The Way We Used To Garden: a conversation with a 96-year-old gardener

My grandmother Cynthia was born in 1921, and has lived within a couple of miles of the same South Derbyshire village for her entire life. She has always been an enthusiastic gardener and continues to tend to her perennials and vegetables to this day, despite losing most of her eyesight to macular degeneration about twenty years ago. I talked to her about digging for victory, the rise and fall of pesticides, and what on earth gardeners did before plastic.

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My grandmother Cynthia beneath the walnut tree at the end of her garden, April 2018. She grew this tree herself from a walnut that she found under a tree in France.

J: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me about gardening through the twentieth century. First of all, what is your first garden-related memory?

C: When I was four, we had a very long garden and I used to play in the garden, and every Saturday I used to spend with my father and his gardener while they were working in the kitchen garden. They were growing vegetables. The gardener, Mr Garton, also cut the grass, pruned the fruit trees, and scythed the long grass in the orchard. I can just picture myself as a little girl being given a ride in the enormous wooden wheelbarrow. Mr Garton let me ride in the wheelbarrow every week.

J: Were there no lawnmowers?

C: There certainly were lawnmowers, rotary ones.

J: Did your father grow flowers as well as vegetables?

C: Yes, he loved growing flowers. He especially loved geums, and he also grew dahlias from seed. But during the war we only grew vegetables. He and mother worked in the garden every night during the war. My mother might only have been picking fruit, but they were out there together.

J: Were you self-sufficient during the war?

C: Yes, pretty much. Right at the beginning of the war, my father dug over the paddock and planted a whole field of potatoes. But what he hadn’t reckoned with was all the wire worms that come with a newly dug field, so the entire crop was riddled with wire worms. My father also taught me how to grow tomatoes. There were no tomatoes in winter during the war, because they would have come from Spain or Guernsey, and that was out. He kept a diary of everything that went on in the garden, and of a few things that went on in the war as well. Your aunt has that diary.

J: How did your father learn how to garden?

C: During the war he had one gardening book, which was his bible, which I still have. And he listened to Mr Middleton every weekend on the wireless – he was famous for his gardening talks. But I think he probably learned gardening long before I was born, either from his parents or from his own practice.

J: Did your father grow most plants grown from seed, or did he go to nurseries to buy plants?

C: Mostly I think my father grew things from seed, or from tubers. His gardener used to make wooden seed trays. We never had a plastic seed tray.

J: When did plastics come into general use?

C: Very shortly after the war you started getting plastic flower pots and plastic seed trays.

J: Would it have been as common as it is now to go to a garden nursery, see a plant you like in a plastic pot, and buy it and take it home?

C: No – a plant would always come bare rooted.

J: That would mean having to go to the nursery at a particular time of year. You couldn’t turn up whenever you fancied if you were buying bare rooted plants.

C: You had to go at a certain time of the year, and the bare root would come wrapped in paper.

J: Were you able to buy plug plants?

C: I can remember my father coming back with wallflower plants. There was also a market farm in Melbourne where he bought things like baby leeks and brassicas to plant. They’d be all wrapped up in a big newspaper parcel with lots of soil in them.

J: And what did your father do for potting compost?

C: My father made his compost. He was very lucky; there was an old stable and there was a brick manure heap, and all the grass cuttings and things went in there. He made a lot of compost, which he dug in every winter. But for his potting compost, he used to go out and collect leaf mould from the woods. Particularly he liked beech, and we used to go up to the top of Chevin [a local woods] and get the leaf mould from there, and then he would sieve it. And he would sieve garden soil, so that he was quite sure that there that it was clean with nothing nasty in it, and he would use that as well. His tomatoes were grown in that mixture of his own compost, sieved soil, and leaf mould. Every year the gardener dug the old soil out of the big trough and spread it on the ground and the new soil would go in.

J: And what did your father use for labels?

C: I can’t remember that he ever used anything, except a stick at each end of the row. Oh, sometimes he would stick the stick through the seed packet, or on the front of the seed tray.

J: But didn’t the seedpacket get wet in the rain?

C: Yeeees [a long pause]

I think he probably had a good memory.

J: And did he have a greenhouse?

C: Yes, when I was nine we moved to a new house which had a greenhouse. And he loved it. It was a lean-to greenhouse on the garden wall and it faced south with a wonderful amount of sun. In the summer he used to paint white stuff on the roof, like whitewash, for shading. And the back wall was painted white every year, and he grew a peach tree there. We got ever so many peaches.

J: What is the biggest improvement to life as a gardener since you started?

