Regular readers will notice the absence of our usual gardening columns, "Plant of the Moment" and "Paraphernalia". Mourned though we know they will be, we hope you will also find it in your heart to welcome their replacement: Hester Lacey's unflinching look at the dark mulch beneath the immaculate lawn of horticultural life...


THIS SHOULD be a simple enough task: moving a plant from a pot in which it is cramped and squished into a border or a new container where it has room to grow and (one hopes) thrive.

Theoretically, the plant is as eager to move as the gardener is to move it. If it has been well-watered, turning the pot on its side and giving it a smart tap should mean the whole contents come out in one convenient lump, which can then be popped neatly into the new pot on a layer of fresh compost and "firmed in"; a process during which television gardeners barely seem to dirty their hands. In fact, plants are often as stubbornly attached to their old homes as hermit crabs. Attempting to extract a pot-bound plant can actually prove fatal if in the attempt to tease it out half its roots are severed and left behind. Equally possibly, the plant is less pot-bound than it was pretending to be, and shoots out in an explosion of loose compost. Either way, some vital shoot is more than likely to get snapped off during the process, and either the old or the new pot is likely to disintegrate into terracotta shards at some point. Dealing with anything approaching the size of a bush requires either a crane or half-a-dozen husky helpers.

Multiple potting, where a variety of plants are crammed in together to create those neat displays beloved of garden centres with tall plants at the back of the pot, medium ones in the middle and teeny cute ones at the front, is fraught with peril. Either one specimen will promptly wither and die, leaving an ugly gap, or, crazed by the freedom of its new container, a small, well-behaved plant will start behaving like a triffid and over-run its neighbours. Extracting the corpse or the strangler must be done with care; roots mingle quickly beneath the surface and a yank too far can haul out the whole display in one go. Electricians used to tangles of wire or knitters used to tangles of wool have less problems than most at separating rival root balls.

One alternative option is going into complete denial: rather than admitting that any nearby plants could possibly be in pots that are constrictingly (and perhaps, who knows, agonisingly) too small, keep ruthlessly chopping their top shoots off. This way, at least they don't look too top-heavy (though eventually, of course, they will keel over, squeezed to death from underneath). Rich person's solution: chuck the lot and buy a new set of freshly-potted smaller ones.