Gardening is not a subject I have written about at any length despite my career being one in horticulture; in many ways it can become ‘coals to Newcastle’ and certainly would have fit that description when I was working. Now it is slightly different - I have the time to reflect and observe.
During my time in horticulture I covered nearly every aspect of gardening in all of its forms. I started out with high aspirations but a living has to be made and I took the maintenance route, though 90% was commercial - a far better route than private for reasons of cash flow as contracts were twelve months and not seasonal as most private maintenance is (what people think gardeners are going to live on in the winter has always been a mystery.)
But it gave me a secure financial platform to slowly get into designing and building gardens, the vast majority in London, the rest being Home Counties. Bit by bit I dropped the maintenance - not all, some was lucrative enough to carry on with and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you out of ego.
I have also always had a sort of plant hunter's nose when visiting obscure nurseries: any name that rang a bell about some rare tree shrub or perennial would be picked up and added to the client stock list I was building. I never could resist this temptation and often these items without a suitable home would be potted on and moved with us when we changed houses, pets my wife called them; some by the time this happened would be in fifty litre pots and the whole would take a separate lorry. Often the more mature ones would find a home with a client, others would finally be planted in my own garden but the quest was always with me, almost an addiction.
As with everything else in this world tastes and fashions change, many if you live long enough go full circle and horticulture is no different in that respect. Conifers are a good example: in the Sixties there were specialist nurseries selling huge numbers of different conifers for the garden, articles abounded in the gardening press and mainstream on how to make a conifer garden and thousands of people did. What was lost on most people and rarely mentioned is the fact that conifers are trees: given time, even so-called miniature conifers become small trees, so a lot of people discovered their conifer gardens became small forests and much had to go.
Exceptions to the rule were places like Adrian Blooms garden in Bressingham, Norfolk where 10 acres of garden show how conifers can be used to create a beautiful and largely single genus garden, but what really killed off conifers was Cypressus x Leylandii: promoted as a fast-growing hedge it sold in millions as an ‘instant’ natural barrier. The fact that because of its growth rate it needs cutting at least three times a year or it becomes a tree was not mentioned but soon revealed. It was only really suitable as a wind break in large gardens; it was a disaster in small urban gardens where it was normally planted, so conifers became passé, nonU, out of fashion and generally despised, but they are slowly returning, as with all plants there is a place for them.
There are many other plants that have risen from obscurity to sink again and some that have just sunk. Another overused hedging plant that should be approached with caution for the same reasons as the Leylandii is the laurel hedge: there are so many good hedging plants that only this desire to have anything instant keeps plants like laurel as a hedge selling, Yew for instance is generally avoided as too slow; not strictly true, I planted a fifty-foot yew hedge in my current garden that has reached seven foot in five years and it still is the king of native hedge plants, yet still rarely used these days.
Roses have tumbled down the popularity league over the last few decades for a variety of reasons. Our national flower is still something to be treasured but disease was the first thing to stunt its popularity when after the Clean Air Act of the fifties came in after the ‘Great Smog’: it left the rose without its natural (!) fungicide, i.e. sulphur and exposed far too many varieties to infection with black spot, not something that you want to see on a rose but there it was. So you either dumped the roses affected or sprayed continually through the season. Most people dumped the affected varieties and roses suddenly had a stigma attached to them. Other reasons helped them slide down the charts as well: the ability to buy an ever increasing range of plants for the garden meant a reducing demand for the old stalwarts of roses, chrysanthemums and dahlias, which all need care and attention. The millions of well-tended front gardens with roses in rows are no more and many of the famous growers went with them, such as the well-loved Harry Wheatcroft; in horticulture, nothing is forever.
Garden design has also changed. When I started out you could pull out the phone book and would have a job to find a garden designer in there; now there are hundreds, it became fashionable, I saw it happen. Without sounding sexist, well it is not possible to say this without sounding sexist, it seemed every bored middle-class housewife was taking garden design courses for a ‘new career’; many had the benefit of supporting husbands who could afford to indulge them. Some of course turned out to be excellent but most withered and died on the vine so to speak.
I worked alongside one under pressure once,:trained at the prestigious English Gardening School, she had no idea what any flower genus was and thought spending half an hour planting one perennial was the way to go; well to bankruptcy, certainly.
A nursery in Essex who were also good friends and still are, supplied ‘ seconds’ saplings and small trees to Writtle College so that the design and landscaping pupils could practise planting; they also, he would relate, take an hour or more to plant one tree correctly. Anyone in the business could never make a living planting this way but the main concern for so many of these pupils when they passed out with diplomas was not a business model or good practise but a brand new truck, you know the type, with preferably an extended cab leaving a far too small carrying area for anything and mostly on display so it was easy for anything to be nicked. I saw this repeatedly; as today, image is all, practicality less so.
