Can you remember the exact moment when you realised gardening wasn’t boring? I ask the question as I have watched young adults recently realise that politics isn’t boring when their country’s parliament is apparently an asylum run by lunatics.
Nor is gardening – for me it was a comment in an obscure book that the world would be a better place if every Weigela bush was piled high on a bonfire and burnt that made me sit up. Now I personally have nothing against Weigelas and actually grow a good one in my garden now called ‘Bristol Ruby’ but it was a thrill to know that plants could engender such passion.
It was the same when I learnt that Christopher Lloyd refused to include a chapter on the genus Digitalis in his definitive book on Garden Flowers as he considered foxgloves to be drab. I loved that Germaine Greer ripped up her lawn and turned the whole thing into a no maintenance gravel garden where the law of ‘survival of the fittest’ ruled; that Nigel Dunnet has transformed the conventional gardens around the Barbican into a self sustaining ecosystem inspired by the Russian steppes.
Gardening should be about creating atmosphere and sensual experiences, not about serried ranks of bedding and trimmed edges, and my gardening heroes are people aren’t afraid to put their preaching into practice. But I am also addicted to more cerebral horticulturalists who manage to convey their passion more quietly but just as seductively on paper.
Louise draws on one such iconic gardening hero in her Great Plants this Month column and one of my gardening crushes is Stephen Lacey and his book ‘Companion to Scented Plants’ in which he describes in great detail the intimate scents not only of the flowers, leaves, stems, seeds but even the roots of almost every garden plant you have ever heard of. What a magnificent obsession.
Ha, why am I not surprised that Laura was lured into gardening by someone exercising their inner Victor Meldrew over things as defenceless asWeigelas and Foxgloves!
My obsession was kindled in a rather more positive fashion. My moment came when I read Vita Sackville-West writing about Old Roses – on Rosa moyesii : ‘It is like the colour I am imagine Petra to be, if one caught it at just the right moment of sunset. It is like some colours in an especially lovely rug from Isfahan.’ It is like the dyed leather sheath of an Arab knife….’ Oh wow! To hear someone so moved by a mere flower-colour – I had to get some of this for myself.
No, I’m not one for serried ranks of bedding plants either, though of course I would defend to the death your right to adore such things. They were very much the ‘in’ thing back in the day and it was fun to see such gardens re-created last week as Gardeners World Live celebrated its 50th Anniversary. I used to think all gardens were supposed to look like that, until I read Margery Fish’s book ‘We Made a Garden’ and realised they didn’t! There are as many types of garden as there are people who make them.
My friends know that I like my plants to look like they are enjoying themselves – the sort of thing Mirabel Osler refers to in ‘A Gentle Plea For Chaos’, and plenty of others would no doubt term a mess.
When I read in that book ‘The very soul of a garden is shrivelled by zealous regimentation…a mania for neatness, a lust for conformity, and away go atmosphere and sensuality…I have a longing for a little shambles here and there’, I had a strong urge to yell ‘Yes!!’ Much as I did when I heard there is to be another series of ‘The Bodyguard’.
What a load of tosh! Honestly, if Laura and Elaine were less arty-farty. If they’d attended the University of Life like me, instead of pretentiously punting up the Cam and doing all that Latin mumbo jumbo, they’d be able to draw more practically on our family’s heritage as Sunday Express readers – and specifically the Adam the Gardener picture strip. Unlike my sisters’ modern romantics, Adam was a man who was set on maximising his garden’s productivity to overcome war shortages without a trace of emotion. In short, he could have been a Scot.
Resembling a high security in-mate, Adam’s menacing insistence that you build earwig traps; make ‘cloches’ from old window frames, and aphid spray from boiled rhubarb leaves made a deep impression on the wide-eyed primary school me as I read his column over dad’s shoulder. Some of his tips, such as: ‘forced dandelion leaves form a good salad addition’ and that ‘their roasted roots, ground when cold, make a useful substitute for coffee,’ weren’t hugely appealing but if you’re researching a new ‘superfoods’ brand, you may find Adam is now bang on trend.
Making my other heroes on the Beechgrove Garden team look like total bling-meisters, his columns nevertheless reveal all sorts of new facts if, like me, you didn’t know that much before you began. OK so I did know that Tropaeolums are sold as nasturtiums but I didn’t know nasturtium is actually the correct name for watercress (sow it in the third week of March apparently. You’ll need a 2-foot trench, decayed manure and plenty of sand).
A word of caution. If you emulate Adam’s addiction to annihilating insects and weeds using a concoction of deadly chemicals you will be picked up by MI5. Given the ingredients he used, I think Adam would have experienced a number of definitive moments at which he discovered gardening isn’t boring in the slightest.