The eco­nom­ics of gar­den­ing

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Charles Quest-rit­son is author of the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses Next week: A Prague rose Charles Quest-rit­son

IWAS brought up to be­lieve that the prin­ci­pal or­na­ments of a gar­den should be trees and shrubs. They filled the avail­able space, were easy to main­tain and they en­abled you to keep a large gar­den go­ing with­out the teams of gar­den­ers that own­ers of coun­try houses em­ployed be­fore the Se­cond World War.

Lower-main­te­nance tree-and-shrub gar­den­ing suited the spirit of the 1950s and 1960s, when In­come Tax and Su­per Tax meant that a not par­tic­u­larly rich man could end up pay­ing more than 97.5% to the In­land Rev­enue. Pre-dec­i­mal­i­sa­tion read­ers will un­der­stand why Nubar Gul­benkian’s re­ply to a taxi driver who thought his tip too small was: ‘It may be six­pence to you, but it’s a pound to me.’

Ac­tu­ally, my grand­fa­ther, with whom we lived, still had a cou­ple of gar­den­ers, but ex­plained that he was ‘liv­ing on cap­i­tal’. By the time I was 20, I could recog­nise at least 50 dif­fer­ent camel­lias by name and the same for rhodo­den­drons. And I still think trees and shrubs give struc­ture, in­ter­est and beauty to a gar­den that noth­ing else can.

Then, Gra­ham Stu­art Thomas —one of our lead­ing nurs­ery­men long be­fore he started writ­ing books—in­vented ground­cover. Shortly af­ter­wards, he was ap­pointed Gar­dens Ad­vi­sor to the Na­tional Trust and set about the ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion of the Trust’s gar­dens with char­ac­ter­is­tic ruth­less­ness. The trees and shrubs were com­ple­mented by ground- cover—great slabs of it—and the num­ber of gar­den­ers run­ning each prop­erty sharply re­duced.

The tra­di­tion con­tin­ues: if you com­pare to­day’s plant­ings in al­most all the great gar­dens ac­quired by the Trust with photographs taken in the 1930s, you see how fre­quently acres of Gera­nium macr­or­rhizum and berge­nias and lambs’ lugs and Al­chemilla mol­lis now fill the space once oc­cu­pied by more del­i­cate and in­ter­est­ing plants.

Fash­ions change, but, when the RHS’S gifted nurs­ery man­ager Rus­sell Coates told me in 1980 that he would like to open his own nurs­ery and spe­cialise in herba­ceous plants, I thought he would be bank­rupt within no time. I had no inkling what­so­ever of the rev­o­lu­tion in gar­den­ing tastes that he and oth­ers would ride out with such suc­cess.

Stock­ing a gar­den with herba­ceous plants, bulbs and alpines was ex­pen­sive. No one had read Gertrude Jekyll for 40 years. Sud­denly, ev­ery­one (but mostly women) was mak­ing herba­ceous bor­ders again, choos­ing plants for their shapes and tex­tures and com­pos­ing pic­tures with the colours of flow­ers and leaves. Op­u­lent pe­onies, dou­ble prim­roses, var­ie­gated hostas and Michael­mas daisies were once again the stock in trade of fash­ion-con­scious gar­den own­ers, along with red bor­ders à la Hid­cote and white gar­dens à la Siss­inghurst.

What made this pos­si­ble? Mar­garet Thatcher’s tax re­forms. Dur­ing the 1980s, per­sonal tax­a­tion lev­els were steadily re­duced. Ev­ery­one had more money to spend and gar­den own­ers chose to spend it on more plants. They could af­ford to pay for more help in the gar­den, too. The arts of parter­res and top­i­ary flour­ished. Kitchen gar­dens turned into potagers. Fruit trees were grown as cor­dons. The mak­ers of glasshouses and con­ser­va­to­ries grew rich.

Mem­ber­ship of the RHS soared from 81,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 to­day. Gar­den cen­tres mul­ti­plied. Spe­cial­ist nurs­eries were able to make a de­cent liv­ing. Hor­ti­cul­tural pub­lish­ers flooded the High Street with books and mag­a­zines and the NGS gave mil­lions of pounds to its cho­sen char­i­ties. We had never had it so good—and the mood of op­ti­mism has sus­tained us ever since: the past 30 years have seen the great­est ex­pan­sion of al­most ev­ery as­pect of gar­den­ing that we have ever known.

But the times they are a-chang­ing. Un­cer­tainty haunts the air. The house mar­ket is stick­ing. Do we re­ally need lots of bed­ding plants again this year? Should we be spend­ing quite so much on them? Gar­den-cen­tre sales seem to last all year. Gar­dens are slip­ping down the hi­er­ar­chy of needs.

More peo­ple grow fruit and veg­eta­bles to see them through the win­ter months. De­mand for al­lot­ments is on the rise. We may be just about man­ag­ing to get by, but let us dig for vic­tory all the same. And there is com­fort to be found once again in grow­ing those flow­ers that speak of ro­mance and beauty and af­flu­ence—even the trendy gar­den writ­ers who laud the beauty of dead grasses in win­ter have started telling us they also love old roses.

Most telling of all—trees and shrubs are back in vogue. They are so easy to man­age, af­ter all. They’ll help to get us by. Just.

Jekyll’s gar­den at The Manor House, Up­ton Grey in Hampshire

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