Gardeners’ little helpers

Image of Robin Lane Fox

True gardeners complain and grumble. Their grumbles begin in the historical record with the Roman poet Virgil’s old man of Tarentum down in southern Italy, who protested at the lateness of spring and the unkindness of the winds. They extend to myself, frequently complaining here about the cruelty of that cruellest of mothers, Nature. I have to thank you for kind remedial invitations, sent in sympathy during May. They are not short of variety. A reader in Spain takes pity on my loathing of mindlessly sunny weather and has invited me to live with her in Galicia, where she says it rains in the growing season just as it used to rain in England in the 1950s. Several of you suggested Scotland, with free care for the elderly thrown in, but I have declined them all because I would not understand the Scots’ pronunciation of my language. I have been toying with Tasmania but would there be intellectual life among the eucalyptus? Perhaps the answer would be Ireland, where fox-hunting is still fox-hunting, the rain is endemic and two readers have e-mailed me with pictures of their stables and their rabbit-proof fencing. They are offering them in return for one day’s work a week against wildlife in their adjoining gardens.

The good news for Irish badgers is that I am not going to accept. Against all forecasts and fears, we have had a heavenly June for gardening – and if England can do it once, I will live in muted hope that it will do it again. Patchy rain from broken clouds is a gardener’s heaven and the intervening bouts of sunlight are showing flowers at their best and lawns at their greenest. The colours on delphiniums or herbaceous potentillas have never stood out better. Even the blue-purple salvias from Mediterranean countries glow more keenly among flat-headed yellow achilleas under a broken sky. “O, for pleasure after pain,” the famous garden designer Humphry Repton wrote in his best-known book, “and joys of sunshine after rain.” Non-gardeners seem to think we want clear blue skies to set off gardens beautifully. No garden photographer dreams of taking pictures in the glare of a sunny midday. Their best shots are taken in the early morning or towards evening, the hours when those seductive pictures of waving grasses and prairie plantings have a soft tint. In the working daytime they do not.

Showers in June are brilliant news for those of us who are big bedders out. They help to establish tobacco plants, dahlias and especially the lobelias, which dislike hot seasons. I am following up their recent transplanting with weekly doses of diluted Miracle-Gro, applied to all bedding plants which need to make tall, strong stems in the next six weeks.

Among perennials, the best indicators of a need for water are the leaves on June-flowering tradescantias. I keep one near the house so that I can see when it starts to lose its fresh green, a sign that the garden’s perennials need watering. Among annuals, the tall tobacco plant, four-foot high Nicotiana sylvestris, is the best water-meter. If the leaves begin to go a pale green, they and the nearby bedding need immediate watering. These tall tobacco plants have to expand and grow upwards so quickly that they are excellent indicators of stress. Bedding out will be even better if everything bedded is given liquid fertiliser from cans or sprays from now on. It is quite untrue that most annuals prefer a hard, spartan life just because a few of them struggle on and flower by hot Mediterranean roadsides. Most of them are 10 times as good if the soil has been properly manured in autumn or if they are fed regularly throughout the summer. I have never had such nasturtiums as those I drugged every week. The modern style is to pack masses of plants into big pots on terraces but even those red geraniums flowerbetter when given helpful chemicals.Fuchsias love them most of all, so if you start a chemical routine from now on, you will see a spectacular difference. My basic choice is Phostrogen, followed by the standard tomato-feed Tomorite, which is excellent on plants which are starting to show flower-buds.

Throughout the misery of sunny May, there was a complication in state-of-the-art flowerbeds. The most widely-used “slow-release” fertilisers were not really releasing at all. Osmocote or Vitax Q4 are available nowadays for gardeners as well as nurserymen, but they are not much use in a dry spell. I have only been applying them around perennials and shrubs since the June rains began. Their pellets need dampness to activate their release system. Why not use “organic” fertilisers instead? The fallacy here is that they are somehow different. Plants do not “feed” on rich rotted compost or manure. They drink. They take up chemicals which are washed down in diluted form from this waste matter to their fine roots. The likes of Osmocote and Miracle-Gro provide similar chemicals, but in a more balanced mix than the chemicals given off by old-fashioned chicken dung. The choice is not between chemically based gardening and “organic” gardening. Organic gardening is as chemical as any other, but it delivers a cocktail less effective than the one devised by experts for gardeners’ purposes. A plant scientist is far more efficient than a chicken’s digestive system.

A dreamy June has prepared me for a chemical July. My spraying will be much more targeted than a compost heap and will give plants what they really want. The signs are already encouraging. Heleniums are early this year, but after two weeks of fertiliser they are packed with buds and a good depth of colour, best of all on the old dark bronze Helenium Moerheim Beauty. After an ideal June there is not a hint of shrivel on the excellent new monardas, whose surface roots are sensitive to dry weather. The newest varieties of monarda are supposed to be less prone to mildew and a wet June has confirmed the breeders’ claims. Above all, there has been a flood of flower and leaf on the heavenly philadelphus, the scented “mock orange” which is a cold climate’s substitute for the scent of citrus trees. The earliest varieties of philadelphus flowered in late May, when short of water, and faded too soon, never developing full-sized flowers. Mid-season varieties such as Belle Etoile have been excellent and the July one, Innocence, is now at its best. These shrubs are so easy to grow, but never so good in hot Mediterranean climates. Perhaps there is philadelphus in Galicia but my avenues of Belle Etoile are a reason why I will be staying put.

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