C: That’s a difficult question. Lawnmowers have improved, but then I have never mown a lawn, so it never affected me. I suppose it’s much easier to get your compost in a plastic bag rather than having to sieve everything! But I wouldn’t say that the result is any better.

J: Bagged compost is sterile…

C: Yes, and I remember my father losing an entire crop of tomatoes one year during the war. It was terrible. He got something called Rust. It was dreadful. He thought it was because he had experimented and put them out into the greenhouse earlier than he normally did, and they were not strong enough.

J: Has any aspect of gardening become worse over the decades?

C: [long pause] I cannot just off hand think of anything that is worse. No. I think the ease of gardening has improved considerably. But not necessarily because things are made of plastic. I don’t think the plastic seed trays make things any easier.

J: Some people might say that plastic seed trays are better because you can wash them out. But then I suppose your father would have washed his wooden seed trays.

C: Yes, indeed they would have been scrubbed. People tend to forget about things like scrubbing brushes. Scrubbing brushes and a weakish solution of Jeye’s Fluid.

J: What did your father use for netting?

C: Netting was made of green twine, string. Hedgehogs used to get tied up in it. But it didn’t tear as easily as nylon netting.

J: I think Nylon netting is probably cheaper than string.

C: Yes, it is probably cheaper.

J: In some ways, gardening has perhaps become less expensive for people because all of the cheap materials, but in other ways more expensive because gardening has become complicated. Gardeners are so ambitious because of all the inspiration from the gardening programmes and shows.

C: Oh yes – garden makeovers. Gardeners World. And the variety of plants that you can go out and buy.

J: You must have seen pesticides coming in and going out again.

C: Oh yes indeed. I remember my father having metal spray guns, which you bought full of pesticide. Goodness knows what it was. And there was something he used to make up from a packet of powder, called Caterkiller, which he used to spray the raspberries and roses with.

J: It is amazing that you are alive. Did you know to rinse the fruit before you ate them, after he’d sprayed this toxic stuff?

C: No. I would pick the raspberries off the raspberry canes and eat them as I walked past! Then there were all sorts of powders and things that started coming out after the war. Awful things. All unnecessary, because if you encourage the birds into your garden, they eat everything. And growing French marigolds in your greenhouse will keep the whitefly off. For the last 18 or 19 years I haven’t used any spray at all on my roses, and although they suffer from blackspot, they just keep on going. Some of those bushes were given to me for my 40th wedding anniversary, so they’re about 35 years old.

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From the rose garden

J: After you got married and bought your first house, did you and my grandfather start gardening together?

C: Yes we did. It wasn’t a very big garden, but we tried all sorts of things. We tried growing roses from cuttings, which grew and flowered for one year, then curled up their toes and died. We didn’t grow any vegetables; it was too small a garden. But we did have a little extension put on, a sort of porch, and I had a shelf put up in there and I grew my first tomatoes in there, in about 1960.

J: And when you bought this house [the farmhouse where Cynthia continues to live] in the early 70s, it was derelict. What was the garden like?

C: There was not much in the garden at all. There were two clumps of peonies and a whole huge bed of knotweed. To get rid of the knotweed I firstly used a lot of chemicals, I have to confess. And it sprang up in the lawn, and that was mowed down; it was actually mowed away. I also killed that other awful stuff – ground elder. I did have to use weedkiller.

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From the orchard

J: And how did you create a new garden?

We turned half the kitchen garden into an orchard. Then there was a big forsythia near the farmyard and the architect who was also a garden designer said we ought to have some very striking tree there instead. But I didn’t see what was wrong with the lovely, gorgeous, beautiful, yellow forsythia, so I kept it until it died. Then it was dug up and we put in a Ceanothus, which is probably what the architect would have liked there anyway.

We chose all the fruit trees for the orchard to produce fruit at different times. We studied hard to choose the right trees, and then they didn’t supply the trees we’d ordered. They should have supplied a Bramley, a Lord Derby and either a Keswick or a Newton Wonder. I couldn’t understand it: two of the trees kept on growing until they were much bigger than the other trees, and they were not producing any apples. Then at last they produced some apples, and I said to our decorator who was there, ‘I’ve got some Bramleys at last’. He went out and had a look and he said, ‘I’m very sorry to disappoint you, but you haven’t. They’re all three the same tree!’ They’d sent us two extra Lord Derby trees on the wrong root stock.

When we bought this house, your grandfather and I started going to local WEA [Workers’ Educational Association] lectures about Science in the Garden, run by the University of Nottingham. Your grandfather was never a keen gardener. He came to these classes but he never wanted particularly to put them into practice. I would come home full of beans, plus a soil testing kit, and could I get him interested in testing the soil? No! But he absolutely adored digging. He said that you could relax and think over problems when you were digging. If you’d have suggested no digging, he wouldn’t have liked it at all.

