GARDENING : In praise of local heroes

Mass-production of popular plants is making our gardens dull, says Mary Keen. It is time to return to the traditional regional varieties
Click to follow
CHAIN-STORE gardening seems here to stay. Just as people buy clothes and food from shops with outlets all over the British Isles, so they buy plants that are on sale throughout the land. Mass production keeps costs down, but there is an unseen price. As retailers concentrate on best- sellers, products with minority appeal disappear.

Like supermarkets, big commercial nurseries and garden centres have dropped hundreds of lines in order to major in the best sellers. An expedition to the garden centre can be just as quick as one to a supermarket. The average home-owner tends to go to the garden centre to select mass-produced lines at Easter and at bedding-plant time, popping the plants into the garden shortly after parking the car.

It is still possible to recognise different areas of Britain from the materials or construction of their buildings. Gardens, too, belong to the landscapes which we see every day. But plants, which used once to belong as much to their district as the houses they surround, are becoming standardised. Imagine driving from John o' Groats to Land's End through a huge estate of identical houses surrounded by gold, blue or green conifers with a little heather, some hybrid tea roses and rows of uniform bedding plants. We are heading in that direction already, and the trend will be hard to reverse. Standard gardening, like standard housing, is dull.

Garden centres encourage a tendency towards disposable plants. If they do not grow you can replace them without too much trouble. Some, like bedding plants, are only meant to last a season. Before the advent of cheap plants, people swapped flowers with the neighbours and those that they exchanged tended to be the ones that did well locally. In the remoter parts of Britain this tradition survives: in Devon or Cornwall you find fuchsia hedges and orange montbretia in the gardens as well as growing wild by the side of the road. In Gloucestershire, blue cranesbills and yellow mulleins grow in the hedgerows, and snowdrops and lilies of the valley colonise the woods. Plants like these that settle down and seed naturally in a place will be easy to grow in neighbouring gardens. It also follows that improved versions of native plants will thrive. There are almost a dozen named varieties of the meadow cranesbill which would all grow well in areas where the wild form flourishes.

Observing what does well locally makes life easier for the gardener and has the added advantage of making the garden "belong" to its surroundings. There is a great variety of scenery in Britain: instead of blurring all neighbourhoods into one bland suburban development our gardens could reflect and emphasise local distinctiveness in the same way some buildings continue to do.

Plants that belong to an area may have become naturalised because they like the conditions, or they may have originated there as a result of clever hybridising. If I lived in Slough I would want to grow the dianthus "Mrs Sinkins", which was first raised there in the 1870s. In Saffron Walden saffron crocuses were once an important part of the local industry. It would be lovely if they grew there again. Apple trees which have been bred in different parts of the country, Ashmead's Kernel in Gloucestershire, Beauty of Bath in Bath, Devonshire Quarrenden in Devon, could all add something to the neighbourhoods where they were first found. Londoners who do not grow London Pride are missing an opportunity.

All sorts of plants which used to be local features are threatened: snakeshead fritillaries in the Thames water meadows or pulsatilla anemones on the chalk downs are rare sights now. Because of nurserymen plundering the bulbs, the Tenby daffodil had almost disappeared from the fields around Tenby, until an enterprising director of tourism in the 1970s reintroduced it on the approach roads to the town. Local plants, like local bread or local beer, can add to the attraction of an area and may be safer in front gardens than in open spaces. Traditionally, hedges in different parts of Britain were as different as the building materials. Thorn, beech, yew, holly, box, privet, laurustinus or mixed hedges including roses, honeysuckle and field maple were all once familiar. There are plenty to choose from, but instead of a changing pattern of hedgerows, the bright green alien Cupressus "Leylandii" stalks the land. Fences, too, have their own territory. In Kent and Sussex I look forward to seeing wavy lines of silvery riven oak post and rails, but where I live, stone walls are the natural boundaries for fields and gardens. Just as stone would look out of place in an area where brick was the natural material, the oak post and rails would look quite odd in the Cotswolds.

"If every plant and flower were found in all places the charm of locality would not exist. Everything varies and that gives the interest," wrote Richard Jefferies at the end of the last century. As we approach the Millennium, there are signs that the charm of locality is vanishing. The brave environmental organisation Common Ground, which is dedicated to promoting the ordinary things in our lives, has started a campaign to bring local distinctiveness back to gardens. They lament the loss of detail, diversity and richness out of doors. So much is done for the great things in our heritage, the important houses, parks and gardens, but Common Ground celebrates the details that on their own might seem trivial. Added together they make a huge contribution.

Gardeners are particularly well-placed to help reverse this trend. There is little anyone can do about uniform shopfronts or alien building materials, but gardeners can eschew garden centre clones in favour of re-introducing local plants. Common Ground has produced a pamphlet with more suggestions. The Art of Gentle Gardening is available for £2 (inc p&p) from: Common Ground, 7 Dials Warehouse, 44 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LA. The Plant Finder, new edition now available (Headmain £12.99) from good bookshops, remains the best source for all those things which are no longer sold in garden centres. !