A bit about soil

Winter is a great time to make plans for next year.  Take a good, long, hard look at the garden and be your harshest critic. Think what you have got wrong and be ruthless – whatever didn’t perform this year take out and either donate to a friend or pot up and give to your nearest charity shop or jumble sale. When plants don’t perform it means that they are unhappy in their surroundings. That is why it is important to read a bit about where they originate. A plant that is native to woodlands is not going to do well in a sandy garden on a windswept hillside by the sea, likewise a plant that is native to the Spanish mountains will not thrive if plant in a soggy bog garden.

There are a few key factors to think about when planting:

a. does the plant like sun or shade, or what is called dappled shade, i.e. gentle fluttering shadows cast by a leafy tree nearby.

b. if the plant is a shade-lover, what kind of shade does it like? There is an enormous difference between dry shade – which is very difficult and wet shade, which isn’t so bad.

c. does the plant like a sheltered position or is it happiest out in the open? Praire plants such as echinacea fall into the latter category.

d. what kind of soil does the plant like?

The last question is possibly the most important. If you haven’t figured out what kind of soil you have do so now. Broadly speaking you will have sandy, clay or loamy soil. Clay soil is heavy and frequently waterlogged. This soil benefits from the addition of gritty material to improve drainage but is generally very fertile. You will find keeping Mediterranean or alpine plants tricky. A sandy soil is very light and free-draining, so you will need to add lots of organic material to improve fertility, and you will be best going for drought tolerant and seaside plants. A loamy soil is the perfect growing medium, and if you have it, you are very lucky and grow almost anything. Soil Ph. is the other major consideration when planning what to plant in your garden.  You can buy Ph. soil testing kits in all garden centres and if you have an acid soil, lime lovers are out. Go instead for all those plants many of us would love to grow but can’t without a lot of faff and bother and importation of copious amounts of ericaceous compost – Rhododendrons, azaleas, blue hydrangea and go for a lovely Robinsonian wild garden look. If you have an alkaline or limey soil, it tends to be chalky and needs plants that will not just tolerate but thrive in such conditions. Limey soils are perfect for creating wildflower meadows and will take lots of drought tolerant species and are suitable for Mediterranean style gardens.  Last of all consider the shape of your beds and your hard landscaping. Avoid curvy beds and go instead for a sharp formal layout. You can soften hard edges with plant material, but a strong series of straight lines gives a better framework to work from.

Cyclamen, Arum italicum and Hellebore

Cyclamen, Arum italicum and Hellebore on humus rich soil in light shade

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Friends Old & New

This old article seemed apposite as on Saturday two old friends Lois and Caroline were over bearing plastic bags for plants. I gave them lots of stuff, and happy to say it was all quality and any apt to run wild were given with all due caveats. Some gardeners are very mean about sharing, but I think it is a great idea – if you lose your own you can get some back from your pal (unless she is particularly mean, in which case drop her).One of the deep pleasures of gardening is the camaraderie amongst gardening friends. Yes, there is often a dreadful competitive element to plant collecting, who is first to get their mitts on the latest “in” plant, who has the best specimen, the most unusual colour, the choicest variety, and often these are guarded with a parsimony that would make the pre-salvation Silas Marner blush with shame. However, the sharing of plants with a like-minded friend – especially one who understands and appreciates the gesture – is a source of delight and deep gratification.Like a cocktail party in full swing, the summer garden is a babble of friends and acquaintances jockeying for attention, the old reliables mixing with the superstars – the elite crew presents from seriously smart gardeners, which is always a huge honour. I have some lovely snowdrops, a present from Robin Hall of Primrose Gardens in Lucan, given to me on a visit with my mother-in-law when I was just starting out, and a common or garden teasel, which originates from a seedling given by Helen Dillon, therefore elevating it to precious status.

Almost every plant in my garden has a story, one which adds an additional layer of interest. Sometimes it is unbearably poignant, a memory of a friend now gone, but living on in the delicate hues of a healthy plant. Others are bittersweet – a memory of a friendship that has cooled off or even irredeemably fractured, the sight of the first shoots opening the floodgates of memories, perhaps reinforcing the rift or even prompting the phone call that precipitates a reconciliation.

I have a couple of beautiful roses, Zephirine Drouhin and New Dawn, which my mother grew from slips from her own plants. Now crippled with arthritis, she is unable to manage the heavy work necessary to keep the garden going and her once beautiful patch is now mostly in shrubs for ease of maintenance. Please do share your plants, and remember that innocently “taking slips” from strangers’ gardens is actually theft and a cardinal breach of garden etiquette. I have a sedum my aunt gave me, which though lovely, still makes me wince with shame as it was given with the recommendation that it was a superior creature because it “came fromBlenheim Palace”. So Jack’s muscari, Janet’s hellebore, Sarah’s auricula, Isobel’s primulas and my darling ma’s roses, welcome to the party once again and long may you live and thrive.