Healing Plants

It must be the same for Doctors, as when I tell a new acquaintance ‘I am a gardener’ they start to describe their gardening woes. Once people know you have expertise in an area, they are keen to test it. Being able to diagnose plant problems on the spur of the moment and coming up with a suitable solution has become a bit of a party trick. 

I do have a bit of an advantage. In my last job, once a month we’d have a phone-in. People could call us with their plant problems and, like a horticultural agony aunts, we would try to solve them. It soon became clear that there were common themes and some problems made regular appearances. People struggled with pruning their plum trees, dealing with rose diseases (like black spot) and wanted to improve their tired lawns. I began to quite enjoy the problems, especially the more obscure ones. The researcher in me loved the process of narrowing down what it could be, and finding a solution. 

I still enjoy this green-fingered challenge in my own garden. I try to avoid plants that I know will have issues, but when I spot a sick plant I try to discover the causes, and figure out how to solve it. Some people do have ‘blindspots’ and will always struggle with something. I know of experienced gardeners who can grow almost anything, but struggle to produce a carrot. In most instances, the best treatment is actually just a bit of TLC. Feeding, watering or pruning will all help to stimulate strong, healthy growth. A plant that is thriving is less likely than a stressed plant to have a problem in the first place. It must be a similar feeling for a doctor with their patients; to see a plant recover is a massive boost to one’s confidence in the garden. 

To nurture life is a fundamental urge we all have, whether it is our plants, our pets, or children, family and friends. This experience has a positive effect on both those giving and those receiving the care. The restorative effects of plants have been recognised for some time. In 1979 Robert Ulrich demonstrated that viewing natural scenes lessened the effects of stress induced by exams. A further study in 1984 showed patients had improved recovery after surgery if their rooms had a view of a green space rather than a building. 

I wonder if perhaps there is an inherent link between us and our environments. Not only do we need to see and experience nature to be better people, but nature also needs us to act as its benevolent protector, so it can also fully realise its own potential.


A sense of direction

The way we perceive our location in the landscape is very personal. Even in familiar environments, people will have a completely different concept of the space. This ‘cognitive mapping’ effect has always fascinated town planners, landscape architects and garden designers. 

Kevin Lynch’s 1960 publication “The Image of the City” is as a seminal title in this area. Lynch was one of the first to try to understand how people’s perceptions of the environment could help to design better environments. By asking participants to sketch maps of the city on their route to work, and by comparing these maps, he could identify common elements. 

Lynch realised that most elements can be categorised as paths, edges, districts, nodes or landmarks. These elements are all seen in garden and city planning alike. ‘Paths’ are travel corridors such as streets or walkways. ‘Edges’ are linear, limiting or enclosing features, but do not function as paths, such as a wall or hedge. Districts are larger areas with a common function such as ‘Chinatown’ in a city, or ‘the lawn’ in a garden. ‘Nodes’ are major points in the scheme where paths intersect or end, causing behaviour to focus at these points. ‘Landmarks’ are distinctive features people use as reference points, and are often visible from a distance. These could be a tall building in a city, or a sculpture or specimen plant in a garden. The interaction and linking of these elements enable people to build a own cognitive map of a space and helps to make the environment legible to them. 

Path’s are like the arteries of the garden, circulating us around the garden enabling us to get from ‘district’ to ‘district’ with ease. They create physical and psychological movement within the garden, linking separate areas together. These thoroughfares are as important as the spaces they link. Their route and materials dictate how they ‘feel’, and the pace at which we experience them. 

It is a great skill to be able to create routes through the landscape that are both understandable, and enjoyable. A sudden glimpse of something in the distance, like a specimen plant or sculpture can catch the attention, and create a desire, drawing the observer along the path to discover where it leads. On the way they may be distracted by a fork leading them off in a new direction. It is this teasing and revealing of the garden in stages that gives a sense of excitement and intrigue in those experiencing it. 

One of the greatest landscape designers, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was a master of this effect on the entry to his grand estates. The main carriageway wove it’s way through the landscape, between carefully situated hills and woods. Only an occasional glimpse of the house was offered until suddenly, the landscape opened up with a grand reveal of the house, perfectly set within the rolling hills of the landscape.

Greener on the other side

For myself, like many other gardeners, Thursday is traditionally the day all the grass will get cut. It means the garden will be looking good for the weekend and, should it rain on Thursday, we still have Friday to get it done before the weekend.

 The lawn is a key element to most gardens, and a well-maintained expanse of greensward is like the wall-to-wall carpet, providing a luxurious, thick pile to enjoy the summer picnic on, or a pitch perfect for re-enacting the FA Cup final. Most gardens would seem incomplete without at least a patch of green where we can rest and enjoy it’s coolness on a warm summers day. As a species, we evolved in the Savannah, so an open grassland is naturally one of our most favourite ecosystems. 

