Time for un­shake­able op­ti­mism

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

STARTED gar­den­ing for a liv­ing in the late sum­mer of 1964. My par­ents wor­ried. Was this re­ally a ca­reer? My fa­ther had good rea­son to worry— he’d seen both his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther try­ing valiantly to earn a liv­ing off the land as gar­den­ers. Would I stick at it through the worst that a north­ern win­ter could of­fer?

I did stick at it, but ev­ery year at this time, I re­mem­ber the ca­st­iron numb­ness of my fin­gers as I emp­tied out pots of dead and dy­ing plants in the nurs­ery on a win­ter’s night, the cy­cling to work in the Wharfedale wind and rain and the steely re­silience of frozen ground that the tem­pered­steel blade of a spade would bounce off like a me­dieval lance from the shield of an armed knight. I re­call those mo­ments each year at this time with wist­ful­ness, re­mem­bered pain and grat­i­tude.

How­ever, such rec­ol­lec­tions also re­mind me that there are plea­sures to be had in the gar­dener’s down time: plea­sures of an­tic­i­pa­tion, stock­tak­ing, ad­mit­ting to fail­ures and dream­ing of fu­ture suc­cesses. The win­ter isn’t all about shut­ting up shop and hi­ber­nat­ing from the gar­den, but nei­ther is it sim­ply a time for sit­ting in front of a flam­ing log fire, reading seed cat­a­logues. It’s a time for plan­ning and for dream­ing, but also for en­deav­our­ing to make next year’s gar­den not just bet­ter to look at, but more en­joy­able to be in.

It’s so easy to get used to things that don’t work, to prom­ise our­selves that, one day, we will do

Isome­thing about that bor­der that’s never re­ally worked and those shrubs that are, let’s be hon­est, over the hill and need to go.

In my Hamp­shire gar­den, that’s a bul­let I must bite this win­ter. There’s a pur­ple-leafed el­der that has, for some rea­son, de­cided to ‘go back’ (a de­light­ful gar­dener’s eu­phemism for a steady de­cline to­wards death) and a sil­ver-leafed pear that’s now shoul­der­ing out the smaller shrubs and peren­ni­als that sur­round it.

It sounds like a sim­ple ‘to do’ list, but it’s al­ways eas­ier to avoid such jobs for just an­other year. When the plants have gone and the space is clear, I’ll won­der why I didn’t do it ear­lier. Then, there will be the plea­sure of de­cid­ing what can go in the spa­ces. My gar­den in Hamp­shire is now 15 years old and there are many patches that could do with what my dad would have called ‘a good coat of look­ing at’— an ex­am­i­na­tion with a crit­i­cal eye to see how they could be im­proved.

An av­enue of Pyrus calleryana Chan­ti­cleer, al­though colum­nar to a rea­son­able de­gree, is cut­ting out too much light and the trees need re­duc­ing in width. Those ram­bling roses on the house wall will ben­e­fit from some­thing more than a light trim. It’s time I waded in and thinned them out to a vig­or­ous young frame­work that will rein­vig­o­rate them.

The Isle of Wight gar­den is much younger at just one year old, but I’ve been as­ton­ished at the growth rate of the plants thanks, in part, to an ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem. We’re on clay, but that dries out with mas­sive cracks when rain­fall isn’t forth­com­ing for a few weeks. A ‘leaky pipe’ sys­tem snaking through the beds, cov­ered with mulch and con­nected to com­put­erised timers at the tap end has proved a god­send.

If I were in any doubt as to its ef­fec­tive­ness, the one bed we didn’t equip with ir­ri­ga­tion suf­fered sev­eral fa­tal­i­ties in our ab­sence dur­ing dry spells. I would rec­om­mend such a sys­tem to any­one plant­ing up a new gar­den re­gard­less of the na­ture of their soil.

And now, in that is­land gar­den, I have the mi­mosa trees to look for­ward to—their buds are about to burst into a froth of cad­mium yel­low. Mi­mosas are of­ten too ten­der to sur­vive in main­land gar­dens out­side the cap­i­tal, but with the slight lift in tem­per­a­ture that the sea pro­vides, I know I can rely on them to beat even the daf­fodils in pro­vid­ing win­ter sun­shine.

Gar­den­ing has given me a sense of pro­por­tion, a re­spect for the earth and an un­shake­able op­ti­mism that will get me through the win­ter. There is still much to dis­cover, much to learn and a new sea­son whose ar­rival I will greet with a smile and a sigh. My dad, al­though right on many oc­ca­sions, was wrong at least on that count.

‘Gar­den­ing has given me a sense of pro­por­tion and a re­spect for the earth

My Se­cret Gar­den by Alan Titchmarsh is pub­lished by BBC Books (£25)

The mi­mosa tree bears masses of bright-yel­low flow­ers in late win­ter

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