J: What do you think about no-dig gardening?

C: I think it’s wonderful!

J: And what was your lecturer’s opinion on pesticides?

C: Our lecturer was still using pesticides. This was the middle of the 70s, and he always  stressed that you must read the instructions, and not just wallop a dollop of insecticide into your spray gun. We were still using dreadful things then, like DDT.

J: What else can you tell me about changes in gardening through the 20th Century?

C: Well, one of the things is the number of different varieties that you can grow now. I mean, my father grew Ailsa Craig tomatoes, because that was what you grew. I also think that gardening has become a great deal more popular, more of a past-time. Within the last few years more and more people have started growing vegetables who would never have thought of growing them before. Women in particular are much keener on gardening. During the war, people became land girls —  afterwards they wanted to carry on outside and enjoy working in their gardens. Before the war, women liked to go out and dead-head the roses, but that was about as far as they wanted to dirty their hands.

J: Apart from Vita Sackville-West.

C: Oh, well, all those people; and Margery whatever her name was.

J: Why do you think gardening has become more popular?

C: Because one likes to have vegetables that you know are not contaminated by sprays and things. It’s all clean, it tastes better, and it’s great fun to go into the garden and harvest your own things that you’ve grown yourself. It’s real fun. I’ve always enjoyed that. I remember as an 8 or 9 year old going down the garden after school and picking an apple off the tree. It was marvellous! It was wonderful to do that. And I didn’t wash it!

J: What are the things that have made it easier to carry on gardening into your later years?

C: I know it sounds a bit trite, but it’s because I’ve never stopped. The raised beds have helped. I did a lot of things to try to make things easier. I planted quite a lot of shrubby things, flowering shrubs. I plant things like yellow courgettes. I’d never be able to see the courgettes otherwise. And my family helps a great deal.

J: What’s your favourite plant in your garden?

C: My daffodils! The spring garden plants are always my favourite. I’m also devoted to my walnut tree. I think it was very clever of me to grow it from a walnut. We were having a picnic under a walnut tree in France, and we said ‘Look at all these walnuts’, so we tried one and it was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. And so we picked up a bagful, which was very naughty I know, but we did. They were on the ground; we didn’t pick any off the tree. And we ate most of them, but I kept five or six. I brought them back and put them in the bed in the greenhouse, and to my astonishment, they sprouted almost immediately.

J: Which is your favourite garden to have visited?

C: I loved Hidcote; I loved Levens Hall; I also loved Haddon for its roses. Those three gardens are outstanding in my mind.

J: If you could invite one famous gardener for dinner, who would it be?

C: Well it certainly wouldn’t be Christopher Lloyd because I would be frightened of him criticising my dinner. Do you know, I’d rather like to invite that Yorkshireman who did Gardeners’ World for so long. A lovely Yorkshireman — Geoffrey Smith, wasn’t it. He had such a wonderful sense of humour. I loved his gardening. He was a very sensible gardener. You could understand what he was talking about; he was very clear in his explanations. He absolutely adored flowers, and he did this wonderful programme, the best I’ve almost ever seen: he went round to find out where our favourite garden flowers originate. To see him lying flat on his stomach on a hillside in Greece, looking at a tiny flower, it was wonderful.

J: And which TV or radio gardeners do you currently enjoy watching or listening to?

C: I am very fond of Ann Swithinbank on Gardener’s Question Time. And on Gardeners’ World I like Monty Don. We don’t get enough of Monty Don. There are too many other presenters. You get distracted.

J: Thank you very much for talking to me about your gardening life.

C: I don’t think I was very enlightening.

J: But it was very helpful to learning about how gardeners did things in the old days and managed very well.

C: The basics of gardening, of digging and forking over and digging holes in the ground with trowels probably haven’t changed since the days of the monks and their herb gardens.

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I do hope you enjoyed reading this conversation with my grandmother. We certainly enjoyed chatting away together! I should mention here that our whole family is indebted to my aunt, uncle and cousin who also do huge amounts of work in my grandmother’s garden. She also couldn’t do without her regular gardener who does the mowing and general maintenance. Having said that, my grandmother is still very much in charge, can still name every single plant in the garden along with its provenance (I’ve tested this), and makes regular forays to pick herbs and inspect the plants.

If you are thinking that there is something that I ought to have asked her but didn’t anything at all about any aspect of gardening during the twentieth century, or about gardening into old age then please let me know in the comments below and I will put your questions to her and get back to you with the answers.

