Why I don’t like gardening

I’m coming out of the shed and there’s no looking back

Dont like gardeningWith an unrelenting predictability, the busy gardening season is upon us: the plants in our gardens are thriving on the regular rain we’ve received over the past months, spawning an explosion in growth. Always the most exciting time of the gardening year, plants are growing and blooming like a horticultural firework display. Even the most undistinguished little number usually does something of interest at this time, making the garden a thrilling place to be. Now while this sounds like a gardening utopia, anyone who’s spent any time in a garden will know that for some perverse reason it’s nearly always the things you don’t want to grow that do best. How is it possible that lavender can limp along, supposedly happy in poor soils, while all around weeds spring up to taunt it? How is it fair that despite giving it everything it could possibly desire, your Wisteria just won’t flower? The truth of the matter is that it isn’t, and the only thing that stands between order and anarchy in the garden is a gardener.

Here’s the thing: while I absolutely love thinking about gardens, designing them and building them – try as I might, I just cannot see gardening as anything other than glorified housework. When we aren’t planting, we’re cutting things back, pulling things up and tying things down. Trimming, mowing and clipping are jobs that are never complete, and just like housework, many of the jobs are just, well, plain boring. As if to rub this in, some modern tools of the trade are remarkably similar to their household counterparts: am I the only one who has noticed how many similarities there are between hoovering and mowing? Trimming hedges smacks of ironing and a neat dust-free house is horribly aligned to a tidy, weed-free garden. So we accept the analogy and where does this lead us? Well, either you talk it up to being enjoyable, relaxing and therapeutic, or, if you are like me – this leads you to getting a gardener, and this is where it gets interesting.

Gardening for the result

So while a lucky few will garden for its intrinsic value, happy in the knowledge that they aren’t paying a therapist, the majority well-balanced and otherwise busy individuals (like you and I) will garden for the end result. That deep sense of fulfilment that comes from a lush green lawn and the satisfying beauty to be derived from a well- tended bed growing in harmony knows no bounds. However, as I said before, this doesn’t happen by chance – regular intervention is required to keep everything in balance and in order – and this is the role of the gardener. Surely the jobs are quite simple. How hard can it be to find some- one to tend your landscape to give you the desired results without costing you a small fortune in maintenance? Does it really make that much difference if you have someone with little or no gardening knowledge come in once a week as long as they are reliable? The short answers are: No, it certainly isn’t rocket science, no there isn’t a shortage of “gardeners” of all kinds, and, yes it really makes a difference.

Pay peanuts and get a monkey

I’ve had the same conversation with clients many, many times in the past: How do you choose a good gardener? Are you better with a little man and his van, or with a larger company? Getting to the root of this question requires an understanding and acceptance of the nature of gardening itself. For sure, the vast majority of the work is somewhat mundane and repetitive. And for sure, nothing in the vast majority of the work requires skills that cannot be fairly easily acquired by anyone with a modicum of interest and intelligence. So where’s the problem? Well, of course it’s in the last thin slice of the cake. It’s the small part that makes the difference between a really beautiful garden and one that is maintained but slowly slips in quality. It’s here that resides experience, an understanding of insects, pesticides and fertilisers and an appreciation of how the plants grow and how they will respond to cutting. It’s this last part, which although slightly nebulous in character, is so vitally important to the garden. Without it, a garden will never be the place it could potentially be, and therefore to us as designers, and to everyone else as owners, is obviously fundamental: No matter how good the design and implementation of a garden, only so much ground can be covered in the installation. The final achievement of the transformation from bare ground to beautiful landscape takes place in the hands of the person caring for the garden, and without the necessary care and understanding, it is never quite achieved.
What does this mean? Well, at a basic level, it means that you have to tread carefully when selecting and evaluating the cost with the person looking after the gar- den. Certainly the lack of a requirement for formal, certified minimum training before entering the trade attracts a diverse (I’m being generous here) spectrum of people to the ranks of “gardener”, making it that much harder to choose. At a simple level, you have to look for a way to get the bulk of the work done economically but without forgo- ing that last part, which brings the interest, skill and experience. Without it, your garden will never be the place it could be and never realise its true potential – something no garden deserves. And when you sit back and occasionally wonder if it is really worth all the trouble – the answer is always “yes” in spades.

James Hartley
The English Garden Centre

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