Urban gardener: Computer says 'grow'

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The Independent Online

We've got a stowaway in the garden. It came in a pot of Saruma henryi that Roy Lancaster gave me earlier this year after a visit to his garden. Squeezing up a couple of grass-like shoots and gladioli-like flowers just before we went on holiday, I wondered for a moment whether Roy had inadvertently given me something rare and precious. On sending a photo, he confirmed that the infiltrator was Gladiolus papilio, a variable species from the Transvaal. Despite competition from the saruma it still reached its mature height of one metre but will need planting out in open ground if it is to make a nice clump. The flowers (late summer to early autumn) are like small funnels with subtle shades of purple and yellow that marble to darker maroon, and gold on the lower petals giving the impression of a butterfly, hence the name. It needs cool, moist humus-rich soil in sun to thrive (it will colonise by underground runners) and a good mulch should see it safely through a UK winter.

It's one of the rare moments I've had anything to do with gladioli since I got sacked from one of my first gardening jobs in the Eighties. I'd blagged my way into maintaining a rather posh garden on Kingston Hill in Surrey, but was caught tying three gladioli to a cane instead of one. A fair cop I suppose but I swore never to plant gladioli ever again and, apart from one obvious exception (the designer's favourite Gladiolus communis var. byzantinus) I haven't, not really because of the faux pas with the staking but simply because gladioli don't set my pulse racing. And I know I'm not alone.

If you're hoping now for a comprehensive run down on the best gladioli for your garden then I'm sorry to disappoint. Neither is this a protracted introduction to leave just enough words telling you that you should be planting bulbs for next spring (although by sheer coincidence that's exactly what you should be doing). It's actually a round about way of telling you about some computer software that I have started using recently. No please don't turn over, this is actually quite interesting.

As much as I resent any time spent in front of a computer, the interactive Plant Finder & Pruning Guide from Complete Gardens will actually cut down some time in front of the screen and benefit my clients too with much more informative plant lists and maintenance schedules. There are 3,500 plants and 9,000 pictures on the CD-Rom with various ways of making selections (colours, conditions, flowering times, etc) that can be printed out (with notes, pruning and propagation advice, pests and diseases to watch out for) saving lots of time cross-referencing books. I'm not saying it will stop me buying more books for my sagging shelves but as a work tool (my assistant Humaira will love it) it's brilliant and it's British so it won't throw up lists that will have you trawling through plants that will only grow in Madagascar.

I should tell you that it's not for the exclusive use of garden designers who don't know as much as they should about gladioli. Anyone, amateur or enthusiast, who can click a mouse button can use it to make lists of plants in their own garden with all the information they need to maintain it. And get this. Click on any clematis species and it will show you the correct time and method for pruning. Seeing as I know many experienced gardeners who are as rusty as I am on clematis groups and how to tackle them it's worth getting the CD just for that. Of course I couldn't resist seeing if it had Gladiolus papilio. It has. It also has another six that, I must admit, are actually quite attractive.