What this year has taught me
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