On gardening badly

by Barendina Smedley

Far and away the most successful thing in my garden is the deer population.

We have at least two types of deer — sturdy little muntjac, rapacious in their strangely shy, apologetic way, plus a tiny herd of roe deer, whose defence strategy when confronted by a human is to flash a pale bottom  in the hope that this spectacle will somehow be so terrifying as to drive all foes away. I suppose we ought to prefer the roe, as they are natives, but the diminutive exoticism of the muntjac, like labrador retrievers with cloven hooves, is not without appeal.

Whatever anyone may tell you to the contrary, deer are fussy eaters.

Consider the roses. Of the six old hybid tea roses in front of the house — all demonstrably planted pre-1963, probably more like 1950 or so — only two, both pink, pass the cervine taste-test, which is why the few surviving leaves on these plants all flourish slightly above deer-type head level. Out in the meadow, rosa chinensis ‘Old Blush’ has proved extremely popular — the deer can somehow undo wired-up net cages to get at it — whilst r. rugosa alba remains neglected. R. filipes ‘Kiftgate’ is such a brute that it quite rightly frightens deer away. And while the deer used to adore the rambler r. ‘Albertine’, the love affair was not mutually sustaining — rather Proustian, that — as having had its shoots stripped off a few dozen times too often, ‘Albertine’ gave up, and is no more.

Hence the selection of roses in my garden exists entirely at the whim of our resident deer. In fact they seem to have a veto on quite a lot of my planting decisions these days. I once planted out a basil plant, only to find, less than an hour later, that it had been eaten to the ground. The experiment has not been repeated. Whereas my sudden passion for euphorbias has less to do with their appearance than with their delightfully reliable irritant toxicity.

Other gardens, somehow, avoid this sort of problem. There must be hundreds of gardening books on my shelves — buying gardening books is in fact possibly the only aspect of gardening at which I’m absolutely first-rate — but I search them in vain for deer-related solutions.

True, one can fantasise about how the great gardeners of ages past dealt with their deer issues. Gussie Bowles, one imagines, either hired a tiny local boy to stand next to each of his plants, protecting them from deer — or perhaps cleverly bred cultivars that were not only beautiful and interesting but also reliably deer-resistant. Perhaps Vita Sackville-West got her local deer — hopelessly bedint — swapped for a special strain of albino fallow deer, which would look so much better nibbling the suckers of r. ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’. (Dipping back into the realms of the actual for a moment, Vita did at least admit that pheasants eat fritillaries — which is perfectly true, and also endearing, as famous gardeners’ troubles are always so much more enchanting than their triumphs, as that arch-seductress was doubtless all too well aware.) I suspect Margery Fish simply planted her plants too closely to allow deer a foothold.

Anne Scott-James, meanwhile — although more of a great journalist than a great gardener — must either have asked an infant Max Hastings to fend off Bambi with a shotgun, or perhaps simply have shamed the deer into leaving her plants alone through sheer force of glamour. Sadly few can really follow her lead in this latter respect, as we rarely if ever look like this. At Great Dixter, the deer would have suffered mental collapse due to the rapidly-changing array of incredibly brightly-coloured plantings, and foresworn gardens altogether. And as for Highgrove, I cannot decide whether the Prince of Wales would deal with deer by regarding their predation as part of the fundamentally harmonious, infinitely sustaining natural order of things, to be embraced and revered — or, conversely, by creating the Duchy Originals deer-burger.

Personally, I tolerate our deer. They are a nuisance, obviously, but they are also pretty, funny and seem to me to have as much right to our garden as we do. I also tolerate our pheasants, rock doves, wood pigeons, squirrels, slugs, snails and a large rusty-coloured fox. In fact I tolerate pretty much everything, except our neighbour’s black and white cat Fergus, who despite otherwise being a very nice cat, fails to understand that my raised beds are something other than a super-sized litter tray.

And this is part of the reason I am, and will always be, a bad gardener.

For gardening, above all else, requires ruthlessness. All the other obvious gardening advantages — knowledge, experience, vast personal wealth, good soil, good climate and good luck — cannot really compensate if singleness of purpose is lacking. The really brilliant gardener cannot afford to be soft-hearted about plants, animals or, for that matter, people. C.f. Vita Sackville-West’s entire career, which also incidentally demolishes forever the claim that women only ever take up gardening when they have, for whatever reason, given up on sex. Or was that just another quirk of her greatness?

Unfortunately for my garden, however, I am not very ruthless. For instance, conventional wisdom would insist that once seedlings start to sprout, they need to be thinned — but every time I try to do this, I’m assailed by doubts. Who am I, after all, to play God in the life of these amazing little things, so infinitely delicate yet full of energy and potential? So I end up with a tray full of lots of rather nere-do-well seedlings, rather than a smaller crop of far stronger seedlings — all of which will be eaten by something the moment they are planted out anyway, so I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter much.

And then there are weeds. It isn’t that I can’t tell the difference between weeds and proper plants. Increasingly, due in part to all those gardening books, I’m quite good at making the conventional distinction. But what I can’t bring myself to do is to act upon it, perhaps because in my heart of hearts I don’t really agree with it.

