In charge of the Which? demonstration area at Capel Manor is Howard Rice, who describes himself as a gardener by inclination and a scientist by training. He grew a cactus on his window-sill at the age of five and a ginkgo tree from seed at 10; later he read geography and botany at Cambridge, followed by an MSc in conservation. Following his inclination, eight demonstration gardens were built without the help of a designer and on a moderate budget.
I loved these gardens, which unlike those at Chelsea are on a realistic scale; you feel you are stepping into someone else's life. A problem garden shows you how to cope with a north- facing bank under a hedge of leylandii, as well as how to tackle a manhole cover and an ugly roof, where Howard Rice plans to grow house- leeks. It also has dry shade under an oak tree, where he is still experimenting with plants.
'It is like having your own garden laboratory,' he says. 'If it doesn't work the first time, you try again.' Other people's mistakes make useful information for growers. This element of fallibility - human and plant - is usually missing from gardens that open to the public.
There is a typical long, thin town plot with a small copse of birches grown from jacquemontii seedlings from Howard's own garden, and blackberries and loganberries in a space for fruit. 'Nothing expensive, people can relate to this,' he says. The birches are very close together; the minute forest they form would be paradise for a town child.
In spite of being the product of one man's imagination, the gardens are all very different. The enthusiast's garden is Rice's favourite; here money was spent on large specimens for immediate impact. He describes this patch as the one for the impulse plant-buyer who has a job squeezing everything in. It is full of unusual versions of common plants, but the hotchpotch is unified by architectural plants. For the paths in this garden, Rice chose dark gravel rather than the usual paler stuff, because he believes in using materials that are inexpensive but out of the ordinary. In all the gardens, timber is imaginatively painted in blues and dark browns; specially commissioned wooden structures from George Carter, the designer in charge of the Sainsbury Art Centre in Norfolk, are often a feature. I thought the plywood and jigsaw huts and beehive frames for compost heaps were enviable and not expensive to copy. Step-by-step instructions for building the Carter compost bins have just appeared.
There is a family garden where you can take down a pattern for a summer-house that cost pounds 54.50 to build in 1990, and see how much lawn to give your growing children. Also known as the budget garden, it uses the cheapest imaginable paving stones and a circle of brick filled in with gravel. Hard landscaping never comes at budget prices and the low-maintenance garden has more stones than plants. It includes a raised pond which Howard Rice covets, and shrubs predominate because they need minimal attention. Most of those chosen need no pruning at all.
But the cottage garden was my favourite. A corny choice perhaps; but this is a superior version, not the sort of Victoriana-style effort I find easy to resist. 'A modern interpretation of an old favourite,' says Howard Rice. It is pretty, with a blue picket fence behind a border of annuals and some clever colour segregation which puts yellows in one corner, opposed to pink and blue. There are the inevitable Agriframe arches for roses but the paths are of handmade bricks, which look as though they have been there for 50 years, rather than two.
The patio garden is tiny but designed on the diagonal so that it feels bigger than it is. Any garden designer would have been proud of this trick. Large plants were bought for this plot. Three hundred pounds for a Japanese maple is not, Rice thinks, extravagant. In his view it is worth spending money on slow-growing shrubs, but pointless to buy, say, a big Ceanothus.
The last garden is the most intriguing. A mirror-image plot shows the improvements in horticulture in the last 50 years. Two lawns side by side display the winning qualities of dwarf rye grass against weeds - Thirties lawns were very weedy. Rose-beds contrast dwarf bedding, perpetual flowering roses with the leggy and unreliable Ena Harkness. Raised vegetable beds produce even-cropping modern varieties, while those in the traditional patch are less predictable and productive.
All the gardens are cultivated to moderate rather than exhibition standards. The ground is reasonably well prepared, plants are put in, mulched with forest bark and left. There is no feeding and no watering. It is not what you do when you plant that counts, according to Howard Rice: it is lack of competition from weeds that produces good plants. 'Research has proved that contrary to popular belief there are no problems with lack of nutrients when you mulch a plant.' In the Capel Manor gardens, shredded prunings are often used but various forms of bark can also be seen.
Besides the eight gardens there is an A-Z encyclopaedia of common shrubs (all mulched), so that you can see what the plant you are thinking of buying will look like after two years. Borders of herbaceous perennials and trial grounds of achilleas, scented roses and ground-cover plants are all there to be studied. Lines of hedges are set out to help you choose the best variety for your purpose.
Greenhouses and garden sheds, some shamefully battered by gales, stand in rows so that you can compare their prices and performance. The manufacturers must squirm at the Which? comments on the attached labels. So much information is on offer for the pounds 2 entrance fee that at the risk of encouraging Chelsea-sized crowds, I have to say that I can't understand why everyone is not in Howard's patch taking notes.
The 'Gardening from Which?' gardens are at Capel Manor Horticultural and Environmental Centre, Bullsmoor Lane, Enfield EN1 4RQ, tel 0992 763849. Open every day from 10am-5.30pm (last entry 4.30) until end of October, then from 10am-4.30pm weekdays only until March. Entrance pounds 2, pounds 1 for children.
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