New Year Gardening Resolutions

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Photo courtesy Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group (c) 2010
"It is a myth that gardens will age gracefully and become peacefully mature over time. Gardens never stand still and never allow us to buy a season ticket on the line of least resistance."

Excerpted from Thoughtful Gardening, by Robin Lane Fox, with permissions from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010. The following excerpt can be found on Pages 7 to 9.

My new year is full of good intentions that it would be optimistic to call resolutions. In the garden, I will be more punctual. I will remember to feed everything in pots, even in the middle of their growing season. I will not leave flower bulbs unplanted in brown paper bags. I will try to stake in time, not on the morning after a collapse. I may even check for earwigs. I will not walk on the lawns during heavy frosts. I will remember to sow Sweet William seeds for flowers in the following year and I will do the job in the first week in June. I will not throw stones at squirrels. Instead, I will buy a new squirrel trap and bait it with peanut butter. When I catch one, I will take it in the car and let it out near the garden of the nearest member of parliament who voted to ban fox hunting.

I will also address the needs of a garden that is in its middle age. It is amazing how things have not grown as I anticipated. The climbers on the walls are mostly too big. I never imagined that my avenues of upright hornbeams and Pyrus calleryana Chanticleer would grow so tall and cost so much to cut and shape. I did not expect so many border plants to run wild on such a scale. At lower levels, some of the best small hardy plants have died of old age, a hazard that gardening books seldom mention. None of the dianthus even waited to become elderly and I am bemused to realize how many I have replaced. I used to reckon that owners of raised beds in a garden had lost the plot when their beds became overrun with the bonfire-red flowers of zauschneria in autumn. Last autumn, my raised beds were a flaming zone of zauschnerias. My old mats of low-growing phloxes have brown patches in their middles. Ants have killed off a little erodium with red-eyed flowers and something seems to have sat in the center of my autumn-flowering gentians. I do not want to think about the superb small Campanula Lynchmere, which was at its best when I dug it up last year and tried to divide it. Its roots are the wrong shape for division and so it has died. I am not alone in finding it difficult to increase as it has now disappeared from many nurseries in the Plant Finder, the Royal Horticultural Society’s guide to “more than 70,000 plants and 640 places to buy them.”

The easiest way to treat middle-aged gardens is to leave them alone to become senile. The first sign of middle age is when owners talk about growing only the things that seem to suit them. Then those things get the upper had and owners start to reclassify the planting as the “meadow look.” That “look” involves too many hardy geraniums and valerians and too many seedlings from the previous year’s forget-me-nots. If I do not control Rudbeckia Goldsturm this year, I will have to pretend that its border was planned years ago as a prairie. I also have to face the fact that so many of my worst invaders are plants for which I paid good money and that I introduced. Never accept an unnamed autumn-flowering helianthus. The family includes the rampant Jerusalem artichoke whose tubers are so hard to eradicate. Never plant white flowered Achillea ptarmica The Pearl of Perry’s White in a bed that is meant to be civilized. They are fine as cut flowers but their running white roots elude removal with a spade.

Here, resolve becomes relevant. Beginners and owners of new gardens start out with all their mistakes before them, whereas middle-aged gardeners live with mistakes already self-inflicted. Try to look at your aging creations with the eye of an incoming owner. After one such look I commissioned some ruthless cutting and felling. Out went the dull, dusty sycamores and a middle-aged walnut tree that I inherited too near to the house. Half o my trees should have come out years ago, but I forget how I had to make my garden by demolishing a feathery forest. I uprooted more than a hundred tall leylandii cypresses with the help of a mechanical digger’s front bucket when I took over the land and had to reopen its lawns and views. It is never too late in life to let in the light.

It is a myth that gardens will age gracefully and become peacefully mature over time. Gardens never stand still and never allow us to buy a season ticket on the line of least resistance. They need as much guiding, reshaping, and rethinking in their twenty-fifth year as in their third. The past ten years of gardening on television and in beautifully illustrated magazines have lured many people into trying it as if it is exterior decoration that will be as obedient as a new lamp or sofa cover. When some plants die and others grow out of shape, gardeners learn that the fun of real gardening is that it is never pinned down.

It will never pin me down. I have learned to trust my capacity for experiments that are at least two steps ahead of reality. I am someone who presented his garden with a laborious new swimming pool and promptly lost interest in swimming. For years Mother Nature has had the pool to herself and has turned it into a dramatic wilderness of self-sown buddlejas and bull rushes. They are being sustained on a diet of the naturally drowned hedgehogs that float upward in the winter months. For years I have been hoping that the water may spontaneously generate human life. Better still, it may prove the Bible right and present me with a female helpmate, a muscular clone of Eve. At least she will not need a work permit.

So far, the pool has produced only a batch of newts. My latest resolution is to restore its former shallow end to clear, rush-free water and plant it with white-flowering water lilies, contained in old car tires. You know what resolutions are, but I like the idea of becoming that Japanese item, an “artist of the floating world.” More likely, the lilies will turn out to be the next invaders of my own making.

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