Magazine article The Spectator

The Importance of Planning

Magazine article The Spectator

The Importance of Planning

Article excerpt

Gardening pundits grow prematurely old and querulous impressing on readers and viewers the importance of planning what they want in their gardens, before they go out and buy the plants to fill them. Nevertheless, people can still be overheard in the garden centre, deciding whether the evergreen euonymus or the Russian vine, which look about the same size in their pots, would be best for climbing up the front of the house.

If there has been no prior research, gardeners usually have only the plant's label to tell them its Latin name, likely height and spread, the season and appearance of its flowers, the soil and aspect which suit it, and its initial and subsequent cultivation needs. On the usual small label (which, if the plant is selling in the EU, will be in four languages anyway), there will be no room to expand on whether it displays attributes other than the flowers or fruits depicted in the small photograph, or even whether it has shortcomings, such as too vigorous growth, or over-enthusiastic seeding. Unless the buyer knows the plant well already, the opportunities for later disappointment are legion.

In the hope of improving matters, a process of research and consultation is presently being pursued by Gardening Which? (the gardening arm of the Consumers' Association), with the co-operation of the Horticultural Trades Association, which represents garden centres and nurseries. Surveys, focus groups, interviews, and field trials have all been brought into play, and designers, plant experts, semioticians (crikey) and editors are also involved, in an attempt to develop a more helpful, accurate and even truthful label.

Commendable and worthy as this campaign undoubtedly is, I suspect the complete answer will prove elusive. No label, however well-considered, can possibly address the unique nature of each garden nor our generally profound ignorance on the subject of our own.

Think of soil, for instance. A row of small gardens, even if laid out at the same time, may not be identical; old-established gardens are often highly individual. I have at least three distinct types of soil, and there may be even more buried under the lawn, which I don't know about. Soil is a very strong determinant, yet most of us have no idea of the exact pH, nutrient profile, humus content, and water-holding capacity of our soil or, more likely, soils. Often it does not matter, mercifully (for many plants are forgiving), but sometimes it makes the difference between life and death. …

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