GARDENING / A time to turn over new leaves: Last January, gardeners everywhere no doubt began the year with the best of horticultural intentions. But what happened? Our gardening writers resolve to do things differently this time

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I Resolve to get to grips with pruning. I must repress my namby-pamby feelings about severing the limbs of my leafy friends. I do not care if a lettuce shrieks when it is cut; I shall shut my ears to the silent screams of rose bushes, shrubs, trees and the 12ft Devil's Ivy houseplant that is engulfing my typewriter even as I write. This year I shall arm myself to the teeth with extendable shears, secateurs, pruning saws, long-handled loppers and electric hedge-trimmers and do battle with anything green and straggly.

I Resolve to overcome my irrational fear of vegetables. Why should gnarled old men with tweed caps scare me off with their monstrous pot leeks and pneumatic onions? Vegetables are not difficult or boring, I shall say to myself 10 times a night before going to sleep. Garden veg is exciting and tasty and free from pollution. I may even decide to market a new line in self- hypnosis tapes to help fellow veggiphobes. I shall call it, Assert Yourself With Parsnips.

I Resolve to learn both parts of the Latin names of plants rather than just the first bit. If I can't manage this every time, I resolve to bluff more convincingly. Instead of saying, 'I've forgotten the name of this,' I shall say something like, 'Isn't speciosa magnificent this year?' or 'Superba isn't really my cup of tea.'

I Resolve to give Gertrude Jekyll a fighting chance. Since being frightened as a small child by a photograph of this doyenne of garden design, I have harboured prejudices against her. She may have looked like a fearsome old bat in her black dress and steel-rimmed spectacles, but I must not let this sour my view of her colour-coded borders and rustic sundials.

I Resolve to get it right at Chelsea. For years now I have hatched every kind of cunning plan to avoid the worst of the crowds. Sadly, not one of these has worked and I find myself either wandering through a deserted sea of mud and half-erected marquees (pre-pre-press day) or borne aloft by a phalanx of old ladies in cashmere and cagoule-clad Swedes (after 5pm on public days). This year I am working on plans to tunnel in through the hanging basket enclosure or gatecrash the gala preview disguised as the Princess of Wales.

I Resolve to be nicer to cats. I can no longer bear the hate-filled glares of friends and neighbours as I lob a selection of household objects at trespassing pussies. Life is too short to worry about every fluffy backside that descends on my double-dug border.

I Resolve to stop watching gardening programmes on television. My loved one is thoroughly fed up with hearing me jeer and heckle at the screen. Who cares if that irritating nerd on the other channel is telling me how to dibble my root-cuttings for the 20th time? Colonels' wives have a perfect right to bore and patronise the viewer with conducted tours of their heather gardens. White-coated boffins working on genetically engineered rhubarb which glows in the dark and hums Greensleeves obviously need to tell the world. A touch on the remote control and they all disappear . . .

I Resolve to clear out the contents of our garden shed. This sordid jumble of rusty bicycle wheels, tins of dried-up paint, broken pots, lethal pesticides banned in 1979, forgotten sacks of boy scouts' jumble and back copies of History Today adds nothing to the efficient running of the garden.

I Resolve to conquer my aversion to common garden pests. If God had meant us to turn pale and nauseous at the sight of writhing vine weevil larvae He would never have invented gardening. No gardener worthy of the name should admit to squeamishness about picking up keeled slugs or squashing capsid bugs.

I Resolve to be sensible, balanced and practical about my garden in 1994. I resolve to follow all the rules, roll up my sleeves and be prepared for hard work. If all else fails, I resolve to turf the whole lot over and create a sculpture park.


FOR gardeners, resolutions are not confined to the new year. We make them in all seasons, because it is the essence of the craft to draw up ambitious plans that never work out quite - in some cases not remotely - as we envisaged.

Mid-winter is seed catalogue time, when improbable dreams are at their peak, especially for those of us who grow vegetables. Maybe this year we shall find a sweetcorn that produces more than a couple of measly heads; a courgette that resists the mosaic virus; a cabbage that really does stand, without deteriorating, for as long as the catalogues say.

Yet probably we shall make no such discoveries. The first resolution, then, must be to resist the more extravagant blandishments of the catalogues and rely on our experience, particularly when it comes to new and unusual vegetables. Bear in mind the ancient lore that there are two principal reasons why vegetables are unusual: either they are hard to grow well, or not especially good to eat.

As is the way with resolutions, I have already broken this one and ordered some seeds of red broad beans (Red Epicure from Unwins). It is some years now since I ventured into similar territory and acquired - with considerable effort - seeds of a red Brussels sprout that a friend had grown successfully. Hardly any of them germinated and I was unable to amaze even a token few dinner guests, so I am hoping the blushing beans do better.

On the subject of sprouts, a perennial resolution is to grow varieties that crop in mid to late winter rather than in autumn, when there are so many other vegetables around. On my allotment in balmy south London, things mature earlier than in most areas. Thus, Montgomery and Fortress, both supposed to be ready from December onwards, have sprouts big enough to pick in October, even when sown late in April. This year I shall try Wellington and see if that can hold itself back longer.

