And the garden

When modern architecture goes outside


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Christmas Gifts for Impossible Gardeners

When buying presents it is always a mistake to aim – unguided – at the recipient’s main interest, whatever it is.  So far over the course of his life, my husband has been given enough random or whimsical golfing paraphenalia to start a small shop.  Had we but kept it (Ahem).  My much loved late mother-in-law was prone to this and absentminded with it, and I have very fond memories of the look on my husband’s face as he unwrapped – for the second year running – the little framed cartoon depicting some humorous egg/golf ball confusion.

Gardeners are terrible people to buy presents for, unless you are a gardener yourself, and, moreover, an equal or better gardener than they are.  What follows is harsh, but true.

Do not give them a book about gardening.  The book you give them will be the equivalent of giving ‘How to read Music’ to James Levine, or ‘My First Cookbook’ to Mary Berry.  If by some stroke of luck you do give them a book they really want, they will already have it, having bought it themselves, being unable to wait.

No you may not give them a plant.  Not unless you collected it from the wilds of Tibet yourself (or you know someone who did).  They struggle enough with where to put the plants they bought themselves on impulse, without having to place your offering.  It will sit with the other plants in their pots in the corner of shame – every garden has one, usually by the garage – and deliver mute, root-bound reproach to the gardener whenever they walk past.  And there’s the worry you might ask about it, next time you visit.

You especially may not give them a houseplant.  Just because the Poinsettia is one of the few plants you can recognise and name, doesn’t automatically mean your gardener will welcome it.  They may not be very good with houseplants [blushes]. Unlike cut flowers, one is supposed to keep houseplants going year after year, for diminishing returns (and I include the entirety of Orchidaceae in that).

That garden-motto’ed mug with its special compartment for the biscuit?  It will make good crocks in the bottom of a pot of bulbs, but that’s probably not what you intended.

You are perhaps feeling a bit less charitable now towards the gardener in your life (or towards me.  Hopefully just towards me).  If you haven’t been put off by this glimpse into the blackness of our hearts, anything on the following list is certain to be received with unalloyed appreciation by your gardening friends and family.

Ten Presents for Picky Gardeners

1.  One tonne bag of fine bark mulch.  Providing your gardener has space to put this outside within reach of a tarmacked road, this is a perfect present.  No one ever has enough mulch to spread on their borders, and the bags that one buys in garden centres are expensive, heavy to hoist into the car, and disappointingly small.  From £75 per bag, delivered, from people like Scotbark.

2.  Felco secateurs.  The best secateurs in the business.  Models 6-12 are all good, £40-£55.  From Felco.

3.  Plant voucher.  A plant voucher from a good nursery that delivers mail orders to your country.  My favourites in the UK are Ashridge, Victoriana, Jacksons, Junkers, Kevock Garden, Peter Nyssen and the ever reliable Crocus.

4.  Root grow – 2.5L.  Mycorrhizal fungi that you sprinkle on the roots of trees and shrubs to help them establish and grow faster than they otherwise would.  Recommended by the RHS and in my own experience this makes a huge difference £45, a tub is a great luxury but small sachets also available for stocking fillers, £2.25.

5.  Solar powered/wind up radio.  Very handy to take around the garden with you – never miss the afternoon play because you’re gardening.  Lots, but here from £25.

6.  Landscaper’s rake.  They make have a rake.  Bet they don’t have a rake this good.  It’s twice the width of a usual rake, light as a feather and invaluable for creating a tilth and other wierd things gardeners do. £40-£50

7.  Niwaki tripod ladder.  This one is pricey.  Maybe for Christmas and birthday combined?  A joy to use, weighs nothing at all and the tripod design means it’s super stable and you can position it anywhere without squashing your plants.  I love mine.  From £160 to £300.

8.  Twine.  One can never have enough, and it’s handy to have tins of twine in different places.  £7, from Nutscene, the best.

9.  Jiffy pellet seed trays.  Brilliant way of sowing seed – get Ref R-JPT38PK2 which gets you two trays with 60 cells,  each with a pellet that swells on contact with water.  Some spare pellets (R-J7C42PK), the whole set should come in around £30 from LBS Garden Warehouse.

10. Neom Organics bath oil.  Taster set of six £20, probably for the she-gardener.  Heavenly smellies, just right for relaxing after a cold wet day’s digging.

