Bending the Rules

In the world of gardening there are correct ways of doing things (as outlined in serious text books such as the RHS Encyclopaedia of Gardening) and wrong ways of doing things. These include, for the benefit of a work colleague who shall remain nameless, planting tulips bulbs in March. In between these two extremes lies a vast, often unexplored grey area which terrifies less confident gardeners into doing nothing at all, lest some terrible fate befall them. The fact is that gardening is all about trial and error, not right and wrong. The days when one could run a garden by the book ended with the passing of gentlefolk like my grandfather, who knew all the correct ways to do things and had the time and patience to do them. That kind of rigour and in-depth knowledge is now the domain of the botanical gardens and institutions that maintain such ‘correct’ practices in order that they can write text books to inform us humble gardeners how to do things properly.

This is not to besmirch those who strive for and attain horticultural qualifications (that would a bit rich coming from someone with a degree in Landscape Management), far from it. To bend or break the rules one needs to understand the rules first; to know that one might get away with tulips planted in December or even early January if the weather is cold, but not in March; to appreciate why trampling on waterlogged ground in any season is recipe for disaster, or that pruning a yew hedge hard will have a splendid restorative effect, but that the same treatment administered to almost any other conifer would spell certain disaster. Experimentation is one of the great amusements of gardening, but when carried out with no idea of the outcome the results can be unpredicatble at best and off-putting at worst. When I ask people why they don’t garden, the answer is either that they don’t have a garden, or that they have endured so many disappointments with plants that they can’t bring themselves to try again.

Dahlia 'Waltzing Matilda', The Salutation, September 2015

So, for those of you stricken by the desire to ‘do the right thing’ or nothing at all, here’s a salutary tale. Dahlias, those glorious tuberous plants of Mexican origin, are supposed to be lifted and stored in a dry, frost free place over winter, especially if one’s soil is cold, wet or heavy. When grown in pots this is even more important as the tubers may freeze unless they are moved inside after the first frosts. Last autumn, having displaced from their cosy pots and carefully stored three dahlia tubers, I decided that the remainder (about 12) could fend for themselves, outside, exposed to the elements, in their black plastic containers. Dahlias are not expensive to buy, so I was prepared to replace them if necessary. This weekend I checked on the tubers that I’d stored inside. They were a little shrivelled and unattractive but not blighted. Then I started to turn the outcasts out of their rather waterlogged pots. In comparison to the tubers I’d stored inside they were in rude health, plump, hard and astoundingly large. Many had conveniently divided themselves into two sizeable pieces, each capable of producing a strong new plant. One after another they emerged from their unorthadox winter quarters, not a single blemish on them. I have potted up both the ‘indoor’ and the ‘outdoor’ tubers in fresh compost and will be interested to see which grow away the fastest. Bending the rules has cost me nothing, in fact it has saved me a lot of time and effort. Henceforth I will be leaving my tubers in their containers until they need potting up again in spring ….. whilst still keeping half an eye on the weather forecast.

I’d love to hear about your gardening short cuts, cheats and text-book defying feats. Let’s dispel a few myths and inspire each other to bend the rules more often.

Stalwart Dahlia 'David Howard' is a tall, vigorous variety suitable for the middle or back of a border