Plants for the House and Garden
House and Garden Relationships
Much of this website has been concerned with the linking of house and garden, suggesting that the rigid demarcation between them is both unnecessary and a bar to contemporary living — even when the contemporary living is in an old house. The point has been made more than once that although much garden furniture, collapsible or wicker soft-seated chairs, has to be taken indoors after use in all but the most settled weather, it is desirable to arrange for permanent seats in one of two places. It is not always convenient to get a garden chair out; so often ‘I’ve only a moment’ and morning coffee is taken on the edge of the kitchen table littered with earlier debris. A bench by the kitchen door entices outside and has another link with the daily life of the house. Wherever a niche or alcove can be contrived a seat can be considered, by vegetable plot (and especially allotment) and flower bed alike. It always seems a major misfortune that people are heard to say, not without a certain smug self-righteousness, that they are far too busy actually to ever have time to sit in their garden. If this is the case it seems that motives need a certain examination.
We garden, then, because we like to embellish our home; because we like plants; because home-produced fruit and vegetables usually taste better than those for sale in shops; because they help towards the basic economics of living; because the exercise is enjoyable and combines with a certain atavistic feeling that is the personal connection with the life-giving earth; pantheism indeed.
The obverse of this same coin, garden and house; consider the encouraged intrusion of plants into areas designed and built for people. The number of people who run greenhouses is proportionally small but there must be few households who do not use a window ledge for a plant or two. An idealis a controlled environment for the successful growing of plants; a dwelling house is, if Le Corbusier be believed, a machine for living in which ameliorates local and conditions for the benefit of human inhabitants. Paradoxically what most humanises and softens our house interiors is plant growth.
It is suitable, therefore, that our houses, sheds, as well as custom-built greenhouses, can be used to grow plants which could not survive the normal climate outdoors. Many of these should be considered as bridging the house and garden divide to link one with the other.
Conventional terms are apt to be confusing or at least restricting; ‘house plants’ are apt to refer to truly tropical, forest-floor plants which are evolutionarily adapted to the low light levels also experienced indoors. (It is apt to be forgotten that light is essential as an energy source in plant metabolism.) So long as temperatures are adequate many plants in this group will survive without much complaint. Infinitely better, both for the plants and their civilising effect in the house, is to group a number of complementary species in some form of jardinière: this rather grandiloquent word can include anything from ormolu to lead, from footbath to plastic bucket. What is important is the luxuriance of foliage which makes each species mutually advantageous to its fellows. Recent advances in hydroculture make such houseplant groups virtually foolproof. But they are not, with very few exceptions, flowering plants.
For these a clearer house and garden relationship comes into sight. Typical are the myriads ofplanted in pots and bowls each autumn throughout the land. Sadly the bulbs and their producers come in for a lot of abuse as open flowers at the base of 45cm (18in) high leaves or when abort completely. Such abuse is usually unjustified, failure being the result of bad cultivation. The open garden should be enjoined to help. Except for those bulbs described as ‘prepared’ in which refrigeration and heat treatment have artificially broken down the normal dormancy pattern, all need a relatively long period for root development before being encouraged to begin shoot growth. There is no better way of making sure the growth pattern occurs in the right order than plunging the pots (though not containers without holes) in a pile of coarse sand or weathered ashes in a shady spot in the open, however cold. Occasional examination will show when a couple of inches of top growth is supported by a pot full of roots.
With the help of a heated greenhouse, there is no lack of fine plants which, season by season, can enliven rooms indoors. A cold greenhouse or lean-tois apt to be neglected for this, it being generally considered suitable only for summer crops of and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Winter temperatures, in all but the coldest areas, are sufficiently ameliorated to make numbers of nearly or entirelysuitable for house use. A few wall-flowers and Brompton stocks can be potted up in September; polyanthus are equally good. Small alpine bulbs which flower so early outside that their blooms are apt to get spoilt are a revelation. Their scent at nose level is frequently amazing: a treatise could be written about the range of perfumes given out by dwarf alone. And after a first season so grown they can be planted outdoors to bulk up the garden scene in the future (only danfordiae, that exquisite early yellow subject seems incapable of building up again). Tender bulbs such as lachenalias and veltheimia should also be tried.
On a larger scale, but not beyond the resources of a small garden, is to grow a half dozen early flowering shrubs in pots plunged by the garden shed or in the vegetable garden — Viburnum x burkwoodii, Forsythia ovata, Deutia gracilis, even a small laburnum. These only need an occasional feed to build up flower buds. They are then brought into the house in late winter and burst into what seems the most exotic flower. Often this sort of pattern occurs in the opposite direction: a small flowering shrub is bought for the house, an azalea perhaps or the exquisite Cytisus racemosus. After flowering it sits outside the back door until it dies of drought and neglect. Immediate plunging in a sheltered spot after flowering would prevent this (so long as frosts are over, for it must be remembered that a period indoors has probably brought on unseasonably soft foliage and if this is damaged next year’s flower potential is ruined). In the case of azaleas their need for lime-free water must be remembered: if gardening on a limy soil a few small rhododendrons or camellias grown for the house in this manner is one way of breaking the calcifuge barrier.
A further house and garden liaison comes when using the protection of the former to supply tender exotics for standing out on the terrace in summer. There is no doubt that a tub of agapanthus, a fine fuchsia or two and possibly the splendid angel’s trumpet, Datura suaveolens, adds a touch of luxury to summer sitting out. Traditionally these plants overwinter under glass, in less opulent situations a light shed or an unheated spare bedroom manages surprisingly well. Water should be withheld gradually from the plants in late autumn and they are brought undercover when hard frost threatens — a degree or two does little harm and if they can stay out until the end of November all the better. Woody shoots are reduced in length. They are kept barely moist and in a state of suspended animation from which they are awakened by gentle spraying with water at the end of March.
This interaction between house and garden helps to maintain plant interest in both places: other examples will be thought of as individual requirements and enthusiasms come to the fore. The general emphasis is on the fact that neither place should be entirely type-cast. That way lies conventionality and boredom.