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From the greenhouse vine. My grandmother once met the head gardener at Chatsworth and asked his advice on how to correctly prune her vine. She followed his instructions to the letter and she is always rewarded with delicious grapes every year.

 

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In The Garden: February

With this month’s warm and balmy temperatures, the garden has begun its slow explosion into green, starting of course with the snowdrops and dwarf irises, while narcissi and tulips line themselves up to begin their show next month. So, what is looking good in the garden this month?

Looking Good

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Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ in a vintage clay pot has come out to see the February sun.

 

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A surprise of crocuses, which I did not plant! I imagine they must have self-seeded from our nearby park, which is absolutely thick with the most beautiful displays.
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Helleborus argutifolus. I adore these subtle shades of lime and the soft rounded texture of the sepals.
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I planted a handful of ‘borrowed’ bulbs from our rented garden in 2015, and last year I divided and spread the clumps, so now this year at last the garden is starting to fill up. Nothing in the garden gives me greater joy to see at this time of year. I am not a galanthophile by any means: I am happy with old faithful G. nivalis. Perhaps one day I will splurge on some different varieties, but right now, these simple flowers couldn’t be making me happier.
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Electric blue Iris ‘Clairette’ saved over from last year’s pots.
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Another spring favourite of mine just coming into bloom. I have a white and a baby blue variety somewhere in the front garden and am awaiting their appearance with anticipation and hope.
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An enormous primrose taken as a seedling from my grandmother’s garden. It needs splitting.
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I am delighted to have spotted my first Anemone blanda, which I planted in autumn 2016 under the cherry tree.
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Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ making a surprise appearance at the back of the back garden. I ought to move these nearer the house as they were almost over by the time I spotted them in the distance through the rain-spattered window.

Jobs

  1. This is the month for sorting and sowing seeds. I stocked up on coir pellets (which I am using for the first time as an experiment) and washed out my seed trays and root trainers to ensure they were fresh and clean of any dirt that could have harboured disease from last year. I sorted my seeds into those that needed planting right away (sweet peas, Calendula, Cerinthe, Aquilegia, Nigella, Antirrhinum), those that could wait a month, and those that needed direct sowing. I had lots left over, which I packaged up to send to friends.
  2. It was a good month for mulching the beds with some left over horse manure, as well as some seaweed that I picked up on our recent walk on Tyninghame beach. I try to collect seaweed whenever I go to the beach (always the loose, dead stuff) as it is so wonderful to spread on the garden or to add to compost.
  3. Early spring is the time for pruning hydrangeas, clematis in groups 2 and 3, and certain other woody shrubs that flower later in the year. img_1902
  4. February is the last opportunity for clipping hedges before bird nesting season begins, after which it is necessary to wait until late July. Last year I had sparrows nesting in our privet hedge, so I took to them with hand shears instead of electric.
  5. Each year I grow a different variety of new potato in reusable deep sacks. I find it deeply satisfying earthing them up, watering them, and then tipping the bag out and finding all the new potatoes among the dark earth, even though our local greengrocer sells delicious new potatoes for far cheaper than I could ever manage to produce them. February is the time to ‘chit’ potatoes so I put mine in egg boxes by our french doors, where it is bright but not too warm.img_1901
  6. A general tidy-up was a satisfying way to spend a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, cutting back all the dead stalks and foliage for the compost heap to allow new growth to come through.
  7. Dividing perennials can begin this month if the ground isn’t frozen. I have my eye on a Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, some Bergenias and a Christmas rose that I would like to split so that I can increase my stock.

February Garden View

At last the front garden is beginning to green over with the fat shoots of bulbs growing in thick clumps all over the beds. Snowdrops are spreading beneath the roses and in small corners.

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The back garden too is changing: no snowdrops here, though I plan to spread some to this garden as soon as possible. However, many bulbs planted both this autumn and the previous one are making bold appearances.

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So that is it for February, a joyful month in the garden as spring begins to break through and cheer us all up after a long winter. I am now thoroughly looking forward to March, when the first species tulips and narcissi will be bringing even more colour to the garden. What have you been enjoying about your garden in February, and what are you looking forward to seeing in March?

Finally, can you see a face in the photo below?

