There are gardeners. And there are groundskeepers

If you prefer a strimmer to a seedling, and a lawnmower to a large lilac, can you really call yourself a gardener? By TCharles Elliott
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Gardening" is a dangerously imprecise term. By that I mean it covers too many activities, some of them mutually exclusive. For example, my companion and I both call ourselves gardeners, because we both work in the garden from time to time. Yet our approaches are very different.

She is keen about plants. She can tell you which hebe is which. She can take rose cuttings that thrive. She knows where to put a cistus and why pruning it won't work. A pretty authentic gardener, in fact, though she would insist she has a lot to learn. I, on the other hand, am at heart a groundskeeper.

The depth of this distinction was forcibly brought home to me when, in the course of clipping sprouts under a clump of lilac, I pruned a prized clematis so thoroughly that it vanished. It was not a jackmanii, either, but a montana that the gardener had been carefully pruning year by year in hopes of a splendid display. I didn't do this on purpose, of course. It's just that one stem looks pretty much like the rest.

Now it's all very well to say that these things happen, but they happen often enough to suggest that I ought to question my basic attitude towards vegetation. Nothing makes me happier than using a strimmer, for instance. I even see myself as something of an artist with it, swooping within fractions of an inch of the daffodils,circling around trees without damaging the bark, edging a path without spraying gravel in my face. So the odd paperwhite falls victim, so there's a gouge or two along the path - you can't expect to be right every time.

Still, my point is not the mistakes I make. Everybody does that. The point is the degree to which I, as a typical groundskeeper, am drawn to gardening activities that are only marginally horticultural. Even when growing things are involved, I find myself tidying up. I'm responsible for the vegetable patch, but what I really enjoy is making the rows straight,keeping the beds weeded, and ensuring the soil is loose and nice to look at.

Mowing is probably the epitome of groundskeeping. I'd prefer to do it myself, but I have had to give way to a husky 15-year-old from the village who, for 10 quid, sees to the job before we arrive on Friday afternoon. I'm left with the agreeable task of running lightly over the whole thing again, just polishing, as it were, and tidying those corners and edges that only a fanatic cares about.

In any case, we also have some coarse mowing to be done, and I save this for myself. One section is the orchard, and the other a slightly larger open area sloping away from the house.Until early May, both contain wildflowers of varying impressiveness. The orchard has some orchids - early purple orchids, not rare, and confined to a small patch - while the open slope has forget-me-nots, daffodils, violets and cow parsley. Mowing the orchard isn't a problem - you just leave the orchids to get on with it, rumbling over everything else with a big 22in mower that leaves the cut grass in neat windrows. Very satisfying. Mowing the slope is another matter.

This is where the groundskeeper and the gardener begin to show their true natures. The groundskeeper's instinct is to get out there and lay waste as soon as the grass has grown up to about nine inches. The gardener demurs, noting how nice the slope looks in its spring green, studded with wildflowers. The groundskeeper protests that if we wait any longer the mower won't cut it, it will have to be scythed. The gardener points out that the whole logic of gardening says we are supposed to enjoy growing things, not chopping them down. At this juncture, the groundskeeper generally backs off and turns to something else, perhaps edging shrub beds with another of his favourite tools, the half-moon spade. Come July, he will finally manage to manhandle the mower through the grass and the cow parsley, which will by then stand 18 inches high. It will look truly awful, like a very bad haircut. This pains him, but the wildflowers will have had their scruffy day in the sun.

Given his attitude, one might accuse the groundskeeper of actual hostility to growing things, but this is not fair. It's just that he is more sensitive than most to one of the great truths about plants. They are essentially aggressive. They want to win. They want to beat out other, weaker, plants, and they want to beat out humans, too. Left to their own devices, they will make a mockery of any garden. You must treat them firmly.

But if one theme defining the groundskeeper's role in the garden is destruction, another is construction. By this I do not mean the execution of planting plans a la Gertrude Jekyll, those tempting hypothetical beds filled with labelled cloud or kidney shapes advising us where the hostas or the hybrid phlox should go. I'm talking about real construction - walls, steps, paving, pergolas, all sorts of engineering work from earth-moving to building birdhouses.

Somehow these activities seem to conflict less with the concerns of the gardener. In fact, one might even note a certain commonalty of interest. I recently completed work on a project involving 20 yards of stone wall, a new 10ft by 20ft bed filled with two feet of topsoil, a flagged court, a large pergola, and 15 square yards of cemented stone paving. It took years - enjoyable years - and thinking back I realise that it was all the gardener's idea in the first place. She quite rightly recognised that roses would be grateful for the new bed, that the walls would shelter the half-hardy perennials, and that some summer's day it would be pleasant to have lunch under the canopy of foliage covering the pergola.

A new scheme is being bruited, for a long rustic fence, 6ft high, on which roses can be trained. The groundskeeper is delighted. The job will mean, first, digging out half a dozen large lilacs. Then he will have to cut down at least two trees, and excavate about a hundred daffodil bulbs. The rose bed itself will need to be prepared. Then will come the nicest part: going into the wood to find and cut hundreds of feet of poles - ash, oak and larch - with which to build the fence. It will take months of weekends, given the amount of mowing, clipping, strimming, edging and pruning that also has to be done.

In the meantime, gardening will go on - cuttings taken, new plants discussed and purchased, seeds planted and fertilised. No doubt the groundskeeper will be called upon to help from time to time, digging planting holes, say, and even discussing where an unhappy shrub might be moved. His mind will naturally be occupied by other schemes but he is not entirely averse to horticulture in its purer sense, which is fortunate. Any garden consisting of more than a window-box needs both approaches.

I'm delighted to report a perfect illustration of this convergence of interests. The montana that the groundskeeper had so carelessly clipped into oblivion emerged again the next season with hugely renewed vigour, sending half a dozen stems racing upwards as if a year's sojourn underground had been just what it wanted. I don't know about the gardener (she misses the blooms), but I feel better.

Charles Elliott writes for the US journal "Horticulture". His articles will be published in "The Transplanted Gardener" on 25 April (Viking, pounds 16)

Anna Pavord is on holiday