Sarah Coles

8. GARDENING FOR EVER. Practicalities


                                                             PART TWO

                                                     CHAPTER SEVEN 



Relax.  Let go, be tolerant, accept the odd holes in a hosta leaf, a few misshapen flowers.  If the hosta is destroyed by slugs, grow another in a tub where they can’t reach it, or grow something else.

Don’t use words like plague, infestation, pests, horror, nuisance, don’t treat your garden as a battlefield where the fighting never stops.

Don’t be seduced by photographs.  All you see is a moment in the life of a particular plant or garden, snapped by a professional. 

Don’t take the experts too seriously.  One of Gertrude Jekyll’s more famous quotes is about a garden teaching thrift.  In fact, nature teaches wild extravagance as plants expand and multiply, producing seeds by the thousand, sneaking runners under the soil to colonise other parts.  This is one reason why gardeners are usually so generous with cuttings, offshoots, seeds and self sown seedlings.

Don’t be brainwashed by talk of natives, or listen to derogatory remarks about ‘immigrants’.  Virtually all plants in the countryside were immigrants after the last ice age.  Bees and insects are happy to pollinate flowers from all over the world.

Welcome certain weeds, like self heal or daisies in the lawn.

If you want birds, and who doesn’t, don’t be too tidy.

Like the things which like you.  I didn’t like the rosy Japanese anemones along the front of our house until they were admired by others and I realised they were fantastic value.  Plants referred to as thuggish are often to be valued for their exuberance.


Learn whether your soil is alkaline, acid or neutral, because this will determine what you can easily grow.  This is measured by the soil’s pH which indicates its alkalinity or otherwise, and in the garden stretches from 5.5 which is acid, 7.0 which is neutral and the ideal soil to have, to 8.5 which is strongly alkaline and toxic to shrubs like azaleas and rhododendrons.  Inexpensive pH gauges for measuring can be bought at garden centres.

Get the kit.  A decent trowel, Sneeboers is excellent, with a pointed tip useful for weeding.   A decent pair of secateurs, I swear by Felco with their red handles which can easily be spotted when dropped on the ground.  A garden fork which suits your height and hand.  A garden spade ditto, which may well be found at the local recycling centre costing virtually nothing.  These are my basic gear which I use all the time, but over the years I’ve added some little Bosch electric clippers for the annual trim of my box balls, some Darlac shears, a rake for leaves in autumn, A brush for leaves on the patio, and a Darlac lopper for pruning and overhanging branches.  A couple of buckets. A maximum/minimum thermometer to tell how cold the nights have been.

If you have a lawn, you’ll need a mower.  People can be rude about lawns, but they are great for walking on, sitting on and looking at, making a perfect contrast to a bed of tumultuous plants as well as, if you wish, being embroidered with daisies and purple self-heal.  Ideal for mowing are the new robot mowers powered by chargeable batteries which slowly clamber over the lawn like outsized beetles.  They are kept in check by an unseen perimeter wire.

For a richer more productive soil, mulching is needed.  Occasionally put down bought compost, whether bought or homemade.    I do this in winter when the beds are comparatively bare.  When planting anything, incorporate compost to help reconcile the new bulb, tree, shrub or perennial to its home.  I tried laying cardboard on my small vegetable patch as a mulch, but it was so hideous I took it up.  Now, I cover the fallow parts and under shrubs with grass mowings, and let them rot down over the winter.

It’s worth remembering that not every plant likes rich soil.  Flowers, trees and shrubs evolved without specially made compost.  Plants like lavender and verbascum flourish on thinner soils.  On a hill near Selborne, Hampshire, each April onwards there are little orchids galore, from the early purple in spring to the spiralling autumn lady’s tresses, as well as milk weed, bell flowers, scabious, centaury and others growing wild on the sparse chalky turf.  An overload of compost or fertiliser would kill.

What there is No Need to Do:

‘Wash out your pots before reusing to prevent disease’.  If you don’t, you will find no ill results.

‘Spray your roses.’  Again, don’t bother.  Just get good modern disease free roses, or old roses of good repute.

‘Do this or do that to get rid of slugs and snails’.   You can pick off slugs after dark and put copper rings round a plant to deter these slimy bits of gristle, but please don’t put down those turquoise pellets containing the poison metaldehyde.  While killing slugs and snails, you are emptying the larder of the birds who feed on them.  I don’t do a thing.  I never set out to be an organic gardener – I didn’t want to be part of a cult, I didn’t want to deny the modern innovations that have immeasurably improved life, I didn’t want to hark back at an imaginary golden age – but slowly I have despite myself become one.  I hate putting down chemicals that affect other creatures in the garden.  I would rather leave pest control to the birds.

‘Divide your perennials every other year, then replant’.  If you don’t, most will continue to look fine, though some may diminish in flower size.   In the wild there’s no one around for division.

‘Paint tree stumps to stop rot’ – unnecessary, it makes no difference.

Only grow vegetables if you want to.  Good decently priced vegetables await you in shops and in farmers markets, many grown locally.

Only sow seeds if you feel like it.   A vast array of plugs and full grown plants – pelargoniums, petunias, alyssum, begonias and the like – await you each spring in the garden centres and the catalogues of nurserymen.

You need space for somewhere to sit with chairs – a patio, terrace, decking, shingle or a lawn.  But don’t succumb to the ease of artificial grass.  It has the same rasping feel as artificial flowers.  Birds can’t dig for the worms which have long been suffocated, and for all the good it does the environment you may as well be laying down a desert.  It is ecologically dead, and when it gets tatty, you will have to chuck it out and buy some more.  A real lawn can have daisies for making chains, it can have clover, self-heal, speedwell and yarrow, it can be a patchwork of flowers.

When you feel, as every gardener does at times, that everything is getting out of hand, spilling over the edges and not looking as you planned, remember Reginald Farrer’s words: ‘I think the true gardener is a lover of his flowers, not a critic of them.  I think the true gardener is the reverent servant of Nature, not her truculent, wife-beating master.  I think the true gardener, the older he grows, should more and more develop a humble, grateful and uncertain spirit.’

My Garden

About ten years ago I moved to a new garden, about forty five yards by fifteen yards.  Being in a town, it was surrounded by houses, and the house had no south aspect, just north, east and west.  To the north was tall holly tree, with a lot of earth with wire and plastic rubbish showing through.  To the west over a fence was visible the first floor and roofs of a row of retirement homes.  To the east was a yard where we and others park.  Our next door neighbours said our predecessor, an elderly lady, had been a neighbour from hell – though apart from complaining about icing sugar dusting the gift of a cake, her greatest crime seemed to be lighting an occasional bonfire.  We took note.  In a town lighting a bonfire may be regarded a filthy habit sending black specks onto neighbours’ washing.

It had two birch trees, a fig tree against a wall, an evergreen shrub, an Arabella clematis, a rampant Cécile Brunner rose, a quince, quite a lot shrubby winter flowering honeysuckle, a purple smoke bush, a sickly winter flowering cherry which died in a summer drought and some tired espalier pears against the wall.  As well as a lot of rubbish around the tall holly tree.  It also had an old privy, beside the door to which had been erected a small awkward green house.  Against the parking side of the house were three climbing roses.  Bob my husband was happy to mow the lawn, but having been a farmer, although he enjoyed flowers he never really understood  gardening.  In his heart of hearts, he considered plants should earn one a living.

When I asked Andy McIndoe, who won scores of gold medals for Hilliers Nurseries at Chelsea, how he did achieved them, he replied, always make a plan of the garden.  First comes the shape, the design, which must look good on paper.  Keep it simple.  Then fill in the shrubs and trees, some like the evergreen Viburnum davidii to give solidity.  Then various plants for their leaves, their colour and contrast.  Now open your arms to the angels and welcome the flowers.

Andy’s advice was invaluable.  I made a plan on graph paper, and because I must have symmetry – after all we are symmetrical with two eyes, two legs and arms – wherever possible I could not help making the design orderly and balanced.  This was perfect, because later with trial plants, lopsidedness and mistakes, it made the garden look more orderly than it actually was.

The garden is usually entered from a sitting room door, which opens to a patio with steps to the lawn.   Another door has steps leading to a herb garden, with an archway of the newly trained Cecile Brunner leading to the main garden.  Seen from the south, the lawn on the plan reached under the arch and soon stretched out two short arms, one leading to the fence and the other to our neighbour’s wall, and a wicket gate to the Yard full of cars.  At the head of the lawn was a horseshoe bed, taking what sun it could.  Tucked along the side of the horseshoe bed, a narrow path would lead to the end of the garden where you could go on to the holly tree, or to where my new greenhouse would be.  An awkward ugly greenhouse over an old privy would be demolished.

The new greenhouse was to be a focal point of the side path, so it had to look attractive in its own right.  I chose a small Robinson hexagonal greenhouse, roomy enough for what I had in mind.  All the books said choose the sunniest spot you can for a greenhouse, but the spot where I wanted it had little sun, and with misgivings I went ahead.  After several years I have found this unheated greenhouse better for growing cucumbers than tomatoes, but useful for overwintering tender salvias, succulents like echeverias and the like.  It needs no shading in summer, it never gets over heated and now I would not have it any other way.  In winter when the weather’s freezing and ice ferns sprout on the glass, I light two fat candle to lower  the temperature a degree or two.

Since the greenhouse was well within the sightline of our neighbours’ patio, I had Brian come and dig a pit two feet below ground level so only the cresting would be visible above our dividing wall.    Otherwise I might have been named their new neighbour from hell.  I even invited them round to see what was happening.  Brian laid a path to the pit, and concreted it, and the man from Robinson’s came on a stormy day to erect the greenhouse from a mass of panes and ironmongery like a 3D jigsaw puzzle.

Along the length and at the corners of the beds, I planted box balls for interest and shape, and columnar yews at the end of the arms off the lawn, and at the entrance of the herb garden, to give the sense of reaching a changed space.

Soon, the main planting of my garden was done.  I stood and looked.  The short arms either side the lawn were transepts, one leading to a birdbath, our lustral font, the other to the wicket gate, reaching the world beyond.  The box spheres stood for pillars.  The side path to the greenhouse was a passage to the vestry with all its practicalities.  Flora the goddess of our garden, an ancient lichened bust, sat on her altar at the curved end of the lawn between two columnar yews.  I had created my temple.  Even if as yet I was the only one to recognise it as such.


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