How to be a Better Gardener in 2020


January has been a month of quiet reflection. There’s been relatively little to do in the garden, the house is clean and tidy post Christmas and social engagements have been thin on the ground. Unusually we have spent most of our evenings in the library reading or playing with the dogs, which almost never happens at any other time of the year. I believe this is what’s commonly known as ‘relaxation’. It feels strange, but I could get used to it.

With relaxation comes renewed freedom of thought. I experience a flood of ideas; ideas about how to improve my home, gild my garden, strengthen my relationships and develop myself. I try to write them all down to prevent myself from becoming stymied again.

Now that I have the head space, I have started to consider how I could be a better gardener in 2020. Our allotment has given me the impetus to learn new skills. Meanwhile I am more conscious that ever, as I am sure you are, about the impact I am having on the environment. I do not have all the answers here, but I think we all know instinctively what feels right and what feels wrong. We should follow our gut instinct and use our common sense to make choices that will benefit nature as well as satisfying our desire to cultivate. I have made a list of good intentions, resolutions, call them what you will. They are gentle steps rather than radical leaps, sensible rather than silly. Most importantly they are achievable. Let me know what you think.

Sneeboer – tools for life

1) Buy Once and Buy Well

I’ve always agreed with William Morris’ assertion that you should ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ and I apply this to the garden just as rigorously as my home. I loathe needless waste and always have done. I am also a firm believer in buying the best I can afford, and accepting that this might sometimes mean delaying a purchase until I can have what I want. Now that we have a wider understanding of the consequences of non-recyclable waste it is frankly irresponsible to buy anything that we know or suspect is neither fit for purpose nor good for the environment. There’s a lot of shoddy, short-life gardening product on the market – plants included – and it will remain there until we all stop buying it. When something is cheap it’s tempting to think ‘that’ll do’ or ‘if it’s not what I hoped I’ll buy something else’. That has to stop. The Internet bears heavy responsibility for the proliferation of goods of questionable use and beauty, but we fuel it. Instead of making do, consider if there’s a more sustainable, longer lasting or locally-produced alternative and buy that instead.

I’m a huge fan of terracotta over plastic pots – even when broken they are useful as crocks

This need not necessarily mean shunning materials that are hard to recycle at present. A plastic product that lasts and lasts might ultimately be better than a flimsy wooden one that will quickly break. Always buy plants from a reputable source and seek out tools that can be sharpened or where parts can be replaced. For example Felco offer a service where they will overhaul your old Felco secateurs should you not have the skills to do so yourself (I’m terrified of sharpening anything lest I do it wrong!). Sneeboer will also replace handles and make repairs to their beautiful handmade garden tools. Good tools used correctly should last a lifetime. Websites such as Buy Me Once specialise in products which are both sustainable and durable. However given a little time and perseverance you will be able to find better options in a whole host of retailers.

Last but not least, if you can find a suitable pre-loved plant, greenhouse, pot or tool and can save it going into the compost or landfill, so much the better. You’ll save yourself money and the environment will benefit. Here the Internet redeems itself with a whole host of sites devoted to the pre-loved and un-loved. Give something a new home and prolong its life for as long as you can.

2) Share

You are a mine of information and capable of influencing and inspiring the next generation of gardeners. Agree? Probably not. But neither would my grandparents, and yet they played a significant part in fostering my love of plants. They shared their knowledge freely and uncomplicatedly. They knew things that few gardeners know nowadays, but never realised it. For them it was gardening lore but they’d never have considered writing it down. Now it lives on, through me. My grandparents were patient, kind and above all not pushy. They let me come to gardening rather than pushing me towards it.

People become interested in gardening at different life stages. They will seek out those with greater knowledge, albeit with some trepidation. If asked, give of your knowledge generously, fearlessly and gently. As experienced gardeners it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has never thrust a trowel into the soil or planted a seed. Make it sound easy, appealing and focus on the rewards as well as the realities. In the USA they have an established ‘Master Gardener’ programs that train volunteers in the science and art of gardening. Once qualified, these ‘Master Gardeners’ pass on the information they learned to the public and support the maintenance of community and historic gardens. My blogging pal Judy at New England Garden and Thread is one such Master Gardener and she explains the concept in more detail here. Wouldn’t it be marvellous, given the wealth of expertise we have in the UK, if we had such a scheme here. Perhaps I should start one.