The designs of gardens have indeed changed or evolved over time. Those wonderful high-maintenance gardens from the Edwardian period, many instigated by the likes of Gertrude Jekyll (boots below) that we gleaned from those coffee table tomes are much reduced in number. With the current trend in house building to maximise plots of building land, the house of now and the future has no garden to speak of, so gardening becomes an observational hobby rather than an actual getting-your-hands-dirty exercise; these modern plots have reached the absurd.
Those who still believe that the likes of what is seen at Chelsea and other flower shows demonstrate how it should be are dreaming: they have become ever more an exercise in the fantastical. There are some good designs, but the majority are exercises in what can be crammed into a regulated space using huge sums of other people's money. When you see the likes of Monty Don or whoever is touring the show gardens dribbling over X's latest masterpiece you have to remember it would never look like that in real life: all the flowers are blooming at the same time of the year having been forced under cover for the show, not an easy feat to achieve but totally false, and standing on the only flagstone in one of these gardens and eulogising on its wonderful composition always makes me think that after the mike is switched off the presenter is winched back to the real world by helicopter. There was even a gold medal-winning water garden a couple of years back that had no visible means to reach any of its components.
I am fully aware that as in the fashion world much of what you see is an aspiration in design not a reality, but to use nature in that way maybe is a step too far or in these cases, a step is all you can take.
Going back forty years, Chelsea was worth visiting for the growers' stands alone, they put in so much effort to present perfect plants and were so proud of their achievements if they won an award; but slowly through cost they were pushed out and the usual fringe gardening aspects came in. I stopped going soon after that; there are better shows and venues.
TV gardening has taken some stick in recent years, rightly so: it has gone from the days of sensible advice for the garden of the man next door to dreaming about a garden you may aspire to but never own, those wise words from the likes of Percy Thrower (I do a fair impression I’m told of Percy’s introduction 'Welcome to the Magnolias’); Geoffrey Smith, my favourite - no trendy gear for him, he was just someone who had worked for years at Harlow Carr and then branched out into TV and took you to gardens you could recognise; Roy Lancaster, who was probably plant wise the most knowledgable of them; and a few others.
It all changed really and not for the better with Ground Force, a program said to be to get young people interested in gardening? with its cheaply made, poorly designed and placed extravagancies for the masses; most people only tuned in for a view of Charlie Dimmock's, er, 'window box' anyway.
And since then far too many presenters are more interested in projecting their own image by trademark clothes or worked-on affectations, plus as with all TV today, quotas must be filled regardless of ability. In the case of TV gardening, with a few exceptions, the good old days were the good old days.
Here’s a real gardener:
Gardening should be about enjoyment and relaxation and sitting out after a day working in one with a glass or two of wine and taking in your efforts however minimal is part of the pleasure. If you have a big garden and I have, not the first or the biggest, then it does take up a lot of spare time, but that is my choice; there is as much satisfaction in much smaller plots, so why don’t I have a smaller plot? Well, to be honest I have been fortunate to have had these bigger gardens and the one thing above all else you get with a big plot is that rather selfish sense of privacy: no-one overlooks all the plot and you can walk and enjoy in solitude. Not many things in the world today give that sort of personal pleasure and if I want to wee on the compost heap to hasten decomposition I can with no fear of being called out as a perv. Ah, the compost heap: I just opened up one of mine to find a complete three foot shed skin from what must have been a grass snake lying on the top. Many years ago I opened a compost heap to a whole nest of vipers, that did make me jump; the humble compost heap can have many surprises !
That compost heap leads me to another aspect of gardening that is now popular again: growing your own. Pages and pages of print from pros and talented amateurs alike give glowing reports on how easy it is to grow your own fruit and veg, how you only need a balcony and a trough to grow all the veg you need to feed a family of four all year round, or something like that; and of course it has to be organic.
I have never been quite able to embrace the organic movement despite their good intentions, largely because most of what is used in mineral form is organic - where else does it all come from but the earth in the first place. Yes, over-use of certain items does indeed cause problems over time but most additives have a positive effect used sensibly so I will continue to use as I see fit.
The same goes for pesticides: the organic methods are never going to match a systemic spray. I experimented this year having had an outbreak of lily beetle, the little red buggers can if not identified destroy a lily quick time, they breed at such an alarming rate that the larvae which feed on the leaves then wrap themselves in their own faeces to stop birds eating them; lovely. I went on lily patrol at the first sighting and picked them off; some just dropped to the ground on approach and turned over, so hiding their red side and becoming difficult to see.
But all this requires time and the perseverance to daily check all your lilies throughout the summer; some of us have better things to do. I did actually managed to catch and kill (don’t ask how) over seventy of the little fiends and all was clear for awhile, but return they did as always.
In the past I have used a pesticide spray before the flowers unfold so as not to harm the likes of bees and this works with minimum effort, but this year after the litter picking (!) I have used diatomaceous earth (me neither) on the soil and we will see how that goes. After rain of course it has to be replaced. Oils such as Neem oil are also recommended as these sprays simply smother the insect so he can’t breathe; the downside with oil sprays is they can have the same effect on the plant leaves, which defeats the object. This though is just one small story in the defence of plants from pests and diseases.
