Gardening: A compost corner that reeks of defeat - but don't throw in the trowel just yet

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The Independent Online
Mistakes in the garden don't matter so long as you learn something from them. Anna Pavord looks back at the tribulations - and triumphs - of the year.

The whole of the gardening year sits on our compost heap, each stratified layer as telling as those of an archaeological dig. Unpicking the heap, to spread compost thickly between all the currant and gooseberry bushes, I am forced to confront once again the mistakes I made, the plants that died and the monster hogweed that got away from me in the study border. The hogweed's thick, hollow stem is still unrotted. I bet its seeds are, too. Next spring I'll have a chorus of baby hogweeds sashaying down between the rows of fruit bushes, crooning "Every time you say goodbye, we die a little". But not enough, unfortunately.

Plastic plant labels turn up with melancholy regularity. That's a double trouble. In the first place, I should be organised enough not to put plastic on the compost heap. Then there are the ghosts of the plants themselves, hovering over the labels: Catananche caerulea, Antirrhinum molle, Tansy "Isla Gold". Gone, every one. Cold is what did for the snapdragon, I would guess. It's a species that grows naturally in Spain and Portugal but in our winters it wobbles on the edge of hardiness. Damp probably killed off the catananche and the tansy.

So, as I'm cutting down the sides of the heap, and heaving the rich, dark, crumbly fruit cake mixture into the wheelbarrow, the compost releases memories of things I've forgotten. Like the little variegated myrtle "Glanleam Gold" that I swept up in a garden centre. It dazzled me. I had to have it. Where to put it was a secondary problem.

Myrtles are used to having that effect on people. The common one, Myrtus communis, was one of the first foreign shrubs to be brought into this country. It came from the east in the 16th century, when gardeners were mad about "greens". `Glanleam Gold' cropped up in an Irish garden as a chance seedling of a different myrtle, now called Luma apiculata and is a much more recent arrival. Each of its neat, small evergreen leaves is edged in cream, subtle but ravishing.

When I had brought it home, I consulted the oracle (WJ Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles); I sat, Buddha-like, in various parts of the garden testing for draughts, which myrtles don't like. Having found a spot on the bank that seemed safe equally from north or east chills, I dug in plenty of grit to improve the drainage and planted the dear myrtle, pressing compost sifted from the heap round its perfect rootball.

Then this summer, sailing along the south coast of Ireland, we moored off Valentia Island, hired some bikes and, quite by chance, found ourselves zooming down the entrance drive to Glanleam House, where a peeling sign had advertised "Garden Open Today". Buried in the subtropical Glanleam jungle, we came across the original `Glanleam Gold', the very tree that Colonel Uniacke, who then owned the place, had shown to the nurseryman Treseder just 20 years before. From that one tree comes every single `Glanleam Gold' that exists here or anywhere else.

Unfortunately, mine doesn't any more. Exist, that is. Not my fault, I promise you. A sycamore inexplicably shed a branch on it and the remains were too sad to contemplate. The perfect rootball joined the rest of the year's victims on the compost graveyard. But the more I learnt about myrtles, the more obvious it was to me that out on the bank, `Glanleam Gold' was anyway unlikely to have staggered through the chill of a winter.

So, did anything go right this year? Yes, it must have done, or I would have thrown in the trowel by now. Or is it that the very act of gardening makes an optimist of you? Gardeners spend less time dwelling on past failures than on future possibilities. There's always another season ahead. This time, spring will be balmy. Rain will come on cue to water the newly sown vegetable seeds. There will be no sneaky frosts in May. Autumn will be long and languorous enough for the dahlias to dazzle even into November.

But the fact that nothing is ever the same for two years running is what makes gardening so engrossing. You bob and weave with the weather, you sniff what's in the wind, you begin to retrieve some of the messages sent by your instincts, or the few poor remnants of them that are left. "Getting in touch with yourself", the great cry of the Nineties, isn't about instincts. It's about narcissism.

Mistakes don't matter provided you learn something from them. What I learnt from the myrtle was that even down here in the South-west, where, for plants, the living is supposed to be easy, this myrtle needs the extra protection of a wall. My common myrtle is planted against a west wall, where it does well, flowering in summer with little white powderpuffs of flowers. I'm not going to buy another `Glanleam Gold' until I can give it the same advantage. Or I could plant it in a pot and make sure it at least spent its winters somewhere reasonably protected, from sycamores as well as cold.

You can learn from things that went right, too - even if they went right only by default. In the week before Christmas, when Siberian winds were piling snow against the windows, shamefully, I got the car stuck at right angles across the lane. The bumper was embedded in snow on one bank, the boot rammed into the snow on the other; the wheels spun merrily under me, getting nowhere. The hand brake gave up, exhausted.

When I finally got home, I stumped crossly upstairs to change. Framed in the landing window, exactly where I needed it at that moment, was the mahonia `Lionel Fortescue' in full shining glory on the bank opposite. The jagged leaves were heavy with the weight of snow, but the spikes of yellow flowers, arranged in bunches at the tip of each upright branch, had managed to stay free of it and were burning like little torches against the monochrome backdrop.

When I planted that mahonia, I was thinking how it would look next to its neighbour, a late summer flowering Hydrangea villosa. I was thinking that an evergreen shrub would be a good thing to hold the space when the hydrangea's big leaves dropped off in autumn. I was thinking about a succession of flowering times, the mahonia picking up the baton, as it were, from the hydrangea and handing it on, in turn, to the May-flowering viburnum on the other side. I was not thinking how it would look from inside the house on a dreary, snowy December morning.

The lesson has been learnt. In winter, because you spend so much more time inside looking out on the garden than you do in the garden itself, it is worth arranging a few more happenings like the mahonia. If there had been a wall where the mahonia is, a jasmine would have given the same effect. A winter flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis, might do, too, though the colour of the flowers would be lost when it snowed.

Buried in the compost heap were some tulip bulbs, frills of white roots already shooting out round the base plates of the bulbs. Guilt again. I must have inadvertently tipped them there when I was emptying a pot of old compost. Tulips never let me down. This last spring, flowering under the pergola I had the unsurpassed `Weber's Parrot', each flower as outrageous as an 18th-century fop's handkerchief. In the first week of March, Tulipa pulchella `Persian Pearl' was already flowering on the bank, the backs of the fabulous magenta petals washed over with silvery grey.

This autumn I planted 15 different kinds of tulip in the garden. Many are in containers, where they do better than in our heavy clay ground. I like to think now of `Prins Carnaval', quietly buried in a Chinese pot by the back door, preparing to leap out in mid-April with its yellow scented flowers elegantly feathered in red. Next year is going to be the best yet.