Whether it’s knowledge, spare plants, seeds, cut flowers or produce the important thing is to share. You’ll feel good and someone else will benefit.

Wallflowers and ferns colonise the ancient walls at Sissinghurst

3) Embrace your Garden’s Imperfections

Never has it been more acceptable to have an imperfect garden. Indeed, the clinical perfection of suburban gardens in the 60’s and 70’s is anathema to most of us fifty years on. Daisies in lawns are derigeur; wildflowers, including many once considered weeds, are nurtured to attract bees; piles of fallen timber are recognised as excellent homes for insects. All enrich the biodiversity of our gardens and are no longer frowned upon. Letting your garden go fuzzy round the edges saves time and energy. Provided you have a strong structure it can also look just as good as a perfectly manicured plot. In his book ‘Wild About Weeds’, garden designer Jack Wallington explains how to become a better gardener by learning to work with weeds in ways that won’t cause you a headache.

Of course there are sensible limits to how much imperfection is healthy for your garden and you will impose personal limits too. Full-on rewilding is not for everyone and that’s OK. But striving less for old ideas of perfection – neatly trimmed edges, blemish free plants and show quality blooms – will increase your appreciation of different kind of beauty. The Japanese call it wabi-sabi – an acceptance and appreciation of transience and imperfection.

A place to rest a while

4) Enjoy the Moment

Our world has never moved at a more alarming pace. Calls on our attention are legion and not always healthy. After a busy Christmas on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, with bills to pay and jobs to do around the house I felt both distracted and crippled by the weight of responsibility.

Of course, this is quite wrong and I recognise that. I also know that there’s no better way to put things back in perspective than 2 hours spent in the garden. Reconnect with the earth, make things grow, try and fail, try again and succeed; experience real life through vegetables and minerals and regain a sense of proportion.

Searching for a suitable picture to illustrate this point reacquainted me with this lovely photograph of a garden in Cornwall I visited many years ago. It was in the middle of nowhere and belonged, as I recall, to a garden designer. The simplicity of this seating arrangement, surrounded by lush greens and with a sculpture on which to focus, is all that’s needed for a moment of quiet contemplation. It reminds me that I need to sit more in my garden, rather than rushing around like a madman.

The kitchen garden at Trengwainton, Cornwall, takes advantage of the mild climate.

5) Work with What You’ve Got

Gardeners are terrible for wanting something other than that with which they are blessed, be it different soil, more sun, better drainage, warmer weather, greater space or a nicer view. We would all save ourselves a lot of time, effort, heartache and money if we embraced our situation and worked with it rather than against it. It’s easier said than done and an area where I definitely ‘could do better’. Lack of space is a constant frustration to me, alleviated somewhat by the new allotment. That will soon be bursting at the seams and then I’ll be craving more time and energy to maintain it. I have always bitten off more than I can chew and never learn my lesson.

The garden Derek Jarman created at Prospect Cottage quite literally grows out of the beach

I know of no great open-air garden that does not respond to it’s natural environment in some way. (The Genius Loci, as Alexander Pope proclaimed in 1731, is ‘instanced in architecture and gardening,… all must be adapted to the genius of the place, and… beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it’.) Indeed many of the world’s finest gardens blend almost seamlessly with it – Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness is a fine example, as is Ninfa in Italy or Rohuna, Umberto Pasti’s sublime garden in Morocco. You have a choice – fight against the prevailing conditions and make hard work for yourself or embrace them, however unpromising, and go with the flow.

For gardeners like myself, intent on growing plants which ought not to flourish, this is a kind of self inflicted torture. Half of my plants could die in a cold winter, which has happened and isn’t amusing. Almost everything I grow needs daily watering throughout the summer. If I chose hardy, drought-tolerant plants and reduced the number of pots my life would be a lot easier. I aim to reduce the number of pots this summer, transferring a few plants to the allotment and giving others away. One step at a time, eh?

By buying less and buying well, sharing my knowledge, plants and produce, accepting my garden’s limitations and working with them, and by taking time out to enjoy the results, I will be a better gardener and perhaps a better person too. TFG.