9 Ways I’ll Improve My Gardening in 2018

Happy new year! No, I’m not Chinese, but I have come to realise that I forgot to wish you all a happy new year at the beginning of January, partly because I was too wrapped up in revision for my RHS exams, and partly because I was in a rut with wanting to write a post about my gardening year in 2017, but didn’t know where to start. The reason I didn’t know where to start was because 2017 had mainly been characterised by not gardening, or at least, not enough, and that wasn’t going to make for very good reading. New Year, then January, slipped by in a flurry of snow and studying. Now that the exams are over, it’s far too late to start talking about 2017 (what a relief) so let’s move swiftly on and look ahead to this year. This year, my garden is going to be very beautiful, and here’s what I’m going to do differently this year in order to achieve this:

Be tidier (but not too tidy)

When I confess to you that my garden is a mess, I am not just talking about a few stray seed heads or the inevitable pile of plastic pots that all gardeners accumulate in dark corners behind sheds. My blind spots include: discarded plant labels lying on paths; empty plastic compost sacks blown into hedges; piles of topsoil that I have no idea what to do with; the four-foot stalks of last year’s Salvia ‘Amistad’ left on the terrace because there’s no room in the compost bin; empty seed trays collecting stagnant water; uprooted Everedge lying like dismantled bear-traps on the grass. When I wanted to find my root trainers to sow my sweetpeas, I had to scour the privet hedge for the inserts (I found all but one of them). None of this is beautiful to behold. But this year I will be tidier. I vow that I will be able to take photos of the garden from any direction without having to crop out the ugly parts. Conversely, it should hardly need pointing out that healthy gardens are not too tidy, nor heaven forbid, sterile. Gardens with wild areas, where nettles grow, and insects hibernate in old logs, and the seedheads are left on for the winter birds, are gardens with reverence for the ecosystems that make them what they are.

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Avoid plastic

You can’t have missed the current debate around plastic, unless you come from another planet, perhaps one that is not mad enough to have designed single-use items out of a material that lasts for ever. Plastic garden villains include: pots and trays, compost sacks, plant labels, polypropylene ‘fleece’ (a sad misnomer), netting, modules, plant supports, rabbit guards, bird feeders, the ‘lights’ of a cold frame, the protective packaging around plants sent by post, and even the plastic cover around gardening magazines and seed catalogues. As well as hanging around undegradable for hundreds of years, clogging up waterways and damaging wildlife, plastic is ugly, and gardens are for beauty; therefore, ought plastic to have a place in the garden? We gardened successfully for centuries before the invention of plastic; could we return to a life without it? The June 2017 issue of the RHS’s The Garden magazine (which arrived in its polythene wrapping) carried an article written by Sally Nex about her attempt to eliminate plastic from the garden, which inspired me to try doing the same. Like Sally I have started with wooden seed trays and terracotta pots as well as copper labels; I will report back with more ideas as they come.

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Improve winter structure

Eager to cram in as many delicious herbaceous perennials as one can discover, it’s easy to forget that for six months of the year the garden is essentially bare of herbaceous perennials. This is undoubtedly a lesson that many beginner gardeners learn to their cost as they gaze out at the garden of a frosty January day and see only the sad emptiness of a garden without bones. My experience in this regard has shown me that a garden ought to be designed primarily with the coldest months in mind — the gaps can always be filled in later. Luckily, it’s not too late for me to correct my early mistakes, and there’s a variety of ideas that I can add to my garden to get it looking good in winter: patterns of topiaried box and low hedging, arches, and neat edges along elegant or intriguing paths.

