Thursday, 7 February 2013

changing places

There is something slightly infra-dig about buying plants in flower.  It smacks of the impulse purchase, the oh-I-must have that reflex of the naive gardener who buys a plant without knowing where they are going to put it.  It implies ignorance or lack of imagination, an inability to visualise what the plant will look like when it is in flower.  True gardeners lay out their borders in late September, when the soil is lovely and warm and their new plants have months to root into the surrounding soil before the rigours of the next dry spring.  Such gardeners are superior beings who can plan ahead, confident of conjuring beauty from the uninspiring pots of semi-dormant twigs they are arranging in their borders.  They do not end up with gardens that flower almost entirely between Easter and June, because that is when they went to the garden centre and fell in love with whatever was out at the time.

Such is received wisdom in the horticultural trade, and I am guilty of thinking such thoughts about customers who buy the plants in full bloom that we have cunningly arranged just inside the entrance to catch their eye, the plant centre equivalent of sweeties at the till.  And I have been such a gardener, often, having a highly developed propensity to conceive violent passions for new plants.  But we in the trade should not mock so readily.  It may be a bad idea to buy a plant about which you know nothing, whose needs for sun, shelter or a reliable supply of moisture your garden will be totally unable to meet, but buying something when you can see the flowers has its good points.  Or rather, choosing its exact position in your garden and planting it at a time when you can see how it is going to look with its neighbours can save you from some horrible errors.

I have made such an error.  A couple of years ago I planted a salmon pink flowered Chaenomeles speciosa 'Geisha Girl' in the entrance bed by the way in.  This was not a purchase made on impulse and in complete ignorance.  I had a pretty good idea that it would grow there, since I have several other ornamental quince in the garden, and know they cope with the sandy soil and the wind.  I had seen and admired the flowers, so was not disturbed that they were a shade of pink that has a fair amount of orange in it.  Some people dislike orange-pink, but I like it myself.  I'd checked on the dimensions of the shrub, and knew it would fill the space it was destined for pretty well, not growing too large.

What I had utterly failed to take into account, when I planted it out of its flowering season, was how it would look in bloom against other plants flowering nearby.  I put it next to a Japanese crab, Malus floribunda, a small, round-headed tree with clouds of small, apple pink blossoms in spring.  I have always been very fond of Japanese crab apples since childhood.  This one would probably prefer better soil, and not to have been planted on a site where there was previously an apple orchard, but it battles along.  Unfortunately nowadays it battles against the ornamental quince as well as the miserable soil.  The two of them flower at exactly the same time, and large salmon pink flowers against small shell-pink ones is about as bad a combination as you can imagine.  It doesn't even have the panache of a violent Christopher Lloyd clash.  It is just bad.  Each plant diminishes the beauty of the other.  It is simply horrid.

I believe that Harold Nicolson told Vita Sackville-West that the reason why she was such a good gardener was that she had the courage to abolish ugly or unsuccessful plants ('believe' in this context means that I can't remember which book this comes in, and am not going to spend an hour trying to find the reference, but I'm pretty sure that he said it).  I don't want to abolish the crab, or the quince, but one of them is going to have to move, and clearly it's not going to be the tree.  The Chaenomeles has been in for around three years, and the top growth has developed nicely, which makes me nervous about how large the root system now is.  I suspect that digging it out will be a more protracted and brutal task than it appeared on Gardeners World, the last couple of times I watched and they moved mature shrubs.  It is also a task that should have been done a month ago, since the leaves are starting to emerge, but a month ago it was snowing.  I really don't want to leave it another season, which means it has to be done now.

The question was where to put it.  We have been here for nearly twenty years, and the borders in the front and back gardens are quite full.  Friends are incredulous when I say I don't have room for more plants, saying I have a huge garden and that can't possibly be true.  It is a large garden, but even so there aren't lots of empty spaces waiting to be filled with a long lived shrub growing to one and a half metres tall and wide.  Plus I needed to find a space where the salmon pink flowers would not clash with their new neighbours.  To make that mistake once is forgiveable, to make a habit of it would be just sloppy.

I tried to convince myself there was room at the south end of the long bed, but there wasn't really.  The quince would have ended up overwhelming an inoffensive potentilla, I'd have had another pink-on-pink combination, and the quince and the crab would still have been close enough to appear in the same view from most viewpoints.  Leaving the problem to mull while I got on with some weeding the solution occurred to me, which was to liberate the space from its current occupant, something that really had fallen into the ugly and unsuccessful category.  It was not always so.  Years ago I raised a lot of the purple leaved version of the common sage from cuttings, and used it as ground cover in part of the long border.  Soft greyish-purple is a good foil for other plants, and the sage combined well with all sorts of neighbours.  However, it is not the longest lived plant.  Mine have not died, because they have renewed themselves by rooting where the branches touched the soil, but the original cores are woody and unattractive, and the whole patch has spread to cover a larger area than was ever envisaged at the outlet.

The answer was now clear.  Make a space in the sage, in fact get rid of all the sage, and see what treasures were being overwhelmed by the rooting branches.  Refresh the soil, replant the space with the Chaenomeles and maybe one or two other feature shrubs.  There is space for the Chaenomeles between a topiary yew (dark green) and a white flowered Spiraea, where it should be safe from further hideous clashes.  Then maybe get some more sage, but not so much of it.  It will feel rather wasteful buying it, but I failed to take cuttings last year, and I know that in a few weeks time I will be able to pick up young plants in 9cm pots from work for not very much money.  They will grow rapidly, and young plants are far more attractive than old, tired, gnarly ones.

There is a general lesson to be learned.  Planting spaces in a garden are not just the tracts of bare earth, but the outgrown patches of old plants that have ceased to be as attractive as they once were, or have spread to take up more room than they deserve.  This approach can be overdone.  If you keep changing your mind about too many things then even a twenty year old garden won't have that comfortable air of establishment, because nothing has been allowed to grow to maturity, or even a tad beyond.  A tiny air of relaxed, overblown over-maturity here and there gives a garden character, a sense of reassuring permanence.  Ripeness is all.

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