The prodi­gal re­turns

Egged on by his friend Kate, Frank is on an au­tumn shop­ping spree to over­haul his gar­den’s bor­ders, but be­fore he com­pletely emp­ties his wal­let it could be time to ex­er­cise some self-re­straint and learn from past mis­takes

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS FRANK RO­NAN IL­LUS­TRA­TION RACHEL VIC­TO­RIA HILLIS

Colum­nist Frank Ro­nan is on an au­tumn shop­ping spree to over­haul his gar­den’s bor­ders

Buy­ing plants is too easy. With half a gar­den to re­fill there have been some se­ri­ous raids on nurs­eries this sum­mer, of­ten in the com­pany of my friend Kate, the one who has moved in down the road and has an en­tire new gar­den to fill. She is also a thor­oughly bad in­flu­ence, as am I on her no doubt, when it comes to ac­quir­ing plant booty, egging each other on to buy the things we are only half con­vinced of our­selves. But the dopamines of shop­ping will not nec­es­sar­ily lead to the deeper sat­is­fac­tions of hor­ti­cul­ture. I know peo­ple who gar­den by at­tri­tion, shov­ing the same plants, over and over, in the same places en­cour­aged by the one per cent that some­times suc­ceeds. I have never hoped to be one of them.

At the same time it has been a lit­tle sober­ing while over­haul­ing this gar­den to find all the la­bels, some­times leg­i­ble, usu­ally not, of eas­ily ac­quired things set loose to take their chances in the bor­ders. So many tiny plas­tic tomb­stones could be de­press­ing, or they could be in­struc­tive. Some­times it was a case of plant­ing in the wrong place, more of­ten the fault was in set­ting out a plant to sink or swim in an en­vi­ron­ment it wasn’t ready for. The places we buy from are called nurs­eries, not uni­ver­si­ties, and yet we ex­pect the alumni to en­ter the world of work straight from a four inch pot.

So now I have evolved, I hope. No more wan­der­ing the gar­den with a minis­cule new trea­sure in hand, look­ing for an ephemeral open­ing to squeeze it into, think­ing that I was be­ing vir­tu­ous by plant­ing it straight away. A cou­ple of years ago I made a stockbed with that prin­ci­ple in mind, but now, between the flood of new ac­qui­si­tions and the del­uge of refugees com­ing from the re­vamp­ing of the bor­der, and that bor­der be­ing not yet ready for the cur­rent oc­cu­pants of the stockbed, some­thing more had to be done. The ter­race has be­come a school for plants.

New things are im­me­di­ately pot­ted on and up and di­vided if and when pos­si­ble, and pot­ted on again. There is a creep­ing tide of black pots f low­ing across the f lags. It looks fine now, with most of the plas­tic cov­ered by fo­liage, but will be hideous come win­ter, which is a good in­cen­tive to grad­u­ate most of it into the ground by then, but with cau­tion.

The first job will be to empty the stockbed into the bor­der and re­fill it from the pots. It’s tricky to know what should be given pri­or­ity. Last win­ter two de­lec­ta­ble Ja­pa­nese anemones per­ished in plas­tic pots. I know it was a long and event­ful win­ter, but who knew that Ja­pa­nese anemones were the least bit sen­si­tive to cold? The only safe op­tion will be to get ev­ery­thing into the ground, some­how.

It has, hap­pily, been a good sum­mer for grow­ing, and al­most ev­ery­thing is look­ing strong enough to en­ter the next stage of life. All the same I can’t help wor­ry­ing about the phloxes. Much as I love them, they do not love com­pe­ti­tion and so have a hard time in this gar­den, where it’s all whelm or be over­whelmed. I’ve found some promis­ing look­ing new ones, in par­tic­u­lar Vi­o­let Flame, which is a bit like the pre­vi­ously adored and of­ten lost ‘Blue Par­adise’ but a lot more ro­bust. Still, I don’t want to put it out un­til there is an army of it, ca­pa­ble of de­fend­ing its own ter­ri­tory. That might take a while.

And in the mean­time, what should I do about the au­tumn haul? There are sev­eral plant shop­ping months left in the gar­den­ing year, and not much time for grow­ing on (and I re­ally don’t want to be look­ing out the win­dow at bare plas­tic pots all win­ter). Prob­a­bly I should be dis­ci­plined and sit on my wal­let un­til the spring, but hav­ing learned so much self-dis­ci­pline al­ready this year, is that ask­ing the im­pos­si­ble?


Frank Ro­nan is a nov­el­ist who lives and gar­dens in Worces­ter­shire.

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