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Educate myself…

Well, I am already deep into this one, having followed my Certificate of Practical Horticulture straight into the RHS Principles of Horticulture Level 2 course. The improvement in my horticultural and botanical knowledge has been intensely satisfying — but talk about the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to learn, and there always will be. I intend to carry on learning as much as I can, firstly by trying to attend further a further course once my current one is completed (I haven’t decided which yet), and by reading my steadily multiplying collection of gardening books as I go. Then there are gardening shows, magazines, the blogs of other gardeners …

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… And do things the proper way

When I do things the proper way, the way I have been taught on my various courses, taking care and paying attention to the small details — using the correct type of compost, labelling my seed trays, pruning each plant at the appropriate time in the appropriate way, and so on — the garden rewards my efforts with better-looking and happier plants, improved yields, healthier soil, more diverse wildlife: a better and more beautiful garden. I have noticed that since applying the techniques and skills that I have learnt on my practical horticulture course, my seed germination has become much more reliable, my cuttings root successfully, and I waste fewer plants by keeping them happy and healthy. A seed tray that has been filled and tamped properly and evenly sown with an appropriate quantity of seed not only germinates more successfully but looks good too. Sometimes doing things the proper way seems to take more time, but this time is often saved elsewhere later on.

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Try new seeds

Although I never get tired of my old favourites (Cosmos ‘Purity’, cornflowers, Ammi, ‘Café-au-Lait’ dahlias) it’s good to try new varieties and discover new favourites. Last year I successfully grew heartsease violas for the first time, cheerful little faces that kept my spirits up throughout autumn and winter. This year I’ll be trying sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Claret’ and ‘Double Dandy’), poached-egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii), Dill, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Sahara’, two new sorts of gypsophila, and two new dahlias, ‘Linda’s Baby’ and ‘Penhill Watermelon’.

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Protect my soil

A healthy garden begins with a healthy soil. Preventing the erosion and capping of topsoil by protecting it with mulches, ground-cover plants or green manures is one of the simplest things to be done to keep a garden healthy and beautiful. I started this year as I mean to go on, by mulching my herbaceous beds with heaps of delicious home-made compost. This will protect the surface of the soil and feed the soil organisms, providing nutrition for roots and organic matter for moisture retention. My raised beds are mulched with mushroom compost, which again protects the soil and provides organic matter and good weed suppression. But there are still areas needing improvement, places where I ran out of mulch, spots that have been neglected: an area of bare, compacted soil underneath some trees, patches that shouldn’t have been walked on (but were). Taking care of soil means being kind to earthworms too, and this will be of even more importance since last week’s discovery of two small New Zealand flatworms near my compost heap (a total scream-mask moment).

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Keep better records

Detesting plastic as I do, I’m not the best at labelling my plants. My record keeping is patchy at most, because it’s not easy to write things down on paper while wearing muddy gardening gloves, especially if it’s raining, and because I enjoy planting things spontaneously, grabbing the nearest suitable pot and kidding myself that I’ll remember what tulips I planted in six months’ time, an effect that is ruined by pernickerty record-keeping. And often a lovely surprise awaits: a terracotta jar of ‘Apricot Beauty’ suddenly appearing in April is no bad thing. And I can usually tell what my seedlings are by the leaves. However, records help us to learn from our successes and failures, and can be a pleasure to read back to oneself after a year or so. On top of blogging, I have started keeping a handwritten diary of the garden: what I tried that day, what I did, what was in leaf or flower or died or looked awful or sprang like Lazarus from the bare soil. What the weather was like, what birds were singing, what it felt like to be out in the garden on that cold morning.

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Just garden!

In the end, all these improvements will come about only if I step outside and actually garden. Life is very good at getting in the way: emails that need sending, laundry to attend to, husbands that want something (almost always involving having to stop whatever I’m doing to admire a piece of carbon-fibre cycling equipment). Then there are the excuses: weather awful, too cold, wrong sort of leaves on the ground, don’t know where to start. By prioritising gardening wherever possible I am hoping that the garden will respond in kind, and I have been inspired by Laetitia Maklouf’s ‘Five Minute Garden’ because there is so much you can do in five-minute bursts if that is all you have time for, and those seemingly insignificant bursts will eventually add up to a great deal of improvement.

So these are the things I will be doing better in 2018, in the hopes of a new, improved garden and a better gardening year over all. I’d love to know what you will be doing this year to make your garden a better place, or to hear about any changes you made in the past that had a fabulous impact on the health and beauty of your garden.

