What this year has taught me

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

DON’T re­gard my­self as a ‘good’ gar­dener, but I do ad­mit to be­ing fairly ex­pe­ri­enced. After all, I’ve been at it ever since I won my prep school’s gar­den­ing prize at the age of nine —and then ev­ery year there­after, un­til I moved on to Winch­ester. Gar­den­ers are al­ways learn­ing from their mis­takes and, some­times, from their un­ex­pected suc­cesses. Here are four lessons that I learned dur­ing the course of 2016. You may know them al­ready.

My first dis­cov­ery was the re­sult of the ap­palling weather. Gar­den­ers tend to look for­ward to next year in­stead of re­flect­ing on the im­me­di­ate past, but it’s worth remembering that, in 2016, from April to July, we en­dured an ex­cep­tion­ally long stint of cool, wet weather. Most of my roses failed to open; their flower buds just rot­ted and turned into brown mush. The pe­riod wasn’t with­out its good days, but, over­all, it ranked as one of the most dif­fi­cult for gar­den­ing that many of us can re­mem­ber.

How­ever, it taught me that sweet peas need lots of wa­ter. We’ve al­ways grown them not in the open ground, but in large pots and tubs and we buy ready-to-plant seedlings from the gar­den cen­tre be­cause mice take the seed if we sow our own. Bought-in plants grow away quickly and we sup­port them with long hazel twigs. They nor­mally flower well for sev­eral weeks and we pick them as fast as they come, but then their stems get shorter and the plants start dy­ing back.

IThis year, I no­ticed that our sweet peas were flow­er­ing for much longer than usual and re­alised that the rain had kept our plants green and grow­ing all through July. Lathyrus odor­a­tus is na­tive to Si­cily, where it flow­ers in spring and, as soon as a Mediter­ranean sum­mer beck­ons, an­nu­als run quickly to seed. Trans­late this to our own cli­mate: you only have to let the pot dry out once and that’s the end of your sweet peas. So, when at last the heat­wave ar­rived in Au­gust, I con­tin­ued to wa­ter them co­pi­ously, adding a dash of liq­uid fer­tiliser to the can. The re­sult: we had a fine dis­play of sweet peas well into au­tumn.

My sec­ond les­son was that you can grow a lot of damplov­ing plants if you plant them in shade. Sun dries them out. I noted in 2015 that grass grows more lushly where our ap­ple trees shade the lawns; the shade more than com­pen­sates for the dry­ness of the trees’ roots and the rain shadow cre­ated by the canopy of branches.

This year, my can­de­labra prim­u­las (P. japon­ica, P. pul­veru­lenta, P. helo­doxa and P. chun­gen­sis) rev­elled in the rain that reached them in spring and gave thanks for the shade that pro­tected them there­after when the trees came into leaf.

The third les­son I learnt this sum­mer was one re­sult of buy­ing too many seed pota­toes. We nor­mally aim to grow 10 plants each of 10 dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties—it pro­longs the sea­son, spreads the risk and, any­way, we like try­ing new ones and com­par­ing their mer­its. How­ever, seed pota­toes are not al­ways avail­able in small quan­ti­ties, so, last year, I ended up with half a bag of un­used Annabelle, a firm, waxy va­ri­ety in­tro­duced in the Nether­lands by the same breeder who gave us Désirée in 1951.

Rather than throw them out, I scratched around for some­where to plant them and de­cided that the only pos­si­ble place was an old bon­fire site, a mix­ture of ash and charred twigs. The earth it­self was dry and burnt and I thought that, in such a hos­tile po­si­tion, with an over­dose of potash, it was un­likely that the seed pota­toes would even start into growth. On the con­trary, they all yielded enor­mous healthy crops of whop­ping spuds, by far the best re­sults I have ever had. And they tasted de­li­cious and kept well, too.

The les­son is to feed pota­toes with lots of potash. It’s some­thing, I have since dis­cov­ered, that com­mer­cial grow­ers do to in­crease both yields and qual­ity, but it was news to me at the time.

My last les­son was that those blue pel­lets you scat­ter to pro­tect your plants from slugs and snails don’t al­ways work. Gas­tropods pre­fer de­li­cious Lo­belia car­di­nalis and Cam­pan­ula tra­che­lium and by­pass my chem­i­cal bait. How will I pro­tect such plants in fu­ture? I shan’t bother. There’s no point in plant­ing any­thing the brutes won’t let you grow.

My gar­den­ing will be much im­proved next year by these four lessons. Per­haps, as I say, you knew them all al­ready, but I bet you didn’t win your first gar­den­ing prize at the age of nine.

Charles Quest-rit­son wrote the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses

A colour­ful au­tumn

Gen­er­ous wa­ter­ing will keep your sweet peas go­ing well into au­tumn

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