How to nav­i­gate the grow­ing labyrinth of hor­ti­cul­tural knowledge

The Herald Magazine - - TRAVEL -

THE in­ter­net is bur­geon­ing with info of ev­ery pos­si­ble kind, while seed com­pa­nies and nurs­eries en­tice you into falling for some­thing, any­thing. And let’s not for­get all those writ­ers and broad­cast­ers. How can you suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate this maze of in­for­ma­tion?

I be­lieve gar­den­ing tips should pass three tests – is the ad­vice from a re­li­able source, does it take into ac­count re­cent re­search and is the in­for­ma­tion suit­able for where you live?

Google makes life easy. At the click of a mouse you can browse the sum of human knowledge, but sift with care. You can gen­er­ally trust sites such as the RHS, Gar­den Or­ganic and the BBC, but be more cau­tious with lesser-known sources.

We’re of­ten drawn to the ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers in blogs, but again, tread care­fully. One tip I came across was es­pe­cially en­light­en­ing: “From each ac­cord­ing to his abil­ity, to each ac­cord­ing to his needs.” Gar­den cen­tres and mail order firms are more help­ful than that, but they don’t want you to leave with­out splash­ing the cash.

Writ­ers and broad­cast­ers do their best, even if we don’t al­ways agree with each other, but our ad­vice must be up to date. Re­search of­ten mod­i­fies or even throws a couthy old method out the win­dow.

Take plant­ing up a con­tainer, for ex­am­ple. As I wrote here in 2013, re­search showed the tra­di­tional tech­nique of lay­er­ing the bot­tom of a pot with bro­ken crocks was wrong. It im­pedes, not helps, drainage. By 2015, Monty Don and oth­ers started rec­om­mend­ing al­ter­na­tives.

And should you dou­ble dig? A hun­dred years ago, one writer said “the town gar­den should be deeply dug and well ma­nured, if not an­nu­ally, at least ev­ery two years”. And this treat­ment should even be meted out to herba­ceous borders. Ev­ery­thing but trees and shrubs should be howked out and re­planted after the big dig.

Al­though I’ve never run amok in the flower border, I was brought up with dou­ble dig­ging etched in my soul. It’s la­bo­ri­ous but sat­is­fy­ing. The lat­est re­search by soil sci­en­tists, how­ever, demon­strates that this cul­ti­va­tion dis­rupts the soil ecol­ogy and should be avoided where pos­si­ble.

In our de­fence, gar­den writ­ers can only of­fer gen­eral ad­vice. Even so, home­grown tips will be more rel­e­vant than UK-wide ad­vice. I al­ways ad­vise opt­ing for quick­grow­ing veg be­cause plants have a lot of work to do dur­ing a short grow­ing sea­son. This makes suc­ces­sional sow­ing more chal­leng­ing, so late-ma­tur­ing sprouts and leeks rarely per­form as well as early ones.

As a gen­eral rule, you need a hot, sunny sum­mer to grow toma­toes out­doors, what­ever you hear from south of Hadrian’s Wall, and our fee­ble sun shines just as weakly in the flower gar­den. Al­though hon­ey­suck­les are fairly hardy, va­ri­eties such as Lon­icera etr­usca Su­perba need more sun than we get here. And you should be choosy with camel­lias. C x william­sii won’t let you down, but you’ll be hard-pressed to squeeze a flower out of a C japon­ica.

The sun isn’t ev­ery­thing. Ge­og­ra­phy and al­ti­tude are crit­i­cal so there are no hard and fast rules for the whole coun­try. Ja­panese maple, Acer japon­ica, tol­er­ates “mild” mid­win­ter cold, but can’t han­dle se­vere or late win­ter frosts and bit­ing east winds.

The ex­perts can help, but you need to know your own area and tai­lor ad­vice to your par­tic­u­lar gar­den. Will a plant get enough sun or shade, and, if rel­e­vant, can it tol­er­ate salt? If you need a ref­er­ence book, try Gar­den Plants for Scot­land, co-writ­ten by my pre­de­ces­sor in these pages, Raoul Cur­tis-Machin, and Ray Cox.


Camel­lia x william­sii Saint Ewe is among the camel­lias that will thrive in Scot­land, though you might strug­gle to hear such ge­o­graph­i­cally spe­cific ad­vice from gar­den writ­ers south of the Border

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