Choosing plants for the garden is not always the well-regulated affair that it ought to be. The received wisdom is clear. Bearing in mind the site, the soil, the different aspects of the garden, the presence or absence of wind and frost, you draw up a list. On the list will be trees and shrubs carefully selected to give as long a period of interest as possible.
The problem, particularly at the beginning of your gardening life, is knowing what to put on the list. Most of us draw on a random series of sources for inspiration: the next door neighbour's garden, a picture in a magazine, the memory of a particular smell.
When I first started to garden, I devoured books. As well as a way of learning, they provided an escape from the claustrophobia of babies. When finally the middle child had fallen silent, I would reach for Effective Flowering Shrubs by Michael Haworth-Booth and drown myself in his measured, careful descriptions of enkianthus and camellia, rhododendron and pieris. I read every inch of that book, list-making as I went. I have the list still, thick with azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons.
Perhaps it was just as well that we couldn't afford to buy much for the garden in those early years, dominated as they were by the ruin we'd moved into. Absorbed in Haworth-Booth and his book, I'd never quite grasped that he gardened in a big woodland garden, made on acid soil. The rectory ruin was surrounded by clay. The few Effective Flowering Shrubs I did put in struggled. Then died.
Having finally learnt the difference between things that like alkaline soil and things that don't, I looked for a guru who would suit my situation better and got swept up into the cottage-garden mania. I read Margery Fish and Anne Scott-James and made more lists. Mostly herbaceous stuff this time – anemone, aquilegia, aster, achillea, aconitum. Herbaceous stuff wasn't as expensive as Haworth-Booth's trees and shrubs and, with birthday-present money, I began enthusiastically to plant from my list. Then another problem emerged. I was putting in so many things beginning with A, I could see that there'd never be room in the garden for woodruff or yucca, zantedeschia or zinnia.
As the years went on, different gurus took over. Penelope Hobhouse. Christopher Lloyd – the most influential of them all. The lists became so numerous, I bought a secondhand filing cabinet to keep track of them all. Each autumn I would sit down with the lists, a pile of catalogues and my birthday money and take fantastic delight in being able to strike a few things off the roll.
While I was still labouring through the first letter of the alphabet, I put in Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Ballerina' which you can find either as a multi-stemmed shrubby thing or as a tree. It has loose, drooping clusters of white flowers in spring backed by leaves with a distinct bronze tinge. It is pest and trouble-free, unfussy as to soil and needs no pruning. It prefers full sun but will tolerate some shade. It will not grow more than 6m (20ft) tall.
That tree got squashed by another tree which blew on top of it in the gale of January 1990. That storm hit the West Country far worse than the 1987 gale did. But while it was with us, the amelanchier did everything my gurus had led me to expect. In some autumns, it coloured up most deliciously.
I am still making lists, but in a much more spasmodic way. They are no longer dominated by one particular author or gardener, as they used to be. Ages ago, I bought a small, black, strongly bound book which I try to have with me whenever I go garden visiting. This is a discipline that Christopher taught me. He was never without a notebook.
Anything particularly good that I see on my travels goes into the book. It is always useful to see a plant growing, rather than judge its performance entirely by a written description. Often you will find it flourishing in a situation where you would not have thought of putting it. You can teach yourself a lot by tuning in to what a plant is trying to tell you. And, visiting other people's gardens, you can crib good planting combinations, too.
Another important lesson I learnt in our first garden is that, unless you are specifically a collector of plants, it is much easier to make a decent garden by concentrating on one patch of ground rather than on a general list of plants. Then, you can plant in a series of stage sets, as it were, choosing plants that will go well together in one particular corner or part of a border and planting them all at the same time. This seems pretty obvious to me now, but it was not always so.
The lists I've made over the years show how my taste has gradually changed. There aren't many ferns on the early lists (perhaps because they seemed such daunting things to spell) but they dominate my planting now. I've put in 39 different kinds in the few years we've been in the new garden. I planted the amelanchier again, because it's the kind of wildish-looking tree that makes a good handshake between garden and landscape – an important consideration in the place where we now live.
But I wouldn't, for instance, ever plant the so-called white forsythia (Abeliophyllum distichum) again. I got it when I was still doggedly working through the As in my list. I planted it on the bank at the rectory and waited many years for its small, white, cross-shaped flowers to enchant me, for its perfume to creep across the path and intrigue me. But they didn't.
In the wild, abeliophyllum grows on Korean hillsides, and perhaps now, with more understanding of the lessons that provenance can teach, I would give it more sun than it had on the rectory bank. I would take more trouble with the soil, too. The rectory clay wasn't what you'd call fast-draining. A couple of bucketfuls of grit dug into the planting hole would have made that clay just a little bit more like a hillside. Now, in our present garden, I could make abeliophyllum much happier. But will I? No. Not while there are daphnes to plant. And magnolias. And woodwardias. It's so liberating, escaping from A.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies