‘Old Bogler’ writes:
During the past 15 years, whenever the necessity has arisen, which as I grow older is increasingly often, I have gone out to work the odd day here and there, whatever I can get, for an unskilled wage as a jobbing gardener. It is hard work, but honest, and I very much welcome the opportunity to get out in the wind and rain without being attached to a dog.
As the result of forty-plus years’ experience of owning my own homes with gardens; of having spent time around my grandfather, who lovingly bred dahlias; of listening to episodes of Gardeners’ Question Time on rainy Sunday afternoons, and of poring over learned books on gardening; whose London garden once featured in The Observer Colour Magazine (for its ‘natural’ appearance!), I may no longer be able to recall the names of plants: I don’t have an RHS certificate, like my ex-wife. Nor, having only a town garden of my own now, do I have my own tools.
Nor do I have ‘green fingers’. None of my clients has ever, to my recollection, asked me to sow any seeds or plant-up a border or grow edible vegetables for them: all I ever get to do is cut stuff down or dig it up or haul it out; and rearrange the compost. I am a human bulldozer, who practices a form of ‘extreme gardening’ from which I emerge like a Japanese soldier who has not realised the war is over, covered in scratches, stings and bites and totally exhausted. It’s a good excuse for a bath.
But I am also one of those people who retains weird tidbits of information, quite like a sponge. Consequently, I have excellent technical knowledge of garden management; my head is buzzing with a lifetime’s supply of handy hints for successful growing, acquired from here and there.
Which is why there are certain secret frustrations I have with my ‘clients’ that, if you too are a jobbing gardener, you will understand and sympathise with. Because, although a good garden ought to be like a slow-motion fireworks display, a year-round succession of colourful and thrilling explosions popping-off everywhere, gardening is not ‘rocket-science’ (unless you are growing rocket…). Remembering the names of all the plants in your garden is good, you can and I can’t; but caring for them is pretty straightforward.
You just need to know a little about how, why and where they grow best; and figure the rest out for yourself.
So why don’t you? Grrr!
People by and large don’t have money to spare. But they very often have mistakenly acquired gardens that prove too big for them to manage by themselves. (I have been lusting this morning over details of an outstandingly ugly but affordably cheap property the interweb thing has sent me, with 10 acres… sheer lunacy to contemplate, at any time of life!) They are also time-poor, which is why they will get halfway through a project in the garden, leave little heaps of stuff rotting quietly everywhere, abandon their tools in the undergrowth; and then call me.
Much as I love them all, there are six things I would say to my clients, if I dared, as follows:
- There is no point paying a man to cut the grass or weed your herbaceous borders to get rid of all that suddenly explosive alchemilla mollis or escaped crocosmia once a year, because it is “all you can afford”, if at certain times of the year you need to cut the grass or weed the bed twice a week…. It is simply not a cost-effective management strategy! It is impossible to achieve the permanently cultivated effect you naturally want, in this haphazard way. Gardens respond to regular, patient cultivation; they quickly recover from my infrequent visitations to resume their happy path of regression to temperate forest. God knows I understand, you are living on a budget, but maintaining your garden in dribs and drabs like this is worse than doing nothing at all – as, whatever I do in May, will have to be done again before July! Why not put a little money aside during the winter months, to employ me once – and then briefly twice – a week in the late spring and summer, and in early autumn, when I am needed most? Or invite me to live rent-free above your garage?
- Why are your compost bins and burning ghat as far as you can possibly put them away from where your garden is generating the most combustible material? I have to spend half the money you have scratched around to pay me, trundling to and fro, conveying the greenwaste for disposal to a heap somewhere over the horizon. Where, invariably, your bins will be far too small to compost properly, the amount of greenwaste your acre of garden is liable to generate, and is overflowing with material that can never rot down, to which I am going to add another half-ton by the end of my shift; and sprouting nettles. One of my clients follows me around, obsessively sorting my greenwaste into separate heaps and plastic bags according to its degree of softness or woodiness, and spends hours shredding material and spreading the chippings everywhere, on paths and beds. Most laudable, but none of the recyclates ever gets properly composted because her bins are too small and disorganised and too far from (and steeply uphill of) the garden, being distributed around a number of distant specialised sites where they are never given time or sufficient heat to rot down, and are therefore of little nutritional value. “Calm down, dear!” is Old Bogler’s advice. Gardening takes time and patience. And money.
