Gardening: Money doesn't grow on trees

When you add up the annual cost of a garden the results may be frighteningly high. But Anna Pavord isn't daunted
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The Independent Culture
What does it actually cost to keep a garden going for a year? I don't really want to know the answer, but the relentless arrival of brown envelopes on the mat brings finance into focus at this moment. Nevertheless, I hang on to the conviction that seeds and plants remain one of the most miraculous bargains that money can buy. Who wants to battle with January sales when they could be cruising peacefully through their local garden centre, dreaming of forget-me-nots (pounds 2.25 for a tray of six) or the possibilities of a clutch of flowering pansies (pounds 1.99 for a tray of six).

The best way to save money in the garden is to make a list of what you want and stick to it. That is true of all shopping, of course. It is one of the reasons why supermarkets are so dangerous. You go in thinking of nothing but a bag of self-raising flour and come out with a jar of lemon- stuffed olives, a carton of apple juice with mango and an oven cleaner that promises (but never delivers) miracles.

But though I may resent my own weak mindedness when I am wandering the supermarket's aisles, I positively encourage it when I'm among plants in a nursery. Different standards apply. I want to be led astray. I'd be unlikely to scoop up something huge and important, such as a tree, on a whim, but that leaves plenty of room for impulsive manoeuvre among herbaceous perennials and bulbs.

Only this week, I went into the garden centre for compost and came out with a delicious little cyclamen coum (pounds 3.49). Who could possibly resist its rounded leaves, symmetrically marked with silver? Its first magenta bud is already beginning to open. These cyclamen look frail, being only three or four inches high, but they are survivors, and undemanding. They will motor all season on a handful of bonemeal.

I did not need that cyclamen, but it has certainly given me more pleasure than the necessary compost (Levington Multipurpose, pounds 5.50 for a 75-litre sack). I had been thinking about a bare corner by the back door. Until this season, it has been covered by the sweeping branches of a Cornus tridel, now severely cut back. As soon as I saw the cyclamen, I knew they would work there. They would not mind the shade. They would fit comfortably among the clumps of lily of the valley, tucked underground now while the cyclamen is happily doing its stuff.

A list can deal with the things I know I need: two more fan-trained pears to complete the enfilade along the south wall; four box balls to plant in the ivy that edges the path on the bank. But at this minute, plantsmen infinitely more skilled than me are bringing into being plants I don't yet even know I need. They may be plants I have never heard of, plants whose possibilities I am only just beginning to appreciate, plants (such as hostas) that perhaps I have been slow in coming to admire. You can't really list things such as these.

I doubt, for instance, whether I shall go through February without acquiring a hellebore or seven. I'll be very surprised if a trip I am planning to a nursery specialising in primroses leaves me empty-handed on my return. A garden needs treats and surprises to keep it fresh. And a gardener needs constantly to try out new ideas, and be captured afresh by the potential of some new find, or a new way of using a well-known friend. Often, your first ideas do not work. But looking for inspiration in gardening books is no substitute for endlessly engaging with your own patch, shifting, rearranging, occasionally achieving an effect that is worth leaving in place.

I am supposed here to be making a tally of what the garden has cost over the last year. Instead I find I'm arguing that, whatever it cost, it was worth it. Yes, I admit to extravagance in plants. But I'm cheap on machinery. We have a good lawnmower (Honda HRB 536 CHXE, pounds 830), but no other gadgets. I can't stand the noise they make. Leaf vacs? What a terrible idea! Who wants to vacuum the garden after several hours wasted vacuuming the house?

I'm cheap on tools, too, as mine are mostly the ones my great-uncle used before they came to me. Anyone who has a new garden and no tools should save up for a stainless steel spade and border fork (Yeomans brand cost pounds 24.99 each). Good tools will become close friends, but poorly made ones will pull gardening down to their own tacky, insubstantial level.

Expenditure on herbicides and pesticides depends on your attitude. I sit on the fence, using as little as possible of either, but unwilling to do without entirely.

Last January I bought slug pellets (pounds 1.99) because the wretches were eating my Iris stylosa before I had time to pick them. In February I bought a pack of the residual weedkiller Pathclear (pounds 23.88). Plants had taken over the paths on the bank so enthusiastically that I could scarcely push my way through. In August I bought the herbicide Roundup (pounds 14.42) to help in the fight against bindweed. That is the total poison bill.

Having good soil, which we plaster liberally with muck and compost every winter and spring, I spend as little as possible on plant foods or medicines. We needed some of the iron tonic called Sequestrene (four packets at pounds 1.25 each) to dose our sickly-looking wisteria, and I also bought Osmocote slow-release fertiliser (pounds 7.45) to sprinkle on the pots round the garden. That one dose will provide all the food the plants in the pots need for a season. They can't be expected to survive without help. Bonemeal (pounds 2.56) is as standard an ingredient of the garden store as flour is in the larder. I use it whenever I plant.

The quaint term "sundries" covers the rest of the things I got from our local garden centre last year. First, vine eyes: 16 4-in ones at 24p each and 16 3-in ones at 18p each. Wall plants must be well trained and secured. They look better, given this attention, and they are safer, too. Branches that hang out from the wall may be frosted or caught by wind. Masses of vine eyes get eaten up in our kitchen garden, banged into the stone walls to provide anchors for the espalier and fan-trained pears.

I bought two balls of soft brown twine (pounds 2.39 each), and gravel (pounds 1.55 a sack) to top-dress the pots of tulips by the back door. We needed more bamboo canes for the tomato plants, (10 x 8ft canes at 26p each and 10 x 7ft ones at 25p) and four sacks of mini-chip bark to cover the newly weedkilled paths (pounds 5.25 each). I bought some wildly extravagant new plant labels (life is too short to cut up old yoghurt pots) and a special pen with ink that will not wash off in the rain (pounds 2.91 together).

So, is this the final bill for expenditure on the garden last year? No, of course it is not. It just covers the boring bits - and it is all I'm admitting to. What I spend on plants will for ever remain a secret between me and my deliciously indulgent bank manager.