The economics of gardening
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