Grass is an impressive plant – able to withstand being regularly grazed and sprout back without harm it is the ideal candidate for this role. The invention of the lawn mower in the early twentieth century meant that the lawn was now accessible to even more people. Previously grass areas would be very labour intensive, either needing to be maintained by hand-scything or grazing. 

On low-lying and flat areas cows can graze. They like lush grass and when it is growing well they leave a fairly neat finish, but just long enough to stay green and hard-wearing, much like the rough of a golf course. Sheep will graze closer to the ground giving a much shorter finish, selecting out the finer grasses, and creating a sward much like our formal lawns. Horses will also graze quite close, but are a little more picky about what they eat, and by midsummer they are overwhelmed by the rate of growth, and will allow the grass to become much more like a hay meadow. 

These days we have replaced the role of ruminants with our lawn mowers and, by adjusting our cutting height, we can impersonate the different livestock, giving a different effect for different areas of the garden. The deposition of faeces by our flocks is now replaced by a regular application of fertiliser, to ensure the lawn stays a vibrant green. 

As a gardener, I have often found it hard to insist that everyone has exactly the same type of lawn. In some circumstances, the perfect bowling-green, pin-striped finish will not be appropriate. Research conducted by Lionel Smith from the University of Reading, looked at other species of plants which would be suitable for using in lawn situations; plant that would tolerate a regular mowing regime, but could flower, providing nectar for wildlife and interest in the garden. Chamomile lawns have been widely grown in the past but the project looked at many other species which could be suitable to take the place of grass. Daisies (bellis), buttercups (rannunculus) and bugle (ajuga) can all give ground cover, and flowering interest over a long period, but can easily be maintained by mowing on a high setting. The original research ‘lawns’ can still be seen at Avondale park in Notting Hill, and new patches have subsequently been established in the grounds of Reading University. 

In the garden I maintain there are areas of lawn which through the Spring are filled with daffodils. During the summer I will mow around them, allowing the grass to grow long, and as if to show my mowing to be a complete waste of time, they are now full of the vibrant colours of flowering plants such as vetches and buttercups. 

Like the harvestmen of old, brandishing their scythes, I see these ever-expending patches of flowers as the last hiding place of Ceres, the goddess of fertility, and am loathe to cut them. The final part of a field to be cut was often called ‘cutting the hare’, as while the field was being harvested this would become the final refuge of the hare, and as the farmers approached the hares would dart forth, a physical embodiment of the goddess. This last part of the harvest would be held dearest and woven into a ‘corn dolly’ which, after resting in the kitchen of the farmhouse, would be used next year to start the sowing of the crop, continuing the cycle of life from year to year, to hopefully ensure prosperity and a bountiful harvest. 

Better by Design

A well-planned garden is a sight to behold. As Spring shifts up a gear, and the borders begin to fire on all cylinders, we enter that unusual part of the gardening year where high-profile gardening shows dominate the landscape. The incredible coverage of shows like Chelsea or Hampton Court bombards our senses with images of horticultural perfection, chic design and the latest gardening style. 

I have enjoyed visiting many gardening shows, although these days I find myself avoiding the crowds trying to see the show gardens, and I am more drawn towards the tents filled with specialist nurseries displaying beautifully cultivated specimens. There have been numerous heated discussions about the validity of the show gardens asking if they are achievable for most people or questioning their sustainability credentials, but these show gardens are exactly that, gardens for show. They demonstrate the designers ability to work with a brief, effortlessly combining ideas with their unique style and aesthetic sense. Most importantly these gardens give designers and construction teams a rare opportunity to try and push back the boundaries of what a garden really can be. They raise the bar for the art of gardening, making our outdoor rooms into more than just a place to kick a ball or dry the washing, but a miniature Eden, embodying concepts of philosophy, stories and beauty into one coherent whole. 

I have been told the Japanese word for a garden is made of two symbols. One meaning ‘cultivated’, and the other meaning ‘wilderness’. I think this idea sums up the fundamental idea of a garden elegantly; a cultivated wilderness, striking the fine balance between control and wild. For myself, if a space has to combine both cultivated and wild elements it must therefore also contain plants. They are the essential element which can transform a utilitarian space so it can truly become a garden. It could be as small as a patio, a balcony or window box, or as large as a rolling countryside estate, but plants are uniquely capable of softening the hard edges of the built environment and introducing a vibrancy and life into an otherwise dead space. The pinnacle of good planting is often seen as the herbaceous border; the most quintessential part of what is often seen as an ‘English garden’. Revered by most of us as the height of plantsmanship in the garden, they are testament to the skills of those that tend them, with beautifully cultivated specimens blending seamlessly together to create a naturalistic-looking tapestry rich with complementing and contrasting colours, forms and textures, buzzing with life and energy. 