I remember a few summers ago, when my husband spotted a really attractive little wildflower growing in our lawn — a nice little trailing thing, sporting trim little pink-and-white blossoms raising their pretty faces to the sun. It was, of course, bindweed. Were I a better gardener, I’d have been out with the systemic weedkiller within the minute, slaying this famously invasive threat to hegemonic fescue. But instead I agreed with my husband — bindweed’s actually rather lovely, and surely almost anything is better than an all-green, all-grass, boring monocultural lawn?

In my own defence, I ought to point out here that medieval and early modern gardeners loved and valued bindweed. It turns up, meticulously illustrated, in medieval manuscripts — treated with as much seriousness as roses or lillies. Before our horticultural universe was transformed forever by ever-better selective breeding, discoveries from far-off lands and ever-more efficient means of sharing plants between enthusiasts, smaller, less showy plants mattered more. Historically, the line separating ‘treasure’ from ‘weed’ is a pretty unstable one, as Richard Mabey and others have documented. And so a sort of post-modern historicist subjectivity has entered deep into my soul, validating my natural disinclination to anoint, for instance, the weed-strewn gravel courtyard in front of our big barn with lashings of Roundup, whatever more conventional souls might argue to the contrary.

By the same token, I am no good whatsoever at removing plants that have been planted by previous generations of gardeners. What could be less fashionable, for instance, than an orange hybrid tea rose? Even the deer won’t touch that rose, for heaven’s sake! Yet I know that someone once loved it enough to plant it and care for it, and as the years pass, I have to admit that it is growing on me. For one thing, whatever Christopher Lloyd might have claimed to the contrary, the new foliage of hybrid tea roses can be delightful — a splash of well-kept claret at a time of year when so much else is a sort of austere, puritanical silver-grey — while the big fat unfailing blossoms emit a scent that takes one back to a less ironic, critical, ungrateful era.

But I also loved the sense of rootedness that these inherited plants bring to a garden. They reflect, however indirectly, the wisdom or foolishness — at any rate the conscious thought — of other gardeners, known or unknown, living or dead. And as such, they need to be taken seriously. We are too quick, very often, to dismiss the past because we think we know better, only to discover how very little we know at all. Not for me, anyway, the grubbing-out of old lilacs because new lilacs would be more productive, or the excision of decrepit old shrubs in the search for more sunlight. And as for the death of old trees, I am learning slowly how to accept it with grace — it’s one of those stern life-lessons, drawn from the same deck as the death of pets or dear friends — although it still saddens me. But the idea of felling a healthy, living tree, just because it is the wrong place, doing the wrong sort of thing? Never, never, never, never, never.

One can go to far with this, of course. Gardens are, as we have seen, intrinsically unnatural. That is precisely why they are gardens, not wilderness. And believe it or not, I am just about capable of summoning up the callousness necessary to dig up nettles and put them in the compost bin, to strim down alexanders and to thwart slugs by garlanding favoured seedlings with little copper collars. I plant new plants, water and weed (sometimes) existing plants, and do my best to keep old plants ticking along. So my garden does actually count as a garden — just as a bad one.

But then, to be perfectly honest, beautiful and inspiring as great gardens can be, I think I personally prefer bad gardens. For one thing, I like the spontaneous, fluid feeling, the ever-present possibility of finding something genuinely surprising around the next corner. Great gardeners work hard to generate surprises for visitors — bad gardeners, meanwhile, can enjoy those surprises themselves, every time an apparently healthy and much-loved tree falls down, an interesting new type of invasive thistle turns up, or a deer changes his mind about a previously-despised cultivar. No, there’s never a dull moment in my garden, I can promise you that.

One could sum up this confession another way, by explaining that I am the sort of person who, in general, prefers history to fiction. For how can any one single human consciousness, however brilliant, compete with the sheer sublime oddness of actual life, with all its uncontrollable interventions, paradoxes and complications? Of course, to make the narrative work, a degree of shaping is necessary — the focused gaze is also an averted gaze, to quote the sort of language that made me give up professional history. But at the same time, tight formal logic so often feels as if it’s missing the point. It’s a not-entirely-convincing bedtime story that doesn’t quite console as the gales continue to howl outside, rattling the panes of the nursery window. Why not open the window and look out at the rain instead?

Of course, the very greatest artists don’t conform even to this rule, any more than they conform to the others — this being the measure of their greatness. It’s worth wondering what Shakespeare, say, would have made of the more austere type of Chelsea show-garden, ruthlessly stripped of anything messy or flawed. He must have seen the equally formal, equally artificial palace gardens of his own age, which were in a sense not dissimilar. He was certainly clear on the value of garden maintenance, having addressed the subject squarely in Henry V:

Alas, [peace] hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in its own fertility.
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach’d,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disorder’d twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock and rank fumitory
Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts
That should deracinate such savagery;
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.

Deracinating savagery, in this version, is a good thing, the sort of ultimate bottom line of gardening — it is, after all, what separates peace from war, just as it separates gardens from non-gardens — but at the same time, the ‘even mead’ would be nothing without the cowslip, burnet and clover.

Shakespeare would, I think, have known all too well that these last three were non-glamorous plants. Our ‘cowslip’ comes from ‘cow slop’, i.e. cow pats, not exactly the most effusively poetic name. He embraced them all the same, rather as he gave ordinary soldiers speeches as great as those of princes. Great poet that Shakespeare was, he was probably also quite a bad gardener.