- If your hubby must mow the grass at the weekend by racing his crisis-red lawn-Ferrari around it in five minutes flat, and then rush off to play golf, leaving little heaps of browning detritus everywhere, you should expect a) a ‘lawn’ full of broadleaved weeds, dandelion and plantain, sycamore seedlings, ruts and furrows; and b) all those cuttings the machine spews out sideways to pile up in your border margins, on top of the weed barrier, stifling those tender annuals, until they rot down and the creeping fescue invades and forms mats and, in a couple of years, produces a nice environment for those nasty, sticky cleavers and convulvulus and horrendous burnets (I de-burred my poor Hunzi the other day after a walk in the country, the viciously hooked seeds in his thick fur had blood on them. They have become carnivorous!) Eventually, bramble runners and sowthistle and ground elder take over. Please establish a careful mowing regime (a cylinder mower is best for lawns), respect the lawn edges, try to maintain a few helpful hygiene measures, rake out grass cuttings and compost them somewhere else, or you will forever be hiring me to clear out your beds. I know, “it’s not really a lawn…” You’re telling me?
- Please, PLEASE STOP! chopping the ends off those inconvenient side-branches of your trees and shrubs, that you have planted too close together and too near to the footpath! It breaks my heart to be confronted with a forest of tortured, dying gargoyles, beset with spindly water-branches and bottle-brush epicormic growth, and to be asked with a hopeless air if I can “do something with” them? The only thing to do, is to put them out of their misery…. Your trees and shrubs are like your pets. They are eager to please you by growing just how you saw them in the catalog. They have genes, just like you, that are trying their best to grow up to be just like their mums and dads. Chopping random bits off only panics them: they no longer know what you want them to do, they suffer an identity crisis and start growing frantically every which-way. If you must cut them back, because you didn’t believe when you bought them that they would really grow up to smother your azaleas, then carefully prune them back to a growth node that is pointing in the direction you want them to grow – or take off the whole branch, but try to leave enough leaf-cover so they can still get some sunlight into their hungry little chlorophytes. Better yet, call me before you reach for the secateurs.
- Who told you if you put down a barrier it would stop weeds growing? Why on earth did you listen to them? Expensive woven black plastic sheeting; odd junk like carpets and cardboard – these are known as ‘membranes’; and ‘mulches’, consisting of chipped wood or bark, nutshells or coconut fibre (‘coir’). They have only a limited role to play in the garden. The latter are perfect for growing annual weeds and fungi: the longer it stays down, the more rotten and soil-like it gets and the more soft growth like chickweed and creeping Jenny will spring up, as a precursor to worse. Nature abhors a vacuum. No-one ever wants to spend money on putting enough mulch down to really make a difference. Your membranes on the other hand provide the perfect environment for aggressive perennials like nettles, brambles and wandering raspberry canes, all of which will happily propagate (among other infernal habits) by growing extensive root systems along the surface under the membrane, where they are warm, dry and free of competition; sending up shoots wherever the opportunity arises (around the edges, or where you made planting holes for garden-centre ceanothus that didn’t survive the dry conditions). If you must ‘suppress’ weeds with a membrane, do so tactically, a season at a time. In three years, if you leave a membrane down on the ground, mats of grass will grow over it and rot down; wind- or bird-sown weeds will root into it (woven plastic sheet is not impermeable, it only keeps out light. Stuff mostly won’t come up, but, just like your savings and investments, it can grow down.) Then try digging the roots out…. your membrane cannot stop weeds growing, but it will successfully resist a spade or fork. Finally, the membrane itself rots, leaving a scrappy mess – but, by then, your garden will be gone, lost forever under a six-feet-deep thicket of brambles, beneath which your roses have been reduced to long, spindly suckers gasping for light. No, the best way to suppress weed growth is to hoe beds regularly – or pay me to clear them out once a fortnight, starting in April. Weeds soon learn when they are not wanted, and go elsewhere.
- For heaven’s sake, keep your power-tools properly serviced! I waste hours struggling to start stubborn mowers and strimmers whose spark-plugs are sooty and worn. It can take three days for my wrists and hands to stop jangling, after three or four hours of operating tools that are vibrating badly because of worn gears and bent shafts; forcing them to do heavy work they are not rated to do. I honestly fear permanent nerve damage. Don’t wait for the spring to get a service, the engineers are up to their necks by then. Do it before Christmas. And make sure there’s enough line loaded on the strimmer! You can’t cut anything with only an inch or two of line, it’s the least efficient use of the machine. Smaller power tools are designed not to last forever, three seasons at most; and are very often not robust enough to do the jobs you expect me to do with them. The bigger and wilder your garden, the sooner you must consider replacing them; or ensure that what you buy to begin with is of a capacity able to cope for years with your dream acre of wilderness.
I know, you don’t have money for tools. Have you thought of moving to town? (No, don’t, I need the work!)