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Book review: Lessons From Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Madame Ganna Walska was a Polish beauty of enormous charisma, charm and energy.  Her initial career was in opera, but her particular talents lay in two quite different directions: firstly, in making prudent marriages (she married a succession of men of huge wealth); secondly, in exotic, exuberant, and extravagant gardening.

After divorcing for the sixth and final time, Walska set about creating ‘Lotusland’, her vast garden in California. ‘She filled the garden with rare and exotic species, falling in love with their beauty but never knowing their names,’ writes Matthew Biggs in his delightful book, Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they can teach us. ‘Wanting plants that always looked good, Madame… was more interested in their art, style and beauty.’

Her garden was funded, of course, by her acquired marital wealth. Biggs quotes a story in which Walska drove around the neighbourhood in search of choice specimens, and whenever she saw something she wanted in someone else’s garden, she had her chauffeur knock on the front door, offering to buy it. If the person refused, ‘a case of champagne was delivered; that usually changed their minds.’ She would go on to sell almost $1m of jewellery to fund her various collections, including a garden of 900 cycads representing half the world’s species, many of them incredibly rare.

Madame Walska’s accompanies thirty-nine similarly spellbinding four-page histories, written in chronological order starting with the fifteenth-century Japanese artist Somai who created Ryouan-Ji, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the contemporary plantsman and plant hunter Dan Hinkley. Most of the gardeners one would expect to find here are present and correct: Paxton, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Chatto, Oudolf; and there are several whose names I recognised, perhaps from cultivars (Edward Augustus Bowles, Ellen Willmott), awards (James Veitch) or other subjects (Thomas Jefferson, Claude Monet), but about whom I knew much less. Then, like Walska, there were many I had never heard of at all, including the plantswoman Rae Selling Berry and the creator of the garden in the ruins of Ninfa near Rome, Princess Leila Caetani.

The gardeners are satisfyingly varied: there are those like Walska or the businessman Henry E. Huntingdon who built their gardens from great riches. Then there are those who gardened on behalf of the rich, like André Le Notre of Versailles, or Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth. Some gardeners had other jobs and gardened for relaxation (Thomas Jefferson, Sir Thomas Hanbury), others gardened obsessively to the exclusion of all else (Ellen Willmott, Madame Walska). The artist gardener is well represented in Claude Monet, Gertrude Jekyll and Jacques Majorelle.

I was unfamiliar with the writing of Matt Biggs, accustomed as I am to hearing his cheery voice on Gardeners’ Question Time. His writing style is as soothing as his subjects, telling their stories in clear, well written, well researched paragraphs, and it carries a quiet joy in its theme. Like many RHS published books, Lessons is printed on good quality mat paper: a satisfying book to feel and hold; each gardener is accompanied by a little portrait along with botanical illustrations of some of those plants best associated with them: Deschampsia for Piet Oudolf, Gentian for Geoffrey Smith, Asters for Gertrude Jekyll, Geranium for Margery Fish. Every gardener has a page of ‘Lessons’. Geoff Hamilton teaches us that ‘things don’t have to be perfect… Gardening is all about enjoyment; don’t take it too seriously’. Beth Chatto tells us to ‘accept the existing conditions, choose the right plants for that location’. Vita Sackville-West ‘disliked excessive tidiness’ (me too, Vita). Madame Ganna Walska has advice for us in conservation and sustainable gardening, though no specific instruction is given on the acquisition of husbands.

But while the lessons Biggs extracts from his subjects are mostly practical tips and ideas, a greater lesson was emerging for me. The unifying characteristic of these great gardeners, the thing they all had in common, was an overwhelming drive and passion for plants, gardens and nature, a strong desire for self-education, and a work ethic that set them apart. Whatever your background, your education, your income or your starting point, so long as you have courage, a will to work and conviction in your own style, there is room for you and your story among the stories of all the gardeners who have ever lived.

Biggs, M. (2015) Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they teach us. 1st edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

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