Gardening: The future’s bright. The future’s German.

It was only a few days ago that I was in Germany looking for new and unusual trees and shrubs, having made my way up from Italy, via Belgium and Holland. Despite having German ancestry (a great-grandfather), I’ve never spent any substantial amount of time there and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. In the event, it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

Gardening in Germany

While even the best of the Italian nurseries make up for their shortcomings with an exceptionally good lunch accompanied by an excellent bottle of red, at the German nursery we visited there wasn't a sesame showered breadstick in sight. Instead it shunned such frivolous trimmings in favour of a suitably hearty Germanic meal of lamb chops and fried potatoes served in bowls notable only for their unusually large portion sizes. (As it turned out I later needed the fortification just to keep my eyes functioning there was so much to look at). That said, for what the meal lacked in finesse, it more than made up for in interest, with service provided by a wildly camp waiter in lederhosen and shorts so tight they needed a licence. To Hans, our waiter, I salute you: to carry that off takes class.

As we drove through the nursery in the afternoon I sat in the back of the car slack-jawed – I’d never seen anything like it. Over the years I’ve visited all kinds of growers, starting way back when I was a student, travelling through the north of France for my thesis on horticultural production near Angers. Despite this, what I saw in Germany took my breath away: plants set out in lines with daunting precision, a level of cleanliness throughout the nurseries that bordered on clinical and a homogeneity of product and quality as I have never witnessed before. I already had a pretty good idea why Germany is so successful, but now I am absolutely sure: they value work and take pride in it. It’s blindingly obvious.

While we were there, we stood and watched in awe as teams prepared the plants for transplantation. Only in Germany have I come across a nursery that has a specific group of people whose sole job is the preparation of the large shrubs for transplantation, who do nothing else except prune one or two small branches and meticulously weave twine through the lower branches so that they are grouped and lifted to avoid damage when the plant is extracted from the soil. Nor have I ever seen the wrapping of the base of a large specimen shrub elevated to something approaching a religious ceremony: a team of three encircle each tree, equipped with hip-mounted twine bundles. You can see from the way that they work the respect for the value in the trees they are handling. Now this in itself is a beautiful thing: the workers in the field appreciate that the reason that the tree looks as good as it does is thanks to year after year of painstaking pruning to get just the right shape. Once again I was amazed at the Germans, not only do they work hard but there is an obvious respect at every level for quality work.

This had us talking about the difference between the nurseries we visit. As professionals, we can easily see the difference between nursery stock that has been handled properly and that which has not. A good nursery that grows a large amount of stock in their fields will dig up and replant the plants every two to three years. These plants will then either be containerised, replanted in another field or put back in the same spot to develop further – just turned a little. Why bother? This is one of the less obvious practices that makes the difference between a quality grower and “the rest” and it requires an understanding of how the roots of a plant work. Why is this important to the amateur gardener? Well, it’s interesting, but practically it's also useful if you are familiar with how the roots of a plant function. You can care for it all the better after it is planted, watering and feeding it in the correct manner.

Know your roots!

The roots of a plant are thickest near the trunk, yet these are roots that do not actually do any “work”. Instead these are simply conduits, transport channels linking the plant to its “feeder” roots at the tips, usually at or outside the outer edge of the canopy (known as the “drip-line” for obvious reasons). The dense roots at the outer edges of the root system are the ones covered in fine root hairs that lift the moisture and nutrients from the soil. It is also these hairs that are easily damaged by drought stress, poor plant handling, or, in the case of the growers, poor nursery stock preparation. Incidentally, these are easily damaged by compression: If you're carrying out any works at your house and the workers use machines – make sure they don't drive under the canopies of trees that you value. The compression of the soil in this area is often enough to kill these roots and although the tree will live on for a while on its reserves, it will slowly die over a period of one to three years as it runs out of nutrients. Pines and other such trees with roots that are close to the surface are particularly susceptible to this. Likewise, when you water and feed established trees, focus on the ground under the edge of the canopy, as this is where the majority of these roots congregate.

The action of regularly lifting a plant is crucial in nursery stock production as it prunes the roots, forcing them to branch and increase in density nearer the trunk, just as pruning the branches does to the canopy above the ground. This leaves many more fine roots growing nearer the stem, and, in turn, allows the plant to cope with being containerised and then transplanted to your garden. Sadly this is not something that’s immediately obvious. A plant that has been allowed to grow for too long in one place will extend its roots far from the base and when transplanted all of these are lost. While it may then look healthy in the pot, you are buying a dramatically weakened plant, and one that has a much higher risk of struggling to adapt to its new home, a feature known as “transplant shock”. A plant lifted from a field of a grower who has been following good practices will be so much stronger and will establish much faster thanks to the dense root structure in its root ball. A tree with a stunning form is something special, deserving of the best treatment, and from what I saw in Germany, they’re leading the way.

I don’t believe in angels or miracles – not remotely. I do believe though in the power that beautiful plants in gardens have to bring us closer together, closer to nature and to something greater than ourselves. This is my religion, and I hope to see you soon in church.