In The Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Charles Quest-rit­son

Charles Quest-rit­son breaks the rules

‘No writer about gar­dens and plants can know ev­ery­thing

IWAS busy plant­ing tulips well into Jan­uary. You may think that’s a bit late for bulbs—all the pun­dits say this is a job for Septem­ber—but I al­ways de­lay get­ting tulips into the ground un­til the New Year. There are two rea­sons for my tar­di­ness.

First, and most im­por­tant, the bulbs don’t like win­ter wet and they may rot off if planted in the au­tumn. I learned this the hard way when I gar­dened on heavy clay soil in a damp cli­mate. That cau­tion no longer ap­plies now that we’re mak­ing a gar­den on free-drain­ing chalk down­land, but I do so all the same.

Which means that I have a sec­ond rea­son for be­ing so late in plant­ing: I bought a mass of left­over bulbs in De­cem­ber, be­cause they were very much cheaper than when they were first of­fered for sale. In fact, I do this ev­ery year. Re­tail­ers are keen to get on with sell­ing next sea­son’s plants and start to dis­count tulip bulbs from Novem­ber on­wards.

The pun­dits who in­sist on early plant­ing are wrong. My tulips will bloom as well as any­one’s, al­though the ear­lyflow­er­ing T. kauf­man­ni­ana hy­brids such as Stresa and Jo­hann Strauss won’t open quite as early as per­haps they do for you.

The moral is that it’s al­ways best to try things out for one­self. Many are the myths of hor­ti­cul­tural or­tho­doxy: ex­pe­ri­ence is usu­ally bet­ter than book-read­ing. Ev­ery vol­ume on gar­den­ing will tell you that Ha­mamelis—the win­ter-flow- er­ing witch hazels that are such a joy from Jan­uary on­wards— won’t grow in al­ka­line soil and cer­tainly not in chalk. The same is true, they say, of their re­la­tions, the cory­lop­sis, liq­uidambars, fothergillas and par­ro­tias, yet my neigh­bours in Hamp­shire have one of the coun­try’s largest spec­i­mens of Par­ro­tia per­sica grow­ing on a chalk slope in the park­land below their house.

Many years ago, I planted its ev­er­green re­la­tion Sy­cop­sis sinen­sis in the mid­dle of Sal­is­bury Plain. It flour­ished and my guess is that other fam­ily mem­bers, and in­deed Ha­mamelis it­self, will thrive if planted where there is an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of leaf­mould, even if the un­der­ly­ing soil is still chalk. It’s time to make some more ex­per­i­ments.

Here’s an­other myth: pot­bound trees and shrubs don’t grow away prop­erly. Peo­ple say that their roots just go round and round within their root­ball and don’t ven­ture out into the sur­round­ing soil. That’s not my ex­pe­ri­ence.

I find that that pot-bound plants of all sorts are so starved of soil and nu­tri­ents that they re­spond to be­ing planted out by ex­pand­ing their roots most greed­ily. It helps if you tug the roots apart when plant­ing, but this is mainly be­cause the plant is then bet­ter an­chored in the soil.

More dif­fi­cult, for quite a dif­fer­ent rea­son, are roses that have just been pot­ted up for sale. Buy one be­fore it’s set­tled into its pot and what you get is a bare-root plant with a few brit­tle white rootlets and a pot­ful of use­less com­post. The rootlets break off when you plant them and the rose doesn’t al­ways re­cover.

How do these myths get around? Most of them are handed down, un­tried and untested, from the writ­ings of ear­lier au­thor­i­ties. No writer about plants and gar­dens can know ev­ery­thing. When we’re stuck for knowl­edge, we look up the prob­lem in other peo­ple’s books. Mis­takes get copied un­think­ingly from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. Who then can be trusted?

The best hor­ti­cul­tural boffins are those whose ad­vice is based on per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence or ob­ser­va­tion. It fol­lows that you’ll prob­a­bly get the best coun­sel from some­one with many years of prac­ti­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion be­hind them.

Christo­pher Lloyd’s writ­ings are a good start, be­cause, all his life, he devel­oped and re­de­vel­oped his gar­den at Great Dix­ter. His lively lit­er­ary style, al­beit rather camp, is a joy to read and he loved de­bunk­ing myths.

Even bet­ter, in my opin­ion, are the books that Gra­ham Stu­art Thomas wrote in his old age, af­ter a long ca­reer as a nurs­ery­man fol­lowed by many years as gar­dens ad­vi­sor to the Na­tional Trust.

Thomas lived to be 93 and pub­lished all his best books, start­ing with Peren­nial Gar­den Plants, when he was past the statu­tory age for re­tire­ment. He was 75 when his mas­ter­piece The Art of Plant­ing ap­peared and even he told us to plant tulip bulbs as early as pos­si­ble.

Charles Quest-rit­son wrote the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses Next week: Ap­ples and pears

Gra­ham Stu­art Thomas’s in­com­pa­ra­ble ad­vice was based on years as a nurs­ery­man and an ad­viser to the Na­tional Trust

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