The Plantsman’s Garden

The Plantsman’s Garden

‘Plantsman’ is usually a term given to an enthusiast for a definite range of plants, sometimes not worrying too much how his garden looks as a whole. It is the plants that matter, he will say. And of course, for him, this is so. Dahlias like dinner plates, chrysanthemums in rows, each bloom a miracle of incurved petals hidden in a paper bag lest moth, dust, earwig or sun corrupt before the day of the local flower show dawns.

This post is concerned with collections of plants grown for their own sake yet in conditions and associations which suit and set them off best. They are seen both as individuals and as part of the garden scene. This sort of gardening knows no bounds and has no limits of space. On the one side there are vast areas such as Exbury in Hampshire with its near-definitive collection of rhododendrons, on the other tiny courtyards with equally near-definitive collections of houseleeks or snowdrops. The level of success is shown by the standards of cultivation and the choice of specialism in relation to the garden and the conditions of soil and climate it enjoys or suffers.



Not that heavy clay will put off the keen herb grower, or a bleak garden the camellia enthusiast, if they are determined to succeed. It is so often seen to be the case that where the prudent would stop the real aficionado goes on and succeeds. Perhaps people no longer pamper their plants as in the days of the 17th century tulipomania but the temptation is there, as the catalogues appear every autumn and spring. Fortunately enthusiasts befriend enthusiasts and mutual exchange is usually possible, especially if, as with many plants, a specialist society exists (what in other spheres might be called a fan-club).

Such societies, of course, also provide information upon the needs of the chosen range of plants, which will supplement the necessarily less specific information available from the conventional text websites. Following this, whole plots turned into alpine landscapes, impeccably grown fruit or Japanese scenes filled with bonsai can be found.


Plant Communities

A plantsman’s garden has, however, another connotation. Here taste is more catholic and what merges is a successful application of ideas discussed in the post ‘Working With What You’ve Got’. Such gardeners will work with their soil and conditions to build a garden full of interest at all times of the year. Understanding of the needs of the plants, beyond that of their basic nutrition, is necessary here. With this comes knowledge and further enthusiasm — a splendid self-fulfilling situation.

A basic fact concerning the plant kingdom has first to be accepted. This is that every plant species is an organism in its own right perfectly adapted for the conditions extant in its habitat. Take the well-known Narcissus tazetta, for example, flowering at Christmas on its Cretan hillside in poor eroded soil, surrounded by spiny broom, Jerusalem sage and developing seedlings of Chrysanthemum coronarium and asparagus pea. These five species, and others with them, have evolved to the point of success in that habitat — the classic Mediterranean sea-level climate of soft, moist winters and searing summers. And they have combined to forma balanced plant community. Each has developed its own answers to the problems of soil and climate: the narcissus by winter flowering and then, after seed setting, complete retreat to the bulb underground for the months of drought and heat. The chrysanthemum does it by having a seed-to-seed life cycle of only four to five months. The shrubs manage by reducing their water-losing leaf area to a minimum (often none) or protecting their leaves with woolly coverings. For all, the point of their efforts and adaptations is the successful annual flowering and subsequent fruiting. All is geared towards the continuation of the species.

A similar story, less over simplified because obviously many factors have been omitted, can be told of every plant community in the world, whether of high alpines on a Himalayan scree, our local flowers of a meadow or wood or the extraordinary complexity of an Amazonian jungle. All this accounts for the incredible diversity and fascination of the plant kingdom.

plantsman's garden The successful plantsman, then, will accept that his plants, even in cultivation, are getting on with their own life cycles to the best of their ability for themselves, not for him as such. He will also realise that most plant species, although individuals, do not live in isolation in the wild. They are part of a community such as that just described. Under trees there are shrubs, under the shrubs smaller woody plants and herbaceous subjects, whilst in the shade and protection which these provide, ferns and other lower plants find their niche and capitalise upon it. A natural community is a full one — the old truism of nature abhorring a vacuum is patently obvious here. It is most unusual for bare soil to remain uncolonised for long. Soil grows plants; that, as far as plants are concerned, is why it is there.

In the garden, then, the best effect is one of barely controlled luxuriance. The idea of the natural plant community should be kept in mind for any mixed border. In the light shade of Cercidiphyllum japonicum some lacecap hydrangeas might be grown. At their foot are hostas, round which are a host of spring bulbs to use the period when all the others are leafless. They commandeer the light, get on with their display and then, like the players in a prologue, disappear from the stage when the main curtain goes up.

This sort of plant community is, of course, likely to be completely artificial. The plants may originate from a number of widely dispersed continents or countries, they may never meet in the wild. Yet if the ecological niche to which their growth pattern, leaf type and so on show them to belong is considered they will, with the plantsman’s help, find a comparable niche in the garden. Knowledge helps the placing; the plant itself shows whether that placing is right.

This sort of grouping is obviously not possible in all parts of the garden. Some conceptions, such as an herbaceous border, leave out the upper layers, yet the principles hold true. Flag irises are a joy for a month of the year — but what then? Why not add interest to that bit of border with a few of the smaller daffodils, such as ‘February Gold’ (it’s never out until March) and, if the soil does not lie wet, some primulinus gladioli in amongst the iris rhizomes for some high summer blooms.

The plantsman too, will use, but not moan about, those apparently difficult spots in the garden. The north wall, the shady border, the low-lying bit of intractable clay at the bottom of the garden all say ‘NO’ in fluorescent capitals, to whole ranges of plants. But there is always a ‘yes’, albeit lower-case and black and white, to others.

It could seem that this sort of gardening is unnecessarily laboursome, but such a fear can be refuted. The use of ground cover plants, which stratification naturally implies, means that continual surface cultivation is no longer needed, weeds are less likely to be a problem (so long as the beastly perennials such as couch grass, ground elder and creeping thistle are completely removed first).


11. May 2011 by admin
Categories: Gardening Ideas, Plantsman's Garden, Types of Gardens | Tags: , , | Comments Off on The Plantsman’s Garden


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