27: Spring 2011

Author: Peter Goodlad

Survival of the fittest

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Survival of the fittest
Peter Goodlad

This year’s celebration of Darwin has produced many excellent TV documentaries, including that by the veteran David Attenborough. It might seem a little ungenerous to offer a word of complaint, but when it comes to gardening, I’m opposed to the ‘survival of the fittest’. Nicholas Wray, curator of the new Bristol botanical garden, told us at our April meeting that in his plant evolution collection he has several varieties of Equisetum (Horsetail). For me, despite its hundred million years of history, any horsetail is one too many. The horsetail already destroying the tarmac of my drive would, if left to its own devices, rapidly colonise the whole garden. As would the Convolvulus (bindweed) clambering through the northern border. And it’s not just weeds. For several years, we enjoyed the gentle spreading habit of Centranthus (Red Valerian), and, following Marjory Fish’s advice, let it wander at will. But, once it had lulled us into quiet acceptance, it made a bid for power and planted itself in every border, putting down extra strong roots wherever it went.

David Attenborough blames many of the problems we now experience with our global environment on Genesis chapter I and its mandate for man to dominate the earth. With weeds and thugs, I plead guilty to opposing natural selection and to fighting evolution all the way.

I was put off gardening for many years by the way so many plants come with demanding and irrational commands about sunlight, soil, irrigation and food. But how do I help the less hardy to survive?

A shrubby salvia that I bought from Jim’s stall at our Kelmarsh plant fair is sitting in its pot outside my back door, ready for planting. Jim assures me it is hardy, but then he is a good salesman (and, of course, a very good gardener). From an evolutionary point of view, ‘Moonlight over Ashwood’, despite its West Midlands connection, has forbears who lived in far away climes in the New World, possibly Mexico, and spent many generations adapting to that particular environment. This salvia tells me it is willing to live in my garden so long as I can make it feel at home. Its dietary requirements are simple, but it has its own ideas about a comfortable bed (well drained) and about what constitutes a nice summer or a rotten winter. If I insist that it adapts to my needs, it will grow feebly and probably die. Fortunately, I’ve already had experience looking after some of its cousins. ‘Pink Blush’ which we bought on a Hardy Plants outing (though Jean and I can’t agree which garden we bought it from, or indeed which of us bought it) flourishes anywhere in our garden. ‘Kew Red’, which came from another outing, survived in the back garden but produced very little flower; perversely, in the more open front garden, it romped away all summer but then expired in this year’s March winds. Even here, William Dyson of Great Comp (who was selling at the Savill Garden plant fair) offers a ray of hope: “Don’t give up; even in July new growth could still emerge from the roots”. I will keep experimenting, respecting this salvia’s ancestors who evolved to make the New World their true home. And, since it grows well from cuttings and flourishes in a cool greenhouse, I shall keep some of its offspring as insurance.

Wiser commentary on Genesis chapter I has always seen the creation mandate as a call to husbandry, to look after the earth, to manage it, to enable it to flourish and be fruitful. And that is surely what every aspiring gardener is aiming to do, even for a solitary salvia with a hint of moonlight.

First published in the Northamptonshire Group Newsletter, June 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 27.
© Copyright for this article: Peter Goodlad

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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