Notes to self

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Coleus plants are among those I would recommend to myself

I am enjoying the current TV series of Home Delivery on ABC TV where people are taken back to their old homes, schools etc; at the end they are asked what advice they'd give their younger selves. I have been wondering what guidance I'd now give to myself as I was at the time I started gardening and garden-making, more than 35 years ago. I certainly can't say I have all the answers but there are a few things I wish I'd known then that I know now, which might have saved me some angst, time and money!

The ethereal blue poppy at the Chelsea Flower Show 2013, which I tried to grow in my early gardening years

First of all, I would tell myself to garden in accordance with my climate. I spent a good 10 or so years deluding myself that I actually lived in England (in a thatched cottage) and that I would be able to grow all the gorgeous English cottagey plants that filled the sumptuous gardening books that were around in the 1980s and 1990s. It was only a matter of determination (I thought). When the penny finally dropped that Sydney's climate bears no resemblance to that of England, with our hot, humid summers; our mild, basically frost-free winters; and our very different rainfall patterns, that I was able to move forward and look for plants better suited to all this: those originating in warm-temperate and semi-tropical parts of the world. Don't waste your time on those rare plants from the Himalayas or European Alps, I would say: look to South America, Southern China, South-East Asia and Mexico, and consider your local native plants too!

I learned from earlier mistakes and put in hedge plants at the beginning in my second garden

Next, I would tell myself to plant trees, hedges and major shrubs early on in the garden-making process, so that the structure of the garden would be well underway before I even thought about the smaller plants to be placed within this framework. Unfortunately, in my early years in my first garden, I was utterly smitten with perennials (see above) and fiddled around for too long with these, neglecting to create the vital bones of the garden.

Thirdly, I would advise myself not to be seduced TOO much by flowers. I will, of course, always love them - who wouldn't? - but over time, I have learned not to chose a plant solely on what its blooms are like. The overall shape of plants and what their foliage is like - and how good that foliage looks throughout the year - are far more important considerations than the beauty of their flowers. There are so many stunning foliage plants (including the coleus shown at the start of the blog), which can provide wonderful colour in the garden. When flowers ARE considered, the length of the blooming period is an important point, as a few short days of flowering - however stunning - can't really be the reason for me to plant a specimen, or so I believe now.

Beautiful though it is I would advise myself never to plant a Wisteria

Fourthly, I would suggest that I should always, always listen when people tell me that a tree, shrub, climber, perennial, annual or groundcover is 'a monster' or something that 'goes berserk'. How often in my younger years did I scoff at such advice, and believe that I would be able to keep the said plant under control. I still pay for this folly in my garden, with towering trees dwarfing all else in the garden, suckering shrubs that appear many metres away from the original planting, rapacious creepers that have to be wacked back almost every week in summer with a tomahawk to keep them even vaguely under control, self-seeding annuals that appear everywhere, and stealthy, rhizomatous perennials that take over whole borders.

Another point I'd make to myself is to create generously sized garden beds. My very first beds were about 20 cm deep, which seemed plenty of room to my inexperienced eye. Where possible now, I make beds several metres deep and try to keep their shape simple, rather than making wiggly edges that I once thought quite artistic. Within borders, I've learned to mass plants in groups of at least three of the one kind, to give an impact, rather than stuffing in a plethora of many different varieties. I've also learned to bring occasional taller plants towards the front of the border rather than having a uniform descending height from the back to the front.

Making compost is vital to gardening

I'd tell myself that making compost and using it in the garden to improve the soil is one of the keys to success, and that mulching really does work to add organic matter to the soil, keep moisture in, and prevent weeds. I'd also tell myself to avoid using any chemicals in the garden, now that we know what a detrimental effect that they can have upon the environment, as well as on ourselves. When I first started gardening in the 1980s, so many horrid poisons were cheerfully suggested in books and magazines as the solution to pests and diseases.

A smaller point I would make to myself is to always label the place where you put in bulbs of herbaceous plants. Seeing any unlabelled gap at any time in the garden is always an invitation to me to plant something there, slicing through precious bulbs or dormant perennials as I go. I would also tell myself to always label pots of cuttings, because though I might think I will 'definitely' remember what they are, the sad reality is that I have forgotten pretty much by the next day. I'd also tell myself to always share cuttings with other gardeners, because that is one of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening, and fills one's garden with special memories of kind friends.

To finish off I would tell my beginning gardener self not to take garden too seriously: it isn't a competition to see who can make the best garden. It's meant to be fun! I'd let myself know that pursuing gardening was going to be one of the very best things I would ever do in my life; that it would lead me on wonderful journeys to many places to see fabulous gardens; that it would provide solace and a distraction in hard times, and always make me focus on the future; that I would meet so many delightful people along the way; and that gardening would simply bring quite unimagined joy!