My secret life with plants: Our brilliant new columnist, Emma Townshend, explains her unique gardening philosophy

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The Independent Online

While we were being shown round Kew the other day, by one of the team that looks after the display plants, my friend Esme whispered confidentially: 'I like this guy, he really loves his plants.' As a real bryophytophile herself (that's a moss- and liverworts-lover) she recognised the passion in someone else.

Like many gardeners, for me the plants come first. But these days, I'm prey to two contradictory impulses. I adore all my individual plants, but I have begun to understand that, without strict control, a garden becomes an unusable mess. It might not bother the plants, but it does mean that I begin to feel a bit unwelcome myself. I spend idle time in the bath imagining a TV show in which supernanny is sent round to explain to me how a bit more discipline would benefit both me and my plants.

You learn about yourself gardening. You find out if you are an attention-seeker, or someone who likes to fit in. Whether you're someone who lusts over whatever's at Chelsea, or you go home to rip out anything you've got that is suddenly deemed trendy.

You also learn, over time, to grit your teeth and acquire those qualities that you yearn to have. I long to be tidier and to be more ruthless. When I began, I used to have plants everywhere. Now, I want more of the garden to be for sitting or partying in, and every year I manage to reclaim a little bit of flowerbed back for human beings. I have started to trust that deadheading and violent pruning do the appropriate plants good. And the part of me which secretly wants to be Bree from Desperate Housewives - never without a pair of secateurs - becomes more and more vicious as time rolls on.

You learn where your strengths and your flaws lie. For example, because I came to gardening through Darwin - doing academic research into his interest in horticulture - how each plant is adapted to its environment is really important to me. Everyone who loves plants has one weakness, and mine are the Euphorbiaceae (that's the spurge family, the euphorbias, that share the same dangerous sap, such as the baldly named 'Blind-Your-Eye Mangrove'.)

Even if you know nothing about plants, you may recognise these, because a few of them are used all the time by contemporary planting designers. In fact, I was deflated as you can only be by the truth, when Christopher Lloyd pronounced in his book Garden Flowers that loving euphorbias was a 'frequently heard claim from fashionable gardeners'.

That said, at least two of mine aren't on his list, probably because they are too 'native' - for me Euphorbia lathyrus, the Caper Spurge, is a 3ft architectural wonder, the stripped-down minimalist essence of euphorbia in a single plant; but I also grow the bog-standard Euphorbia wulfenii. (Though I did have to dispose of the one I brought home asouvenir from Barnsley House, which Rosemary Verey, the late doyenne of British gardening, had bred to such a lime-green football of a size that it looked ridiculous in my little garden.)

I hope that in writing the gardening column, I'm going to be able to include things I've learnt from garden history, such as the imperial origins of some of our favourite plants. I also believe that a garden is for all its inhabitants, not just the human ones, so I'll be paying attention to bumble bees, lacewings, toads and butterflies. And, unlike Alan Titchmarsh, I do believe in global warming, so I will be investigating all the fab things you can grow yourself to offset carbon emissions. And also maybe even the upside of climate change - such as never having to lift dahlias ever again.

In the end, though, you may find that you are just as much a sucker for garden fashion as everyone else. I fear I've succumbed in having a thing for 1970s architectural landscape design. Last weekend I found myself buying a beautiful book about Richard Neutra, the Viennese-born Californian architect. It includes many of his private houses, which get used these days to add glamour to fashion shoots and hip-hop videos.

Having trained in Vienna under the influence of Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, Neutra detested the very idea of ornament. Yet his steel-and-glass houses, with their luxurious subtropical settings, exude both privacy and intricacy. While Neutra was arranging to emigrate to America, he spent two years working for a Swiss landscape architect. The gardens he designed are a reminder that structure and line are everything, that a tangle looks focused, intentional, strong, set against a pure white wall.

In the end though, it's always the plants that get me. Flicking through the pages, I stop looking at the architecture, and drift off, amazed to think that in some places a 15ft-tall Swiss cheese plant will grow outside, all year round. Imagine how happy that plant would be: finally living up, like all the other delicious monsters we grow, to its evocative Latin name, Monstera deliciosa.

If you do one thing... rake

This is the time of year to embrace the rake. Unplug that electric leaf-blower, and think The Karate Kid. Silence, and the sound of the slow scrape of gravel. Doesn't that feel better? Don't rake forwards. Sweep towards your feet, from one side, then the other, to keep the toll on your back balanced. While you're at it, remember the Buddha's disciple Chunda, who simply swept his way to enlightenment.

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