Why Good Gardening is a Risky Business



Whilst you won’t find it on a list of extreme pursuits, gardening is all about taking risks. Tending a garden is one of the most thrilling things one can do in life and is not for the faint hearted. Forget those images of grand ladies tiptoeing along their herbaceous borders with a trug over one arm, the likelihood is that their elegant countenance belies steely determination and ruthless resolve. Not for them the status quo, but the desire to grow better, finer flowers, or have their gardener do it for them.

The threat of failure and the promise of glory is why those of us who garden get such a kick from it. We quickly become obsessed, if not addicted, to this most skillful, complex, artful and unpredictable of occupations. Who needs the exhilaration of a bungee jump when one has a new area of garden to clear and redesign; or the ‘high’ of conquering a great peak when one can coax a rare flower to bloom? The rewards of gardening are equal to, and longer lasting than any extreme physical achievement and can be attained without requirement to remove one’s Wellington boots or don Lycra.


Gardening on the edge, as here at Foamlea in Devon, requires vision, bravery and tenacity


The gardens of those who don’t have the taste for adventure can be identified from a mile of. They are sometimes described as ‘low maintenance’, featuring all the same ‘safe’ plants as their neighbours. Their owners strive to keep them looking exactly the same from one year to the next. Preserving a garden in aspic, as we all know, is a hiding to nothing. The alternative is to shy away from the challenge altogether and pave the lot for fear that brambles and knotweed will break in through the patio doors. This is a cowardly cop-out which benefits no one, and certainly not the environment.

If you are reading this post it is unlikely you are the type of gardener I am referring to above. If you are, I am hoping I can snap you out of your horticultural torpor. When I ask non-gardening friends why they don’t engage with their garden, they frequently tell me it’s because they don’t know where to start. The most they can do is keep on top of the mowing and hedge trimming, which is maintenance, not gardening. When one can fill libraries with text books on how to cultivate flowers, fruit and vegetables, it’s hardly surprising that the uninitiated find themselves stymied by the perceived complexity of the task. Yet not one of these books can tell you precisely how to cultivate your garden, because the author is not familiar with the niceties of your garden: it is totally unique. No two gardens are exactly alike; no two plants, even of the same variety, will grow in precisely the same way. Seasons vary in light, rainfall and sunshine, and there’s always more than one successful way of doing things. A certain technique might only work for you, but if it works and causes no harm to man nor beast, then that’s all that matters. In gardening, you write your own text-book, and you can only write that book by starting somewhere.


The risks taken in creating the Eden Project are too numerous to mention, but without Tim Smit’s vision this landscape might have been no more than cliff and bog


There is a concept in business called ‘fail fast’, sometimes followed by ‘fail often’, which sums up my attitude towards gardening. Very simply it means try stuff, but move on quickly if it does not work out. It’s perhaps not the best idea not to apply this philosophy to your whole garden at once, in case you are left with nothing that works, but it’s safe enough to play around here and there; even better if you have a means of disguising your failures and another wheeze as back-up. It’s the concept of ‘fail fast’ that encourages me to purchase plants which, at face value, are not the right plant for the right place. They may not be the right plant in other gardens, but they might just be in mine. If they prosper I am emboldened to try another, if they die I shrug my shoulders and move on. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Although the failure of a cherished plant or garden project can be a bitter disappointment, the experience will shape the way you garden in future.


I tried and failed with martagon lilies until I finally worked out that they prefer shade and alkaline soil. Now they flourish beneath a tree at The Watch House. If at first you don’t succeed…..


Had I planted only what the text books recommended, my garden would look entirely different from how it does now and not half as interesting. Trachelospermum jasminoides, for example, is not recommended for chalky soils and yet I have never seen any as vigorous as mine, which enjoy 9″ of soil before their roots hit pure white rock. Several plants survive outside all winter that should not according to the experts, because my garden has a unique microclimate, as does every other. The author of your text-book does not know about your soil, your microclimate and your experience, but do not ignore their advice altogether. There are calculated risks and then there’s madness: a cactus planted in a bog is not going to be a success however gutsy you are.


Christopher Lloyd made adventurous gardening acceptable, even fashionable. Here, colourful rudbeckia, amaranthus, dahlias, geraniums and Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’ grace Great Dixter’s Porch.


Other words of wisdom, attributed variously to Henry Ford, Anthony Robbins, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, say If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got”. This also resonates with me, although in gardening external factors guarantee that consistency of practice will rarely achieve the same results from one reason to the next. However, it does speak of the importance of change, which my friend Andrew reminded me of yesterday when he showed me the work he’s been doing in his beautiful garden at The Chapel. There have been many changes, and there are more in the pipeline. Whilst the garden in the interim may not be all Andrew wishes it to be, it’s on the way to its next moment of glory. Keeping a garden the same is impossible. If attempted, as in some historic gardens, efforts to make time stand still inevitably result in things slipping backwards. Initiate change before your garden demands it of you, and you will always remain in control. Humans are naturally suspicious of change, but gardeners who embrace it will always be more successful than those who do not.

Whether you recognise it in yourself or not, good gardeners are intrepid and adventurous. If you are just setting out, by all means read the text books and take advice from those more experienced than you. But, as your confidence grows, be prepared to set aside conventional wisdom and take a risk, then another, and another. Only then can you call yourself a real gardener. TFG.

Lead photograph: Arnhel de Serra/National Trust


At Le Jardin Majorelle, the brave use of a blue shade dubbed Majorelle blue has become the garden’s signature. Would we know this garden so well had the artist painted his villa magnolia?