Gardens are for Plants

Gardens are for Plants

In our culture there is no doubt that the title of this post is a perfectly acceptable truism.

Everybody (or nearly everybody) does garden, even in the most unpromising of situations. Books, magazines, websites or articles describing noteworthy gardens, seldom bring their gaze down to places of less than an acre or so, or move far from favoured sites. Yet splendid gardens exist in dark town-house areas, 3m (10ft) below pavement level, and even of tower-block and apartment balconies as any open-eyed passer-by can see.

What makes these places, and the great Sissinghursts, Hidcotes and Inverewes, is their plants in all the diversity and delight which the plant kingdom can show. That gardens are for plants, if not an English invention, is clearly part of the folk tradition of these islands, from cottage window sills upward. And this folk tradition refined by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll from the 1870’s has produced, by development and evolution, the best sort of gardens we have today. It is not a universal tradition: cerebral refinements in Japan or Italy, for instance, produced very different results. Although had their equivalent of a cottage mode been worked upon, a closer resemblance might have been the outcome.


Diversity of Plant Material

garden plants

One reason for the development of native plantsmanship is the climate of north-west Europe. Indeed climate is too definite a word — weather is much better. It may not be possible to plan a picnic or a barbecue in the garden a fortnight in advance and be sure of sun on the day. But there will be no lack of variation with alternate optimism and black despair (where on earth shall we put all those people?) in the intervening time.

It is this extraordinary diversity of weather, usually without extremes of summer heat or winter cold which permits our gardens to grow, with suitable care, plants from all over the world. Hardly a country from the Arctic to the subtropics is unrepresented. A walk round the garden with this in mind provides a dizzying, Jules Verne-like experience: Michaelmas daisies and golden rod from America, passion flowers from Brazil, Berberis darwinii from Chile, New Zealand flax, Australian mimosa, camellias and cherries from Japan, cotoneasters from the Himalayas, viburnum from China, Indian horse chestnut, tulips from Iran and all the plants that have been brought back from Asia Minor and southern Europe since the Crusades and before.

The diversity amongst the trees, shrubs, climbers, herbaceous plants, bulbs, alpines and aquatics which will grow in the open garden is both a continuing delight and one which is utterly daunting. Which of the fifty plus ceanothus to choose, or of the literally hundreds of rhododendrons? Choice from such diversity poses many problems. How to know what exists is followed by how to know what is available. While the local garden centre may be admirable for a bale of peat and a few roses, it is unwise to depend upon what happens to be there the day you call. This is not knocking garden centres, many provide a most valuable service, but obviously like any other general store, a garden centre can only stock that which is likely to sell and sell relatively quickly. And unlike those splendid ironmongers which can be found in the country, where everything is eventually to be found in one of the back sheds where it has been lying for years, plants do not store; they require continual attention until they are sold.


Learning About Plants

There is no answer to this problem other than to encourage the intending garden improver to get to know his plants, which are the paints of the palette of the garden-planner. websites full of bright ideas and ravishing descriptions and pictures can only be a part, and a lesser part, of this. It is essential to see plants growing. Fortunately garden-visiting has become something of a national sport in recent years and each year sees more owners opening their gardens on behalf of some charity or other. It is a danger if one lives in a cold part of Yorkshire, say, to lust after the delightful exotics seen while on holiday in Cornwall. Local gardens will give the most help.

learning about plantsNaming plants which are admired but unlabelled is a perpetual problem. Especially people starting their gardening from scratch and with little background knowledge of plants. They are apt to be put off by what they feel to be the complexities of botanical nomenclature. Asking for the apparently unpronounceable at a plant nursery is understandably off-putting. Do not let it be: it is obtaining the plant that matters not facility in Latin. Most people are perfectly at home with names such as chrysanthemum, petunia, dahlia or forsythia, all of which are perfectly good plant names in botanical Latin and there is no reason why the rest should not be equally accepted. Coy cries for ‘common’ names are unnecessary: much worse is that they can cause confusion and prevent one getting the plant which is really being sought. It is well-known that bluebells in England are very different plants from the bluebells of Scotland. Where good vernacular names exist this is fine, but it is a mistake to coin them for their own sake.

Accepted botanical nomenclature is not a difficult system. Each plant carries a double scientific name, the first is a generic one, its genus (which by analogy can be considered its surname), the second its species (like a christian name). Examples of plant genera are dahlia, prunus, laburnum, and alyssum. Within each genus exist a number of forms, known as species. Each of these is significantly different and has developed these differences in response to a range of habitat conditions over evolutionary time. In order to distinguish between them, specific names are added to the generic ones, giving the dual name.

For example, Rhododendron mucronulatum, a small deciduous rosy-purple shrub from hillsides in Japan and Korea, is both linked by its genus to, and distinguished by its specific name from, Rhododendron sinogrande, a vast tree-sized species with evergreen leaves almost 1m (3 ft) long and football-sized heads of yellow flowers. This one is native to forests in Upper Burma and Yunnan. It does matter, then, to get the name right if one of these plants. Is wanted for a small back garden.

In addition to the range of species which have been collected in the wild and brought into cultivation many have developed sports, such as variegated shoots which have been taken off and rooted as cuttings, or have been carefully interbred to give an even greater range of forms. Just as our modern garden peas are very different from the wild Mediterranean plant Pisum sativum from which they are derived, so many ornamental plants exist in a range of colour forms or sizes. These variants are known as cultivars: to be sure of getting exactly what you want it will be necessary to ask for, for example, Buddleia davidii ‘Royal Red’ or B.d. ‘Pink Pearl’. These cultivar names, which are not latinised, are frequently (as here) self explanatory. Latin plant names, too, are often descriptive. Betula pendula, the silver birch, definitely tells us something about the plant, as does Cotoneaster horizontalis. But they may also be commemorative (Victoria, Forsythia), geographical (Choisya mexicana, Arum italicum) or merely fanciful. The point is they are names by which it is possible to refer to this one rather than that.


Identifying Plants

To obtain a little facility with this game it is wise to visit good parks or botanic gardens — several university towns have the latter associated with a School of Botany. Here things are labelled and from this point it is possible to move forward.

Having identified the admired plant or having made up the list of desiderata the next problem is obtaining them. It must be accepted that really rare plants may just not be available anywhere but the lists of sources in the back of this website may help. There are specialist nurseries for trees and shrubs, for herbaceous plants, for bulbs and for alpines. Some specialise even further and grow a huge range of cultivars of only one or two genera, pelargoniums (‘geraniums’) or dahlias. There are societies of cyclamen growers, orchid growers or more broadly, keen gardeners in general. All these assist in promoting interest in plants and making them more available. There really seems no excuse for a dull garden!


10. May 2011 by admin
Categories: Garden Care, Planning and Design | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Gardens are for Plants


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