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The Gardeners’ Question Time Summer Party

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Perusing stalls, with the famous Victorian glasshouse in the background

During a week in which Britain has demonstrated itself to be exceptionally bad at several things, including but not limited to international relations, various sports, and summer, it is reassuring to remember that there are still some things we are good at. One of these is informative radio broadcasting, and another is horticulture, and therefore a day at the Gardeners’ Question Time Summer Party was just the antidote to a week of embarrassing mayhem on the international stage. As we mingled with the kindly faces of fellow Radio 4 listeners perusing stalls for garden societies and reclaimed wooden furniture, who among us couldn’t feel comforted by the sense of continuity of all that is and always has been British? The lawns, the bunting, the mildly eccentric celebrities, the fizz of anticipation as we waited to see whose questions had been picked for the broadcasts…

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Friendly Radio 4 crowd mingling after the first recording

Not mine, it turned out, nor that of my friend and fellow gardener M, who was as thrilled as I was to spot Bunny Guinness doing a piece to mic about a patch of dahlias right next to the bench where we were sitting as we agonised over what questions to write on our purple slips for the ballot box. Both of us were determined to achieve the glory of putting a question to the panel. Eventually, M plumped for the ‘boring dry shade question’ (her phrase) while I wrote a plea to cure or condemn a hydrangea of mine that has odd brown patches all over the leaves. In the end, eleven far more interesting questions were picked out of the 700 submitted, and M and I no doubt enjoyed the show all the more for not having to sit in the front row with the other questioners, fearfully waiting our turn to have our quavering voices broadcast to 2 million listeners.

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Pippa Greenwood, Bunny Guinness and Bob Flowerdew, the panellists for the first broadcast. Bob Flowerdew has spotted my camera and flashed me a most charming smile.

Elsewhere in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, where the party took place, we enjoyed demonstrations on composting, bread-making, and crop rotation among others, ate our lunch to the strains of a local Scottish folk band, and admired the Botanics’ wildflower meadow and bounteous summer borders, as well as the giant lily pads and other tropical wonders in the glasshouses. At a plant disease Q&A session, I was finally able to put my hydrangea question directly to Pippa Greenwood, who helpfully diagnosed a magnesium deficiency, which I might cure with a foliar spray of diluted Epsom salts.

The Gardeners’ Question Time Summer Party is broadcast on Radio 4 in two parts, the first today (Friday 15th July, repeated on Sunday), and the second at the same time next week.

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Pippa Greenwood interrogates me about my hydrangea, and diagnoses a magnesium deficiency

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A display about horticultural hygeine

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Crop rotation education
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Anthurium display inside the tropical glasshouses
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Tropical scenery inside the glasshouses
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Big enough to sit on. Giant lily pads inside the glasshouses

Gardening wisdoms from my first gardening year

It’s over a year since we moved from a top-floor gardenless London flat to an Edinburgh tenement with front and back gardens and a large communal backgreen. It’s a year since I looked in bewilderment at the unfamiliar shrubs, plants and trees, empty tubs by the front door, un-pruned roses and flopping peony stalks (I didn’t know they were peonies) and thought, ‘I have no idea what to do with all this’. And so I began to ask questions of people who knew about gardening, and I searched books, websites and blogs for anything that would give me a clue as to what these dying stalks and fronds wanted from me. A learning curve is steepest at its outset, and while I have infinite gardening knowledge left to gather over my lifetime, this year has taught me the basics, a firm foundation on which to build more complex knowledge.

Patience was the first inevitable lesson, along with not worrying . In winter, life sleeps quietly  below the soil, biding its time until the temperature and day length suits its needs. No matter how much one hops from foot to foot willing seeds to sprout or bulbs to flower, they’ll come exactly when they feel like it and not a moment sooner, like these irises that showed no sign of flowering for months, and then overnight burst out like this:

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 Sunshine is King, warmth is Queen. The difference between similar plants planted in our north-east-facing front garden and our south-west-facing back garden was most educational in this respect. It was also enlightening to visit gardens further south, like my friend Tessa’s in Kent, and my grandmother’s in Derbyshire. It was quite wonderful how much farther sunny, warm Kent had got ahead of Scotland in March, and how Scotland trailed at least three weeks behind Derbyshire in the early summer.

And length my spring bulbs all came out, and displayed a dazzling show of … white. For some long-forgotten reason, I made the odd decision to plant only white bulbs. Nothing like experimentation for the development of wisdom. Don’t shy away from colour, even if you prefer neutral colours for your clothing or interiors. All-white gardens are not very interesting!

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In spring, I planted some seeds, and learnt my next lesson: like humans, plants need space and will grow into it if you leave enough of it. In my early planting, I found it hard to resist packing plants in among each other, forgetting that they would grow much larger, and creep, divide, and eventually crowd each other out. Like the lamium I planted in the wilderness which has overtaken a large area, suffocating the other plants nearby as they compete for water and light.

