In the cold light of November: At this time of year, Peter Parker likes to go out and have a serious look at his garden, to see whether any of the failures are worth repeating

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The Independent Online
HARD THOUGH I try in my garden, I have yet to produce the sort of 'all- year-round interest' that television presenters seem to demand. It is not that I find my small London patch dull at this time of year, but I suspect many would find it insufficiently cheerful.

My Clematis rhederiana, however, is still covered with sweetly scented flowers resembling tiny primrose harebells, and the C texensis 'Gravetye Beauty', although now mostly Catherine-wheel seedheads, still offers the occasional dull crimson bloom. The dusty pink Japanese anemones are flowering alongside another late-comer, the royal blue bog sage, Salvia uliginosa. Apart from these, however, my garden is largely clumps and mounds of attractively, if untidily, decaying foliage at the moment.

November is, therefore, an ideal month to take stock of the garden. Photographs can be useful aides-memoire, although most enthusiasts are more inclined to snap triumphs than disasters. It takes a brave gardener to fill an album with glossy prints of diseased foliage, fallen buds, shrivelled blooms, leafless stalks, hideous colour-clashes and bare patches of earth, and I am more inclined to own up to this sort of thing in a notebook.

Photographs remind me that the spring started well, with Clematis macropetala scrambling up through the 'Albertine', its abundant blue flowers, blackish stems and fresh foliage showing up well among the new maroon and green shoots of the rose. At ground level the pulmonaria, which (my notebook gloomily states) I had thought entirely devoured by slugs, suddenly thrust out sombre leaves spattered with ash-grey, and burst into coral and azure flower. Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba' shot up to an unexpected height and produced arch after arch of the purest white lockets. It later formed a perfect foil for the herbaceous potentilla 'Flamenco' which, despite its strident name, has wonderfully dark petals the colour of newly shed blood.

Both these plants proved well-matched in vigour and colour, but in a garden where space is at a premium, smaller and more delicate plants are in danger of being smothered. This does not stop one buying them, of course. Unable to resist the chocolate-splashed green leaves of the prostrate clover, Trifolium repens 'Purpurescens', I was left with the problem of finding a safe haven for it along the packed borders. A friend cleverly suggested planting it in a low, wide-brimmed bowl on horticultural grit with the yellow and green ginger mint, Mentha x gentilis 'Variegata'. The mint had to be kept in check as the year progressed, but this could be easily enough done by picking it regularly; it is not as rampant as its more commonplace and dowdy relations.

The same cannot be said for the golden hop, Humulus lupulus 'Aureus', which I grew on a fence to provide a bright backdrop for the dark foliage of a broom. I had, of course, been warned about hops, but nothing makes me more determined to grow a plant than being told it is 'unsuitable for the small garden'. Before I knew what was happening, hop shoots had snaked their way through the broom, which rapidly succumbed in the unequal Laocoon- like Trojan struggle. I tried to take comfort from the notion that brooms can be short-lived, but I was no more consoled than I had been as a child when my hamsters met with accidents before their allotted two years were up. I suppose I should get rid of the hop but, undeniably, it is a decorative thug. The only plant I have discovered with equally lustrous metallic-yellow foliage is a bramble, Rubus cockburnianus 'Golden Vale'.

One solution would be to make use of the large amount of vertical space that even the smallest garden can boast, and grow the hop up some sort of pole, out of harm's way. The trouble with many small gardens is that their owners have been cajoled into filling them with 'dwarf' varieties, with the result that everything is uniformly flat. There may be a case for sprawling 'knee-high' sweet peas and vertically challenged delphiniums, but there is a better argument for introducing a few Gullivers into one's Lilliputian plot. To grow such towering specimens as the silver- green cotton thistle, Onopordum acanthium, in the small garden all one needs is courage and some secateurs with which to lop off the occasional downy leaf or candelabra-like branch.

Another large plant I have found easy to grow and prune to my specifications is Delphinium requienii. I confess I had acquired seeds under the impression that this tall, multiple-spired biennial produced scarlet flowers. In fact, the flowers, which are smaller and less clustered than those of D elatum, are an unusual lilac, with prominent bronze anthers. The fatsia-like leaves are dark and glossy and made handsome foliage throughout their first winter.

Some plants are less easy to curb than this accommodating delphinium. The large, glaucous, attractively lobed leaves of the plume poppy, Macleaya cordata (syn Bocconia cordata), cannot be removed without ruining the plant's impressively architectural outline. Since I find the macleaya's faintly oxidised appearance invaluable, I have to resign myself to allowing it more than its fair share of space at the back of a border. Cutting the leaves off bulbs cannot be recommended either, though I am often tempted to defoliate Allium giganteum, particularly this year when, instead of its customary pair of sturdy purple drumsticks, it threw up several small, pale buds. As beaky and feeble-looking as doomed nestlings, they soon wilted and rotted, leaving behind a sprawling tangle of foliage.

I have always found bulbs temperamental. Rather more puzzling was the unexpected failure of supposedly hardy and long-lived herbaceous plants such as the red Achillea 'The Beacon', which last year had blazed most satisfactorily. This year, its only salute was a brief 'Ich Dien' of three feathery leaves which almost immediately disappeared. Later, careful probing, then irritable prodding with a fork, failed to uncover any trace whatsoever of the plant.

At least this relieved me of having to decide whether or not to give a dud plant another chance. Faced with a Kirengeshoma palmata which, for the third year running, blackened and died before its promised cluster of creamy yellow bells opened, I suffer the sort of pangs a kindly social worker must feel when confronted by a persistently offending client. Perhaps it had grown up in the wrong environment, had been starved of proper care, was keeping unsuitable company? Unless a plant actually dies, I am loath to throw it on the scrap heap. I should really give this one to someone with different soil or air, but I may simply move it and try again. No doubt we do learn from our mistakes, but I sometimes think that, for all our jottings and photographs, gardening is proof of the triumph of optimism over experience.

(Photograph omitted)

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