down.
When will you be wearing your Stola pyjamas?
Over the last few years I’ve aimed buy less, but buy better. That applies to food, wine and definitely clothes. Stola pyjamas certainly fit that particular bill. Yes, hemp pyjamas are better for the environment. Yes, they use less water. But, Stola Pyjamas are also pure luxury. I’ll wear them when away for the weekend with friends or family – they’re smart enough to show off – but I’ll also wear them when I’m at home, because why shouldn’t we give ourselves the occasional treat?