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I planted the seeds in pots, and cultivated a several other pots of plants including lavendar, bulbs, and various cuttings. Pots are pretty but a lot of bother. They need constant watering, even after it has rained, and pots mean troubling your neighbour to water them while you are away (you will be required to reciprocate). Forget your pots for half a moment and their soil turns to dry, solidified husks, especially if the compost was of mediocre quality. Related to this is another wisdom: care for your soil as you care for your plants. Keep it well nourished and fertilised. In an ideal world I would as many of my plants into the ground, where water and nutrients are slower to exhaust; they’d thank me for it, and so would my neighbours.

Speaking of neighbours, the first people we were lucky enough to meet in Edinburgh were Left Neighbour, quickly followed by Right Neighbour and Right-But-One-Neighbour, three of the friendliest and most welcoming women on the planet, and through whom we were introduced to communal gardening in our back green, and to several other neighbours, many keen gardeners. Gardening is sociable. Not only do we have access to the shared potting shed full of tools, seeds, fertilisers and suchlike, but to an amazing fund of gardening knowledge from gardening old-timers, and opportunities to bond over dividing and sharing plants, mowing the lawn, building up our compost heap, making bonfires, or simply being invited to share a G&T on someone’s back patio.

In all disciplines (and gardening is a discipline, if you make it one) study will reward your efforts. For busy people with gardens, just letting the garden do its own thing is often enough, and often has to be.

But if you yearn for your garden to look like this: IMG_0005

Then you’ll need to get stuck in to these: IMG_0091

(Except, perhaps, the one about making a white garden.)

 

 

More experiments with cuttings

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I just can’t get past the miraculous, intriguing, obliging nature of plants. The way you can apply your secateurs to the woody offshoot of an admired shrub, or perennial, or rocky alpine, almost anything in my experimental book, then stick it in a pot of soil and watch it become a new, individual plant to give away or keep seems so very egalitarian.

I am recently back from a visit to the south, staying with my parents, whose garden was basking in a novelty of warm September sunshine. My mother invited me to take a cutting of any plant I liked, and so I did.

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I drove away with a bucket of rubbly soil containing a delicate self-seeded lilac-coloured flower (chip in with its name please, Mum), two tiny succulent leaves from some sort of alpine or semper vivium (ditto – I can rarely remember the names of plants) wrapped in moist kitchen roll, and a wobbling old coffee jar of water in which quietly perspired an acanthus shoot that had self-seeded in the compost heap, plus stems of what my mother calls ‘furry mint’.

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Poor suffering acanthus in jar

En route to Edinburgh I called in to my grandmother’s for a few days. Her garden too was bathed in this wonderful golden sunshine, a bachanalian paradise of flowers and vegetables. I came away with cuttings of holly, catmint and a slim little hydrangea, plus the acanthus and mint still bobbing around in their jar of increasingly cloudy water.

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Thriving lamia, which likes shady, moist areas.

Finally home, I potted them up and put them on a windowsill out of scent of the slugs, and thought of how nice they will look in our new garden, if and when it becomes ours, and wishing it was possible to do the same with furniture and carpets, to admire an elegant mahogany chest-of-drawers or silk rug and be invited to take a cutting from it. In Edinburgh I also potted up a stalk of lamia, a striking variagated dead nettle that has thrived in what used to be the wilderness on the backgreen. Lamia produces creeping stalks that root themselves as they grow, so I reckoned it would take hold quite easily.

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Rooting stalk of lamia
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Acanthus looking somewhat more optimistic in its compost

Look, this is all experimental. I have no idea if you can grow holly from cuttings, or if the tiny alpine leaves half buried in compost will turn into new plants. If I lose some of these along the way, so be it. By the way, I see from reading around the subject that experts make all sorts of recommendations about propagating trays, grit, basal heat, tying over polythene bags and whatnot. While not wanting to diminish this surely sage advice, my intuition is to keep things as simple as possible. I have used only pots and potting compost. Oh, and some rooting powder, because I happen to have some, and I like the idea of applying magic powder. My grandmother tells me she never bothers with it.

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Out of reach of slugs…

Cutting remarks

At the beginning of this month we passed our first anniversary of living in Scotland, and over the past year I’ve thought a good deal about what it means to be the gardener of a garden you don’t own and ultimately have no rights over. Though we have no rights, we do have a responsibility, outlined in our tenancy agreement, to keep the garden looking as well as it did when we moved in. And in effect, do I have no rights over the rose I planted, or the hellibore, or the crocuses? Could I take them with me if I wanted to?*IMG_0309

Gardening your landlord’s garden means you can’t rearrange things (very much). You have to look after the beastly rhododendrons as though they were your own and feed them with their beastly ericaceous squirt, and you can’t dig up and replace the sickly roses in case they have sentimental value, and you can’t chuck out the concrete slabs or relocate the disproportionately large shed that some half-wit built slap in the sunniest spot of the garden. And even if the landlord said, yes, please do anything you like to the garden, you can’t because it means spending hundreds on a garden that is not yours.