Returning to growing your own: first of all, however you go about growing your own, don’t ever believe what people say about it. There are so many ways you can grow veg, veg being the primary recipient of your time and effort, that for a beginner it could easily be confusing to say the least. Simply, despite the taste difference for many veg you grow yourself some are not worth the effort; two crops spring to mind in this respect: potatoes and carrots. Both take up an awful lot of space to get a decent crop and both are cheap in the supermarket, so cheap as to make growing them yourself uneconomical and the choice of potatoes at least is now very large, so little if anything is gained from home production. Carrots suffer from carrot fly and have to be rigorously thinned, another chore I can do without.
And never forget, however much you stagger your seed planting there will always be a glut - just how many beans can four people eat when you are picking two pounds a day, an easy target to reach.
A greenhouse makes it all a lot easier. For many you can forget the outside plot and grow things that you cannot get in the shops like the many superb tomato varieties, peppers that really only ripen in exceptional summers outdoors, cucumbers that actually have taste and even early season lettuce, plus you can raise plants for the outdoor area without having to utilise the airing cupboard, and always get one bigger than you intended. If you are interested places like eBay have a whole raft of greenhouses for sale second-hand and with a bit of effort you can save yourself a lot of money.
I read an article the other day about a gardener who advocates ‘no dig’ gardening. As with most things this is not new and aligns itself with organics. You can take your pick looking at the Youtube videos of his giant veg plot and all the lovely produce it yields, but is no-dig really the answer? As with all, the truth is in the finding. Forgetting the plot and gardener in question, no one could run that without it being a full-time job and he does indeed supply restaurants etc so it is more of a market garden and like the TV gardeners of now they all have five acre plots they potter about in that look immaculate; manage on their own? Doubtful to the extreme.
As with most things no-dig comes with caveats: the no-dig on those vids is really raised beds, you are not actually digging the soil you are putting another layer on top and not many people have access to five ton loads of manure even if they could use it.
Weed suppression is spoken of as one of no-dig's benefits, you smother the weeds and lack of daylight kills them' I have gone that route in the past; some weeds succumb, some such as bindweed don’t - even after two years it reappearss. In fact without knowing it I pre-dated that author as in ‘76 I did indeed do a no-dig veg plot as I had unlimited horse manure from next door, they literally shovelled it over the fence when I asked; the amount you need is huge to have any effect as with home made compost and that also assumes you have the material to compost in the first place, but we were on heavy yellow Essex clay and without rotovating the surface no plants would ever get their roots down in the summer, mulch or no mulch. In fact it was so hard in ‘76, the hottest summer on recent record, the rotovator could not even get into the surface.
So again it is horses for courses. That soil in Essex had to be opened up: pea shingle, road scrapings, anything to improve drainage before any compost went in, but without the help of next door nothing would have been achievable and my advice came from no other than the late Beth Chatto who with her husband created her wonderful garden in Essex on soil very similar to mine, Beth in my mind was the greatest of all when it came to the use of plants and placement in a garden, and a lovely lady to boot.
Today I have the opposite to work with. Anything grows in this sandy loam, including weeds, but it drains very quickly: lawns suffer from permanent drought and shallow rooting plants have to be watered to establish them. Again any form of compost helps the soil structure to retain moisture but despite my air raid shelter bins there is never enough of the stuff to satisfy the garden.
Climate change has affected gardens along with the globalised industry. We have had hot spells before, nothing new there, but it does come in warmer and earlier, the season is longer and different plants thrive and new diseases also. In fact I wrote earlier about the last two years containing more losses through different diseases and infestations than all my previous gardening years combined, there is always something different coming along regards what Nature can throw at you.
Now for the first time the years have caught up with me. We need to move; my large garden is finally becoming as much of a burden as it is a place to enjoy, the hips are gone and all has to be paced. Will I miss it? Of course, but I have also been very fortunate to have had these large plots; the biggest was two acres and today's is an acre. All have been a challenge that has been met with a will to improve, to indulge in with my own ideas, not always successfully. Wherever we end up there will be a garden, very different no doubt to that I have had in the past, but not different in the sense I have designed and built many smaller gardens in London over the years so I do know what to expect. One thing that will change is the scale of operations: a smaller shed, no more rotavators, no more ride-on mowers, no more pro spec 50kg x3 walk behinds, no more back pack sprayers, long reach hedgecutters (you need to be built like Arnie to hold one of those up for any length of time) and no more of all the heavy duty petrol machinery you need for a big garden; a general slimming down of tools as well, do I really need four pairs of Felco secateurs now or ever? A gentler, easier garden awaits, I hope !
Wiggia's homage to Beth Chatto, who died in 2018, is here: