27: Spring 2011

Author: Janet Sleep

Forward not back

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Forward not back
Janet Sleep

This is just about the most fatuous political slogan I have heard in a long time and is prone to raise my blood-pressure to uneasy levels. Of course politicians don’t want you to look back: best not to dwell on the gargantuan sized blunders just committed to add to the long list of own-goals already achieved: not if they want to get re-elected that is. But we live in the real world and know that a hard look at recent experience might save making the same mistakes again. I am talking of the real gardener’s world here, of course. Forget the economy for a while, let the gloomy cohorts of economists and pontificators sort that out. We can at least make a real difference on home ground.

This is a good time of year to make some gardening resolutions. Here is my list: you will be able to construct your own given a little thought.

Number one: stop banging your head against a brick wall. That plant has never liked you and, indeed, has something against you, your soil, your climate and possibly even your parentage for all you know. It has never flowered. It sulks. It doesn’t die, merely takes up useful space. It is a constant reproach and undermines your confidence in the most insidious of ways. Get rid of it. Throw it out. Don’t pass it on to the next unsuspecting idiot at the plant sale. Think of it as accelerated natural selection. You are a biological facilitator – an exterminator of the unfit. Now you will have your own candidate here, but I am thinking of Kniphofia ‘Strawberries and Cream’. Last year, though wet, was the best ever for many of my torch lilies. ‘Samuel’s Sensation’ made a brilliant show and thoroughly deserved its monicker. It has lovely apricot/coral tops and creamy white flounces beneath and positively lit up that bit of border for weeks. I expected, for once, something similar from ‘S and C’, after all I had given it a nice new spot with less competition and the usual t.l.c. at bedding in time. But no. Nothing. I have already acted on this resolution. ‘Strawberries and Cream’ is no more. It is a dead kniphofia. It is an ex red hot poker and has gone to a better place – the compost heap.

There, that feels better already.

Number two: don’t worry about what the style police think. Do it your way. If cactus dahlias in magenta are your thing then go for it – in a big way. Sate your desire for magenta by plastering it liberally. Flaunt your desire for display by going for bigger and, possibly, better. I have seen dahlias topping 6ft given enough support. Would this be enough? Of course you can’t expect me to like them too and this is the down side of having the courage of your convictions. You will not please everybody and will undoubtedly offend some. You can like it, or be liked for it and the two are rarely the same. Of course, growing something that is deeply unpopular usually means that you are doing a service to biodiversity. When everyone has got rid of the last bergenia, I shall still be growing them and enjoying them too. Don’t doubt that bergenias will one day be found essential for something. We can’t know the future and on the precautionary principle somebody somewhere should be keeping as many of them going as possible. Nurserymen no longer stock them because of the rampant rise of the vine weevil to which bergenias are, dare I say it, strawberries and cream.

Number three: step out of your comfort zone and try something quite new. I am probably more experimental than many but even I have been reluctant to try certain genera of plants and as there are so many which I feel will fit the bill and will give me less anxious moments, there is always the tendency to play it a little safe. This year I am going to extend the number of grasses I grow from a very limited range. I have been wary of their sometimes aggressive tendencies and, indeed, have recently dug out a miscanthus that was turning rather thuggish without providing sufficient return. But I have also planted a Calamagrostis brachytricha and am about to seek out Molinia caerulea ‘Transparent’. I saw both at the end of October looking quite wonderful in Beth Chatto’s garden, the former with soft, pinkish bottle brush plumes and the latter an airy delight. I was too early in the season for the autumn colour that molinias usually provide in November. Tim Fuller tells me that molinias do much of the clearing up for you as, come the first heavy frosts they collapse away and separate from the lower woody part of the stem. Being deep-rooted, they withstand drought really well which might help, for I suspect we are overdue a return to drought and dessicating winds. It is because of this potential that my new plantings of podophyllums are decidedly risky. They are moist woodland plants and are grown for their strangely beautiful foliage. The leaves are wonderfully puckered and mottled on emergence and end up as new-age umbrellas. The best are fearfully expensive, though I have grown P. hexandrum from seed. ‘Spotty Dotty’ has some of the best colouring and is possibly a form of P. delavayi. Of course, I have heard others be distinctly rude about podophyllums, even suggesting that they might suitably be offered bit-parts in Doctor Who, but, given resolution number two, I can hardly back off on that account.

So here goes. Happy New Year.

First published in the Norfolk and Suffolk Group Newsletter, Spring 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 27.
© Copyright for this article: Janet Sleep

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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