On the other hand, gardening your landlord’s garden means not having to make decisions, learning to make the best of the situation you’re stuck with, delighting over the unexpected springing up of plants that previous tenants have planted, imagining the delight of future tenants when the bulbs and plants that you planted push through the soil, and finally the freedom to make mistakes and have a practice run before you get a garden of your own.

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Which leads me to… I hardly dare say it. In fact, I’d better keep quiet for fear of tempting fate. Only I’ve been taking cuttings (these photos are of cuttings of this purple clematis and also some of Left Neighbour’s clematisIMG_0305; the copper tape supposedly stops the snails) just in case I might need to populate a purely hypothetical garden belonging to a purely hypothetical flat that The Brazilian and I may or may not have had an offer accepted on. Hypothetically.

 

*An academic question because I don’t want to; they belong where they’ve been planted. I once read a forum thread on Money Saving Expert about gardeners who were selling up, asking if it was unethical to remove and take with them all the expensive plants they’d planted in the garden. Imagine! It made me sick to think of the poor buyers turning up all delighted and excited about the mature garden they’d bought along with the house, then getting there to find acres of bare earth.

Dramatic Roses

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Apart from their gorgeous scents and colours, the most dramatic thing about these beautiful roses in our front garden has been their recovery. Remember this? Well, after weeks and months of feeding with slow-release fertiliser, spraying with organic vegetable-based insecticide, mulching with Emily’s poo, obsessive picking off of aphids, careful light pruning of dead and diseased branches, clearing away fallen leaves, and hundreds of watering cans full of water, they have rewarded all efforts and cossetting with these gorgeous, fragrant flowers. I only wish this was smellovision so you too could experience the beautiful, subtle scents that are wafting round our front garden.

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I am especially pleased with this young little floribunda rose, ‘Friends Forever’, which I planted in this gap back in the spring.

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Unfortunately I do not know the names of our other roses, as they were already well established when we moved here. I’m not sure how easy it is to identify roses from pictures, but if anyone can identify any of these, I’d be so happy to hear from you.

The first one inside our front gate is this pretty subtle yellow rose with the faintest tinge of pink on the buds, the biggest rose shrub in the garden.

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Next in is this dark red rose, still quite a sick plant, the sickest in fact, but flowering profusely just the same.

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Then there is the white rose by the front door. This smells just beautiful.

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The last rose has no pictures for it is still to flower, although it has healthy buds on it that look to be red. This shrub was held back by a large sucker rising up from the roots. I did not know it was a sucker until I happened upon the term while reading the gardening section of a newspaper. Suckers pop up from the roots onto which the variety of rose was grafted, and take much energy away from the main plant. I have now removed this by tearing it off underground close to the roots. Already the plant seems happier.

The most important thing I have learned from these roses is not to give up on a plant when all seems lost. Only a short while ago I doubted these roses would survive, yet here they, alive and flourishing and giving such pleasure. Hard graft amply rewarded (pun intended)!

Tyninghame Gardens: a summer trip

IMG_0035My sister, it mysteriously turns out, is involved with the Garden History Society. Who knew? Not me. I didn’t even know she liked gardens. Anyway, she does, and not only did she take me to Tyninghame Gardens, in East Lothian, last weekend, but she was recognised and greeted by all the be-jewelled and venerable garden-y ladies we met there, and they all said how much they were looking forward to the tour of Princes Street Gardens and Dunbar’s Close Garden that she – my sister! – was giving that week, and then as we went round the gardens she proceeded to know far more about all the plants than I did. The very wonder of sisters. Anyway, we had a delicious time wandering across the springy lawns and wooded glens, and the sun shone beneficently down.

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As we walked through the gardens, I tried to identify what characteristics of the garden gave it its especially classy edge. Was it the choice and type of plants, mainly pale pink bloomy things interspersed with the odd shocking blue firework, the way most of the flowers were scented, the as-though-careless placing of stone urns here and there, the way the poppies fainted artlessly among the delphiniums, the ancient brick walls crumbling with lichen, the approval of thousands of bees, the sheer blooming health of everything in sight?

