GARDENING: THE LIVED-IN LOOK

Even gardens open to the public in summer can benefit from being relaxed oases rather than fussy show-pieces; MARY KEEN'S DIARY
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The Independent Culture
SINCE WE moved here six years ago the garden has been regularly open under the National Gardens Scheme, as well as to groups by appointment. Frequent openings are much easier to manage than occasional ones.

If anyone is coming to the house for the first time I prefer them to see it in a marginally tidier state than two grown-ups in a hurry often leave it. That means no books and papers on the floor, no overflowing waste-paper baskets, no puppy-chewed shoes to trip over, and fresh flowers in as many rooms as I can manage. Cushions get a quick bash, coats are hung up and piles of books and catalogues straightened, but that's about it.

The horticultural equivalent of my indoor presentation is similarly selective, but it takes a bit longer. Because it is a garden for living in, rather than for looking at, there are plenty of places where serious outdoor housekeepers might suggest that more might be done. The two best gardeners of my acquaintance often say when they come here "What are you going to do about that?" Usually the answer is not much.

A relaxed look is what I like. I don't want people to feel that managing a garden is impossible. I want them to go away having enjoyed the place and the whole picture, rather than fussing about how they might grow difficult plants. But even laissez-faire gardeners have standards and before the garden is open there are several things I always do. This summer we've had parties of Americans, Germans, Swiss, Dutch, Swedish and English (no Japanese and no French - perhaps they like things tidier than I can manage). I've got the presentation of the lived- in garden down to a fine art. It takes about an hour and half.

Deadheading is critical. All the roses get done. I'd rather see a weed in a bed than a single ball of sodden brown petals. And the rose run has got much quicker since the Royal National Rose Society decreed that old- fashioned deadheading (using secateurs to cut to the next bud down the stem) is not the best way. Now it's all right to pinch the flowers off with finger and thumb and drop them in a bucket. If the visitors are imminent and the bucket is full, they sometimes get thrown into the bed under a suitably leafy cover. Apparently roses are back in flower much more quickly by this method. The stems below the flower head blacken for a few weeks before they fall, which is not lovely, so at first I held out against this technique. But it does work.

Other flowers get deadheaded too. Marigolds and cornflowers and the big yellow scabious Cephalaria tartarica and anything else that turns brown. Campanulas I may give up growing because they come out brown as they flower, which is gloomy. Small flowers, like Lychnis coronaria and the deep maroon scabious which flowers all summer (Knautia macedonica), are also snipped off. Day lilies have crumpled petals removed, delphiniums have faded flower spikes cut out. Not only does it mean that they all go on flowering for longer than they might if allowed to go to seed, but also it keeps the place looking fresh.

We hardly ever weed, as the flower beds are crammed so tight and mulched so deep that it is almost impossible to get between the plants to get the odd sow thistle out. If the spaces are tidy in the garden, the flowers can be left to do their own thing. So gravel paths get raked, stone steps swept and edges are done once a fortnight.

Visitors are brilliant at naming things. The ones I like best send postcards saying "the plant you could not name is Erodium chrysanthum 'Prestbuy Hybrid'." They also give one hope. The whitefly on the unique geraniums have been unstoppable this year. I had heard that tagetes (or African marigolds) were an alternative to spraying but I never quite believed it. This summer someone assured me this is not just an old wives' tale. It works because the whitefly settle on the marigold. My informant says that she always has a pot of 'Lemon Gem' tagetes in her greenhouse and she doesn't have a whitefly problem. 'Lemon Gem' is probably easier on the eye than the yellow sticky plastic traps which are currently hanging there, so I will certainly give it a try. Someone else brought a pot of Anemone sylvestris because I said I did not know it and now I look forward to colonies of white anemones in the dell where things are allowed to naturalise. Anyone who belongs to that extraordinary fellowship of swappers and sharers knows that any plants given away will be returned tenfold.

Late summer is propagating time. Fuchsias, penstemons, salvias, verbenas, heliotropes and all the half-hardy brigade which are at their best from August until the frosts, rarely last the winter out of doors. This year supplies went badly astray, because I was too mean to label every pot when I took the cuttings. I did give each tray of about a dozen plants a communal label, but during the winter the pots were moved around. When spring came, unnamed plants were occupying most of the frame. This meant that I had to wait for plants to flower before being sure of their colour. It's no good putting three shrubby salvias in a group if one will turn out red, one 'Best Pink' and one yellow ('La Luna').

Some things need priority treatment. If heliotropes and lemon verbena are not done soon, they won't make it through the winter. Auriculas have to be repotted so that they can settle into their roots before the cold weather comes. The sense of renewal, of looking forward to the plants that will flower next summer, means that for real addicts the gardening season never winds down.

August, after my open-season has finished, is a good month for taking stock and making notes, because this is the time of year when hopes are high. Next year, I tell myself, the weather could hardly be worse, hedges will be taller, there will not be pests, the puppy will be old enough to chase the rabbits away and everything in the garden will be lovely.

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