Gardening: Vice and virtue in the bed

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In the game of garden oneupmanship, Kirsty Fergusson offers a guide to the etiquette of being a visitor.

"A garden," wrote the eccentric novelist Beverley Nichols, "can make or mar a friendship. It brings out all sorts of hidden virtues and unsuspected vices."

It's true: getting to know someone through a visit to their (or your) garden is a revealing experience. Poor Nichols; it seems he was forever doomed to show gushing, thick-skinned females round his garden. Either the sort who entertained the curious illusion that their ignorance was charming ("She would poke her parasol into a clump of lupins, to their infinite peril, and say `lovely ... lovely canterbury bells!' ... and look at me over her shoulder for the expected correction"), or the bullying kind ("There isn't a lavender hedge. Why haven't you got a lavender hedge? And I can't see any scarlet lupins. You must have scarlet lupins ... I'll send you some seeds").

But knowing the right thing to say, after your host has amiably suggested that you take a turn round the garden together, is quite another matter. Making admiring noises gets pretty boring after a while for both parties, unless they are - respectively - deferential and conceited by nature. Nichols was very taken by a Miss Hazlitt, who could quote great chunks of Gerard's Herball, prompted only by the sight of a pimpernel flower. "The juyce cures the toothach being snift up into the nosthrills, especially into the contrary nosthrill," she murmurs, bending appreciatively over the little weed.

But pointing out a weed in someone else's garden by summoning up a 17th- century cure for toothache, without annoying your host, is not easy to do. These days, if the compulsion to mention the presence of a weed were too strong to withhold, it would make more sense to recite a nugget of ethno-botanical wisdom from Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica: "Borage! You are lucky. I've just learnt that you can freeze the flowers in ice- cubes to decorate your drinks out of season."

Perhaps not: drawing attention to weeds in somebody else's garden, however fascinating their uses or abuses, is still a risky business.

It's even riskier to march up to the weed and tug it out, however instinctive the action. Especially if you look back at your host over your shoulder with a coy "you don't mind, do you?" Of course they will be offended. There follows, too, a lot of potential embarrassment for even the most thick-skinned of visitors: the weed may snap, leaving the worst of it behind; even in the unlikely event that it comes out entire, you will need to dispose of it somewhere, or be left carrying it all round the garden like an unwanted plate of food at a party, while your host rightly enjoys your discomfiture.

Christopher Lloyd notes a gleam of triumph and superiority in the eye when a visitor spots a weed in the garden at Great Dixter. She who is apt to dart forward with the cry "I never can resist the groundsel", is responding more to his presence than to the weed. "She would [resist the groundsel], though, if I weren't there to witness its extraction," he remarks wryly.

So it is that garden visits will often - sometimes knowingly, sometimes involuntarily - develop into a game with an elaborate system of point- scoring, as enjoyable or unpleasant as the characters involved will allow. You'll know, when your interlocutor is bowling to you ("I can't think why everyone's getting so excited about gravel these days"), that you are expected to bat it back. A simple block ("but what if the climate really is becoming more Mediterranean?") or a harder hit ("You just want to be ahead of the game, don't you, by not having a trendy gravel garden") in the opening over will establish the pace of the game and the pleasure or pain to be derived from the visit.

It is as well to establish quite early on in the conversational knockabout what the score is on names. Probably 10-0 to the host. He or she has the advantage, of course, of being on intimate terms with the plants in the garden and will probably know the names of them all as well as the names of friends and relations. The visitor shouldn't feel ashamed to ask for a name, but it looks like idle interrogation if, after a couple of answers, the visitor does not make some attempt to jot down the information. In fact, a notebook and pencil, produced discreetly, even shyly, at intervals, should leave the host feeling nicely flattered. Furious scribbling, on the other hand, will simply cause alarm and anxiety. Not a bad ploy, in fact, for those indulging in garden gamesmanship.

Aggressive plant oneupmanship is on the increase amongst the rising tide of newly-hatched Serious Gardeners. A lot of sparring may be observed before one of the combatants retires hurt, having mixed up his uliginosa with his guaranitica, or simply because he put the emphasis on the wrong syllable of "superbum". It takes time before the jousting gives way to a companionable banter in which most of the words spoken are in Latin or Greek, or wedged between single inverted commas. Alan Titchmarsh, who, after all, has a reputation to defend, admitted to a useful strategy for concealing ignorance where names are concerned. With a show of great casualness he would wave his foot in the direction of the plant in question (in fact I think he said "kick") and, with implied reference to the annual taxonomic nightmare when certain plants receive their official "new" names, he would sigh "and what are they calling this one now?" If all went according to plan, the response (accompanied by a puzzled frown) would run along the lines of: "Er ... it's always been Verbena bonariensis, as far as I know."

Bingo. Add fraud to the list of vices on exhibition in the garden. But I can't help liking him more for that single confession than for all the cheery, honest toil that is presented as the essence of gardening on Friday night television. And I can't help thinking that the best remembered and most instructive garden visits have been full of irreverent, inquisitive, often competitive chatter; of quick put-downs, ridiculous suggestions and good-natured pick-me-ups: lessons in the compelling mutuality of integrity and deception, education and fun.

Anna Pavord returns next week.