One of the hardest resolutions to keep is restraint in sowing. There are always too many tomatoes, too many cabbages and, last summer, far too many pumpkins. The pumpkins were deliberate, part of an experimental project on squashes of various kinds.

We like the smallish squashes common in America - Butternut and Hubbard - with their dense yellow or orange flesh, unlike the watery white flesh of marrows. But although we grew two Hubbards, plus a couple of decent vegetable spaghetti marrows, it was the pumpkins that triumphed, rampaging all over the top end of the allotment. (It is the end near the water tank, prone to overflowing, which may explain why they thrived there.)

We baked some in sections, made soup and pumpkin pie with others and inflicted some on friends, finally getting rid of the last monster at the beginning of December. They were a variety with dark green skin instead of the usual yellow, but with deep orange flesh.

To my shame, I am not quite certain of their name - and that brings me to my most important resolution this year: to keep better records. When I sow seeds, either on the allotment or in trays and pots at home, I know I should immediately label them with the variety, the seed supplier and the date of sowing. But sometimes I have forgotten to bring the label or the pencil and I tell myself I shall easily remember the details.

I do not. And even when I do write the labels, the rain sometimes obliterates them, or visiting dogs, children or foxes uproot them and scatter them over the plot. I have tried those devices where you clip the seed packet on to a spiked holder, but rain can destroy the packet and in any case you do not always sow all the seeds from it at once.

I intend to have another go at the squash project using a secret weapon - seed of mixed varieties brought back from Australia. I shall remember that parsnips are very slow to germinate and I will not let them get smothered by weeds. I shall tend the allotment at least once a week in all weathers, arriving early and leaving late. I shall not let my weeds spill over on to my neighbours' patches, nor covet their crops, nor boast about my own. Not much, anyway.-


IN THE Fifties there was a legendary actress called Ruth Draper who went in for one-woman shows of the Joyce Grenfell variety. Her most famous routine involved a tour of the garden. 'You should have been here last week. The delphiniums were a picture. What a pity you won't be here at the end of the month. The lilies should be sublime.' Plenty of gardeners resort to this patter, but in the dead of winter I like to tell myself that next year will be one long peak, with no Ruth Draper excuses.

Staking was a bit of a fiasco in 1993; 1994 shall be the year when no flower falls flat on its face for lack of a prop. Artful staking, with masses of twiggy peasticks, keeps peonies and taller herbaceous plants such as Michaelmas daisies in their places. According to one of the best gardeners I know, they actually flower better when they are propped up than they do if they are allowed to sprawl about the bed. The secret of efficient supports is to put them in long before they are needed - preferably while the ground is soft from rain.

Peasticks can now be bought from garden centres, or if you live near a wood where hazel is coppiced, you may be able to get bundles free. Here, six old bushes of hazel at the edge of the orchard do the trick. Last year we were busy making the garden all winter, so I forgot to cut them in time and had to buy peasticks. When I realised there were not enough it was too late to cut our own, as they were in leaf. It doesn't have to be hazel. Rosemary Verey uses buddleia prunings, and any twiggy sticks from pruning 4ft to 6ft in length will come in useful. Now is the time to collect them.

You can stake with bamboos and string, but it never looks as good and is much harder to hide. Netting stretched between strong bamboos which you raise as the plants come up through it is another possibility, but I dislike the look of it. Link stakes - those wire contraptions that can be bought at RHS shows or by mail order from the pages of gardening magazines - are another trick, but for sensitive staking, peasticks are far the best. I'm not sure what Ruth Draper would have said during the month of May, when the flower beds in good gardens are a forest of twiggy sticks. I suppose good gardeners start with small sticks and add taller ones as the plants grow.

Forward planning of another sort is my second resolution. There never seems time to label plants as they go in, which means that by the time they come up I have probably forgotten their proper names. On any tour of the garden, some clever-clogs will always correct your naming of plants.

The other resolution that goes with labelling is writing down. In theory every plant that goes into the garden also gets written into a notebook, so that it can be replaced if it dies. If the notebook does not go out at the start of the gardening session I can never be bothered to go indoors to fetch it. A small waterproof notebook ought to be in every pocket in 1994, although this resolution will involve me in another one: collecting information from the pocketbooks to store in one place under headings and dates. Record-keeping is a great help in running the garden, but it seems like a chore hardly worth the bother.

Lastly, I am determined to get the geraniums to the right sizes at the right times. In winter I like a flowering geranium of a respectable size in at least three rooms. They hate it indoors and after three weeks have to be returned to intensive care. Because we took cuttings at the end of last summer, we have plenty of small healthy geraniums now, which will be handsome in pots all summer, but too big for next winter indoors. Spring cuttings may be the answer, so that we have half a dozen of the best sorts for indoors and no Ruth Draper excuses. Mabel Gray, Sweet Mimosa, Crystal Palace Gem, Rollinsons Unique and Copthorne are all obliging here, but I must resist the Angela, with which I never have much luck. Next year the resolution might be to grow them better, spray earlier, feed more frequently, prune in time, but the real resolution for 1994 is not to take too many vows, so that the garden continues to be a huge, exciting pleasure every year.

(Photograph omitted)