My favourite hellebore is a reject. Bred by the hellebore kings at Ashwood Nursery but despite her superb ancestry, she didn’t make the cut. In my mind though, she’s the perfect mistake. So when asked, ‘What is your biggest gardening mistake?’, at a recent garden talk, she immediately sprung to mind. I suspected however, that the crowd were looking for more of a juicy gardening howler. Admittedly, despite a healthy repertoire of gardening glitches, I struggled to draw on a beguiling bungle to please the crowd. Perhaps we are so conditioned to strive for betterment, that we push them to the back of our minds. After all, we don’t tend to record them to peacock on instagram…
Digging a little deeper, the origin of the question was sadly born from much trepidation. A fear doing wrong in the garden leading to, I presume fear of killing a plant -or several. The series of photos shown during my talk may seem to allude to everything being perfect, but that’s certainly not the case. At all, in fact. Mistakes, initially frustrating are wondrous and I have – proudly, made many. We learn from successes but perhaps even more so from mistakes. Every selected, planted, pruned perennial, shrub and tree in this garden is a testament to that.
So, as a means to combat the tsunami of perceived perfection purported on social media, I thought it worthwhile to share a few thoughts on the matter, with some seriously good gardening gaffes from very discerning gardeners thrown in…
Laugh in the face of fear and tweak the nose of terror…
- Take the pressure off by allowing error into your gardening. Not only are you learning, but errors inherently lead to discovery. If you have mullered a plant you will; (a) do better next time, (b) know that plant wasn’t suitable for that place, (c) have a new opportunity to replant, which is always an exciting prospect.
- Nature is healer, and a pretty good one at that. Plants regenerate, branches grow back, grass will grow…
- Pruning seems to frighten the living daylights out of new gardeners. No need and trust me it’d take quite some effort to kill a plant by bad pruning. Approach it, task by task. If it’s apple tree pruning, read that specific chapter (ignore the rest) and adopt Captain Barbossa’s pirate code, ‘they’re more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules‘. Pruning also involves shaping to your requirements – you can shape it the way you want. Just think of the myriad of options to fruit tree training shapes, cloud pruned topiary, or our our mad rose pruning which certainly doesn’t follow traditional rules. If you have messed up, no panic. Just like my father’s hair after his lockdown chop by yours truly… it will grow back.
- Ignore the myriad of ‘How to avoid x number biggest mistakes in gardening’ content strewn online. Far too frightening. Learn as you go, plant by plant, task by task. There is ample info available online, or seek the wise words in the brainy books penned by my (harder) working colleagues.
- Go steady with any type of added feed. Less is always more. Too much and you will actually burn what you are trying to coddle. Not one of my blunders, but I have stood on a severely sautéed lawn, sizzling like a stir-fry and smoking like an industrial chimney. Interesting, but not good….
- Plants take a lot longer to settle than you may think. Override your enthusiasm and don’t fiddle. They won’t perform as you may have imagined in those first seasons, give them time.
- When you go plant shopping, do the same as you would in the supermarket when buying groceries – bring a list. Do include options if alternatives are required, and stick to what you need. If you see a nice plant, make a mental note and go home. Research it, see if you have a place for it and if so, go back and buy it. P.s. I’m still learning to do this…
- If you’ve planted (or inherited) something that you don’t like, dig it up and replant. Don’t live with something you don’t like. We inherited a lovely Cercidiphyllum japonicum when we moved here but it was badly planted. Always stressed, it would shed it’s leaves by July and it was planted in an awkward position. I spent many a year trying to make it happy, and even designed borders around it in an attempt include it in the overall design. To cut a long story short, that amounted to five years of wasted energy. Without it, the garden looks infinitely better and as a wonderful perk, the trees and borders adjacent are thriving with the extra light.
- Control expectations of what can be achieved in the garden – day by day; season to season. Piling on jobs just pressurises your gardening and makes you miserable if the unachievable isn’t achieved. Go steady, do what you can and enjoy what you are doing.
- When you put bird feeders in your garden (which I applaud you for), remember that as well as lovely birdies, you will also attract the hippos of the bird world – pigeons. They will trample your lovely plants to smithereens for food morsels. Keep feeders on the move and don’t place them anywhere near any beloved plants.
- Oh, and if still alive, pot up your mistakes for rehoming. Friends, neighbours, charity/plant sales will welcome them.
Classic gardening gaffs by the experts
Leylandii caber toss
The one and only, garden designer, writer, show chatterer, & spiffy RHS Chelsea judge
‘I cut a leylandii down once many years ago. When felling a tree there is a certain science involved in cutting so that it falls safely and in the correct direction. I looked, I reckoned, I calculated and I prepared carefully. The chainsaw was oiled and sharpened. Brrrrrrrmmmmm – a sharp tug and the engine started. The first notch was cut and finally the last felling cut- the coup de grace. I watched horrified as, almost in slow motion, it elegantly swayed and then changed direction before falling like an exhausted bear upon the neighbours’ brand new shed.’
Geyser of beyond fabulous recipes, champion writer & broadcaster, Frenchifying UK escapee
‘I think I made all of the common mistakes early on, and probably still make them sometimes. The worst one was buying too many different plants because their descriptions in plant catalogues are like poetry to me, particularly as I am most likely to be reading plant catalogues in winter when I am craving colour and scent. This means that your planting ends up looking bitty and unsophisticated so I have really tried to curb my one of everything in the sweetie shop tendencies. I am sometimes successful. Right now I am planting a new garden in the South of France and am attempting to be very strict with myself. This is quite a challenge, as with 300 days of sunshine a year, I can grow things here I could never have grown in the UK.