 

Perhaps as a result of being bludgeoned with their respective hobbies for so many years, my husband’s family now circulate lists of the stuff they really want (by email, with the links to the online item).  I found it surprisingly easy to get over my initial disapproval.

Update: Christmas 2016 list of 10 gifts for gardeners, all of ’em under £15, can be found here.

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Choosing a Tree, part One

There are two main types of plant-buying gardener: those who buy what is in front of them (often in flower) and then plan where to put it; and those who first plan what they want and then source it.  No gardener ever entirely overcomes the first behaviour, it’s just that the impulses tend to be for more unusual plants in special nurseries – or late night online temptation.

The available garden space that most people have does tend to limit impulse buying to shrubs and herbaceous plants – it is a foolish gardener, or one with a very large garden, who buys a Wellingtonia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, on a whim.  I am that gardener.  I then compounded the error by dithering over where exactly in our 10 acres to put it and temporarily heeled it in quite close to the drive.  When we sold the house ten years later, it was still in its temporary position, only it had grown considerably.  I am struggling to phrase how relieved I felt that the wretched thing was now someone else’s problem without appearing utterly craven, and failing.

   

Sequoiadendron giganteum; Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’

I do learn from my mistakes and have not repeated that one, unless you count the Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ bought as soon as I clapped eyes on it in the excellent Kirkdale nursery in Aberdeenshire, but I placed it successfully, so I don’t.  And an unnamed, as yet unidentified tree found (slightly root-bound) in a corner of the Dundee Botanic Garden plant shop that had such blazing pink and magenta autumn colour that I had to have it, no matter that none of the available gardeners (or for that matter, visiting gardening friends) knew what it was.  It will probably turn out to be something ploddingly ordinary that is usually a shrub but that has been trained as a standard, and this denouement will almost certainly take place during a visit from gardeners I had been hoping to impress.

In his thoughtful and inspiring account of planting his former London garden, ‘Home Ground: a sanctuary in the city‘ (I urge anyone planning a garden to read this exquisitely written and photographed book), Dan Pearson describes his deliberations in choosing a tree for a prominent place.  I particularly appreciated following his thought process as he debated the merits of first one species then another:  even more so, his sharing of the fact that the first two he planted were not quite right and were subsequently moved.  Too often, gardening authors only divulge the end result, which makes them appear very knowledgeable and decisive, but which can make the novice despair of ever commanding such a unerring grasp of plant possibilities.

Because they take a while to reach a good size, and you will be looking at it for many many years, if you are going to plant a tree both you and it deserve your spending a bit of time choosing what sort.  Why plant any old thing when you could plant something that will enchant you year after year, whose seasons you can anticipate with delight, and which by observing it through the cycles of the years will enrich your life?

If you don’t know where to start, have a think about what pleases you in a tree – be inspired by childhood memories, great holidays, gardens visited, neighbourhood trees that you always notice, paintings and photographs.  (Here is where I admit to Google Image searches, and an unhealthy Pinterest addiction.).  Go and visit some local gardens, take your phone and photograph the trees you like best.  Make a note of what you don’t like, too, as it is very useful in narrowing down the endless choices.  Many books have been written on the subject (and please do add your suggestions – about books or trees – to the comments section, it would be lovely to hear from you.)

While we are discussing tree choices I feel I must take a swipe at the many excellent conservation organisations who routinely distribute free native tree saplings.  While a spreading oak in the right setting feeds both wildlife and the soul, most of us simply do not have large enough gardens.  This applies to most of the other native species too, and smaller native trees such as Sorbus, the rowans, are rarely as colourful as their ornamental cousins.  I would make (and have in my garden made) an exception for both silver and downy birch, Betula pendula and B. pubescens:  although the bark of the natives is not as striking as many exotic species or cultivars, the delicacy of the leaf in movement is unparalleled.   And they cast little shade so you can grow lots of things underneath them.  And…  excuses, excuses.

birch shadow small

Shadows of Betula pendula on the white rendered wall of the house

The important thing is to justify your choice of tree because you love one or more of its characteristics.  Remember: at this stage you are merely gathering information and inspiration, not worrying overmuch about practicalities.  The more trees on your list, the better.  As you get your eye in, you will find you start to recognise certain trees, and with this comes a great satisfaction.  The next stage is to look at your site with a gimlet eye to whittle down the list, and we’ll do that in the next post.