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IMG_0015I realised I don’t know enough names, enough types, enough types-within types, to go about planting my garden with the remotest hope of it resembling even a poor man’s mini version of Tyninghame. Here, everything looked effortlessly arbitrary, but you could tell that it had taken centuries of skill to achieve its arbitrariness. This plant here, that plant there, yet all muddled in together. There was a good reason for every plant’s position, but what that reason might be was stored in the higher centres of generations of head gardeners’ brains. I found Tyninghame the most inspiring, gardener-humbling place.

 

 

 

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Kate and Jeremy, our new tomato plants

All right, they’re not that new any more, it’s just that I haven’t managed to talk about them yet. I picked them up at Brockbushes Farm Shop in Corbridge, Northumberland, as I travelled between Edinburgh and Derbyshire a few weeks ago. Buying tomato plants ready-grown was my grandmother’s idea. She grows her own from seed, and when I saw the wee tomato plants all shooting up on her windowsill I felt sad that I’d missed the boat for growing my own, so she suggested buying some young plants, an ideal option if it’s too late to plant seeds or you just don’t want the bother. Raising them from seed is the cheaper but more labour-intensive and risk-prone option. Let someone else do the initial work, I say.

Anyway, here they are. Jeremy, naturally, is the vine on the right, and Kate is the bush plant on the left.

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We used to grow tomatoes in my mother’s greenhouse when I was a child. I can remember very clearly the process of growing tomatoes, the dark smell of the vines in the fearful heat of the greenhouse, learning to remove the side shoots to encourage growth, watering them before they wilted, tying them against canes as they got taller. Yet it’s a funny thing, I have no recollection of collecting and eating the tomatoes. Clearly it was the process rather than the result that I found fascinating. As everyone knows, journeys often more important than their destinations.

Tomatoes are a difficult thing to grow successfully in the British climate unless, like my mother and grandmother, you have a greenhouse — or a very good summer. Growing them in Scotland seems a bit optimistic, but then I am an optimist. If I get even one tomato I’ll be thrilled.

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The idea is that each of these yellow flowers is going to become a tomato. In practice, even if each one indeed becomes a tomato they’ll need a lot of sunshine to ripen, or else I’ll be making a great deal of green tomato chutney.

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I have put the tomato plants in the sunniest spot possible in the south-facing back garden. As they get bigger I will place them against the stone wall, as stone walls collect heat and keep nearby plants warmer.

The tomatoes have been potted up in a mixture of garden compost and horse manure, and I feed them regularly with a good all-purpose fertiliser, although my mother will probably weigh in and tell me I should buy some proper tomato feed. In my opinion you can have too many different types of fussy, specialised feeds and soils and things. Life is complicated enough.

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A plague on both my roses

I must apologise for my recent absence. You see, I have been battling dark forces. Just look at the state of my roses and you’ll see what I mean:

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What is causing these roses to look so sickly? I found this page on the RHS website which lists common problems in roses: leaf curl, aphid, black fly, white fly, green fly, rust, black spot, dieback, brown scale… A feeling of horror and despair came over me as I compared this list of infamies with the signs and symptoms in my roses, their curling, brown-speckled leaves, bare branches, infestations and knobbled wood: my roses are suffering from  every single affliction!

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For some reason I was particularly infuriated by the aphids. Look at this rascal! See how nonchalantly he adventures across the leaf in search of fresh shoots to maim. Now imagine hundreds of his bastardly cousins on the underside of the leaf,  gorging themselves on the rose’s lifeblood.

Between the acute infestation of bugs and the chronic infestation of moulds, I decided the bugs were the most urgent problem. The first thing I did was to fill a sprayer with a dilute soap solution, because I’ve read that soap makes it impossible for the aphids to stick to the plant. I saturated each rose plant with this solution, and the next morning was most gratified to find scores of yellow, dead aphids all over the roses.

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However, I was not sure how sustainable this answer was. Would the soap eventually concentrate and degrade the soil? I decided to throw some money at the problem and bought from the local garden centre an organic pesticide made of ‘a blend of fish and vegetable oils’ suitable for an organic garden. It promised not only to eliminate all types of bugs, their nymphs and their eggs, but to control the black spot and rust moulds too. It promised to be safe for the plant, and to be non-toxic to animals and beneficial insects such as bees.

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It sounded almost too good to be true.

 

I gave my roses a really good dowsing and found that the organic pesticide of natural oils was as good as its word as far as the aphids were concerned, although I did notice an increase in black fly, possibly moving in opportunistically now that the aphids were mostly gone. The moulds will take longer to go as once a leaf is discoloured it will remain so for good. The spray simply prevents the mould taking hold in new leaves.

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It may be too late for one of the roses. It lost almost all its fragile leaves overnight in a storm. Only time and patience will tell if it survives.