Much of what we do as gardeners is about following rules. We might not realise it because we probably do the jobs without thinking but somewhere along the line we learnt how to plant a shrub or the best way to get seeds to germinate. Maybe we were shown how to do it by a parent, perhaps we read about it in a book or possibly it was a Gardener’s World presenter that showed us the technique. Most of these ‘rules’ are based on sound horticultural science but are they always worth following or does sticking to what the experts say constrict us as gardeners and prevent us from being a bit more experimental?
I’m reading In Your Garden at the moment which is a collection of articles written by Vita Sackville-West for the Observer newspaper in 1950. In her March 26th entry she writes about gardeners across the country, knives and secateurs at the ready, ‘brandishing these objects of destruction, battalions of professional and amateur gardeners advance, prepared to do their worst, as they have immemorially been taught’. During the war Vita had worked as a Land Army representative and came across roses that had been left to their own devices and she had found them to flourish and whilst visiting a friend’s garden, where she was daring to break the rules by barely touching her roses, she discovered the same results. As she wrote ‘it rejoices me to see that different ideas are creeping in’.
Often the difference is between those gardeners who have been formally trained and those who are self-taught. Whilst I did go back to college to study for my RHS qualifications several years ago, I’m an amateur gardener and see myself as having a welly in both camps, so to speak. I loved studying in greater depth the science behind plants and the soil, and knowing why plants did things meant I had more of an understanding of what I needed to do to help them grow but you learn the RIGHT way to do tasks and sometimes there was part of me thinking ‘really, does it have to be done that way?’ To achieve the levels of perfection attained by the RHS then the answer is yes but for the rest of us mere mortals some of the rules can be broken some of the time. For instance, the very precise ways to sow seeds may well guarantee better germination rates and be necessary on a commercial scale but when your shed is so small your seed sowing is done sat on the path outside the shed and wielding a sieve to dust my seeds with a covering of compost would be impractical you make the best of your circumstances.
This spring I tried to grow the beautiful flower Daucus carota ‘Black Knight’. As it is from the carrot family it’s advised to sow direct, as the plant does not like root disturbance. I dutifully followed instructions but the first sowing were eaten by slugs and the second sowing succumbed to the deluge of rain we had in April and May. Frustrated but determined I thought I’d start some off in a seed tray. Well perseverance paid off and I have been picking flowers for a month now and there was not a trace of the plants suffering from being moved from a seed tray into the ground.
When I got my first compost bin last year I was quite nervous about how to go about the whole business of composting, thinking I was just going to end up with a pile of slimy sludge stinking in the corner. I’d read so many books advising me to what to do that my head was swimming. Fortunately, I came across the writer, Ken Thompson, and his book, Compost. It was informative and fascinating but most importantly it was a relaxed book, there was no sense that there was a right or wrong way to do it. I don’t have time to be prodding and poking my heap so I leave the worms do their work. Admittedly, my heap is not the fastest at producing compost but I still get a result.
Since then I’ve discovered two other books by Ken Thompson both of which continue his refreshingly pragmatic approach to gardening. A plant ecologist and senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield he uses his extensive knowledge to dispel some of the myths that have been perpetuated over the years. In No Nettles Required he explains that you don’t need a patch of nettles in your garden to attract wildlife or have to turn it into a scrubby, unattractive piece of wasteland just to get birds, bees and butterflies visiting His other book An Ear to the Ground which I’ve just borrowed from the library, includes snippets such as the disadvantages of solid windbreaks, such as fences, being over-exaggerated and not to be afraid to be experimental with pruning to see what gets the best results. I can see this is a book I’m going to love.
As the climate changes and the seasons become more blurred maybe we’ll all have to become more flexible in our approach to gardening. And whilst much of horticulture is based on very sound reasoning who knows what a little bit of experimenting every now and again might uncover.
I’d love to hear about the ‘rules’ you’ve broken in the garden and the outcomes, good or bad.