For some of us, our plants are like our most treasured trinkets displayed with pride on the mantelpiece, each one carefully selected its unique beauty, cultivated to perfection and carefully displayed to be appreciated as a single entity. For others they are like the fabric of the room, dressing the surfaces and creating the patterns of rhythm and harmony which resonate throughout the display. Sometimes even the wilderness of the neglected garden has a beauty in the unique selection of plants which may have chosen to colonise the space. The plants that thrive will tell as much about the garden as those that don’t. Some plants have unique abilities to isolate nutrients from the soil better than others, giving them an advantage in the stakes for survival, thriving where others cannot. Their self-sufficient nature only deserves to command our respect rather than the disdain many people have of a self-seeded garden. 

Somewhere in between all of these must lay the ideal for a gardener; to appear natural without looking contrived, to blend seamlessly and appear harmonious without harsh juxtaposition and to appear cultivated and presented to the absolute pinnacle of perfection for as long as possible without appearing staid and lifeless. Walking a tight rope of these facets is a task that only the best gardeners can do without wobbling, one that can be inspired by close observation of the elite at work, and hopefully one that we will also one day manage to achieve.

A love of Tulips

I love tulips. In the Victorian language of flowers, tulips were used as a declaration of love (especially the red ones) but for myself they have a unique memory attached. 

When my wife and I got married, six years ago this weekend, I grew over 300 tulips to provide flowers for the tables. In the Autumn we chose a selection of three varieties; ‘Maureen’ – a large flowered white variety, ‘Queen of Night’ – a deep purple flower, and ‘Maytime’ – a purple lily-flowered type. We were anxious that should our timing, or the changeable spring weather, be slightly amiss, we may have nothing to show for our effort, so we added irises, anemones, alliums and bluebells to our selection to ensure we would have something to cut. When the bulbs arrived in October we rushed to the plot to plant them, and one third of my allotment was turned over to producing our wedding flowers. 

We were blessed with good luck and in the run up to the big day we had a long stint of unbroken good weather so they were all flowering at exactly the right time. We were due to marry on the Sunday, so on the Friday, after finishing work, I headed down to the allotment to cut them, ready for the big day. It was inspired timing as no sooner had I finished but the heavens opened and it didn’t stop raining until after we had tied the knot. The Saturday was spent with my family putting the arrangements together and on the morning of the ceremony I delivered my flowers to the venue. I always saw the project as a bit of an analogy for the day itself, the long buildup and preparation before that one moment was invisible to everyone else, but held a unique significance to us and made our memories of the day much stronger, and even more personal to us. 

I have never had the pleasure of visiting Holland during tulip time, although it is near the top of my horticultural ‘wish list’. In Spring the landscape is turned into a rainbow of colours as the tulip fields come into bloom. Perhaps a visit should form part of our anniversary celebrations in the coming years. Unfortunately, the display is short-lived, as no sooner do they start flowering than they are mown off to conserve the bulbs energy so they will ‘bulk up’, ready for sale. One of the best places to see tulips must be in the Keukenhof garden, where the Dutch bulb industry shows off just how impressively the tulip can be used in gardens, and offers the breeders a chance to showcase their newest varieties. 

The natural variability of these flower has for centuries encouraged plant breeders to tinker with them, continually creating ever more forms and colours. Most species originate from Central Asia and they were probably first cultivated and improved in Persia around the 10th century. They soon became an intrinsic part of the culture, and the long dagger-shaped petals of tulipa cluisiana regularly appear in pottery and artwork from the region. 

Tulips were first introduced to Europe from the Middle East in the middle of the 16th century, and by the the early 17th Century they had became a symbol of wealth among Dutch traders. This triggered a craze for collecting and a price bubble meant bulbs of some of the most exotic flamed and feathered varieties were changing hands at extraordinary prices, (around 10 times the wage of a skilled craftsman) and many people were consequently ruined when the market eventually crashed. 

It wasn’t until 1928, when Dorothy Cayley, a plant scientist working at the John Innes centre in Norfolk was able to prove that the colour break which was so desirable to the Dutch, was caused by a virus transferred from plant to plant by aphids. To this day the broken tulips are not shown at RHS shows as they are ‘diseased plants’, although they remain a key element at the shows held by the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society. This is one of the oldest florists societies in England and they still show examples of the flamed and feathered types, presented in the necks of (empty) beer bottles at their annual shows. 

Unfortunately for many of us our tulip displays can be short lived, and seem to need replenishing annually. I have often found that some of the easiest types of tulip to naturalise, and give reliable repeat performances, are those known as the species types. One of my favourites is tulipa sylvestris, which propagates itself easily under ground by tiny rhizomes, and will pop up unexpectedly some distance from where it was originally planted. There are many other fabulous species tulips such as tulipa sprengeri, tulipa tarda, tulipa turkestanica or tulip saxatilis and while they tend to be slightly less conspicuous than their ‘louder’ relatives, they are no less beautiful and, in my experience, considerably more persistent. 

These beautiful flowers, despite having no intrinsic value as food or fibre plants, have managed to travel across Europe from the Middle East and have intertwined themselves deeply into our culture so it is unsurprising they have managed to become some of our most loved flowers and a quintessential part of our gardens in the Spring.