I think my most expensive mistake though was for many years to persevere with growing a lawn in my narrow, shady, north-facing London garden. I pampered it, showered it with love and attention, and still it persisted in being a patchy, muddy mess. Every few years I would roll out new turf like a carpet and enjoy – briefly – it’s luscious green. In the end, I saw sense and replaced it with old brick paths and wider beds, which made more room for flowers and ultimately was infinitely less work and expense.
Years ago, I got to know the wonderful former telegraph columnist, Fred Whitsey. He was quite elderly and long retired when I knew him, and I was just beginning to garden. He gave me one of the best pieces of gardening advice which I think of often: “Debora, you’re not a real gardener until you’ve deliberately killed a plant.”‘
Stellar gardener, more famous than Monty, TV presenter, writer & columnist
‘What still happens repeatedly though I ought to know better by now, is finding bags, or even boxes of spring-flowering bulbs I’ve either forgotten I’d ordered or hadn’t got round to putting in the ground in Oct, Nov or at a pinch early Dec. It’s not unusual for me to be planting tulips in late January… and this year, some went in at the beginning of Feb! My father used to say this was due to ‘having eyes bigger than one’s stomach‘. Fortunately, most seem surprisingly forgiving and more often than not flower beautifully.’
Champion writer of all things green and delicious, His Royal Otterness of Otterfarm
‘While driving a tractor and topper, headphones on, signing Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Peach Tree’, I experienced a gorgeous perfumed fruity waft of air and, as I turned the tractor contemplating my lovely lot while still singing, I saw the origin of that delightful scent – a young peach tree I’d mown over and sent into a thousand small pieces across the field…’
Writer and generalissimo garden editor for CountryLife
‘Gardening for me is one giant blunder. I planted a Victoria plum from the lovely Mr Diacono but planted it in a frost pocket before I realised that it was a frost pocket. Consequently it has not produced a single plum in 9 years. Until last year when we had that wonderfully late spring and the flowers blossomed later than usual and were not frosted. We had pounds and pounds of delicious fruit.
Oh and I always plant things too close to one another and have to dig them up and move them further apart which upsets them and me. I did it with the roses and the main roots were so far down that I spent hours clearing the soil away so that I could get at the base and even then I had to saw through with a bread knife. That said I only lost one rose out of six that I moved.’
Author, writer, stupendous dry gardener and grower of all things edible
‘Cutting a window in my poly tunnel plastic for ventilation, which tore and continued to get ever bigger until the whole side nearly tore away and had to be patched up with masking tape. Letting my flock of pet sheep kill my newly planted apple trees as they ate the bark all the way round the trunk. Turned out rabbit guards were not a sufficient deterrent!’
Writer, broadcaster and Grande dame of Easton Walled Gardens
‘I think my biggest howler was to sow the wildflower terraces with an ordinary grass mix first and then having to spend the next few years putting plugs in and pulling the wrong grass out. Sigh. All is well now though and the wildflowers have claimed back the ground…. ‘
A bit of everything
Five minuter gardening genius, champion author & writer
‘Where do I start? There was the time I got someone to prune my apple and returned home to find he had gone at it with a chainsaw – I’m still dealing with the damage! I’ve made flower beds too wide, and too narrow; I’ve left tender plants out to die in bad weather; I’ve sown too early and too late; I’ve killed so many plants from lack of watering it makes me quite sick to think about it!; I’ve chopped things down or yanked things out or dug things up that I should have left alone; I’ve grown vegetables and never harvested them; I’ve grown flowers and never seen them bloom; I’ve basically messed up in any and every way possible and I’m still at it lol!!!’
Writer, Duracell-bunny gardener & keeper of Stockton Bury gardens
‘At Stockton Bury we have over 50 clematis that my uncles have planted over the years. For most we have forgotten the name and therefore it’s often tricky for me to work out which pruning group they are in. When I first started looking after the garden I cut back a fair few of these clematis too hard (to the ground!). My uncles were not impressed and nor where the visitors as these clematis then failed to offer their usual flurry of flowers. The good news is that in the following year they leapt back to life and offered a much superior show. Looks like being too heavy handed with the secateurs isn’t always such a bad thing! I now believe that you can rarely kill a plant with overly eager pruning.’
Geranium superfan with a smidge of tulip virus
Supreme gardener & owner of the nations favourite NGS garden (St Timothee, Berkshire)
‘Hard to think of because I mostly see blunders as chances to learn and do better the following year… Planted too many Geranium Rozanne too close together. They needed moving and dividing the following year. Not the biggest problem but meant I’d bought more than I needed and took me more time. I also always leave my tulips in the ground. It’s saved me oodles of time over the years but after several years some have succumbed to tulip virus, particularly after wet winters.’
Crackerjack gardener of all things potty, author of brand spanking new book
‘I remember once cutting through a telephone wire while pruning Climbing Lady Hillingdon at Whichford but that kind of thing must happen all the time. I also carefully weeded out all the herb robert in Jim’s garden, which he actually liked. Really, a lot of howlers such as leaving tender plants outside for the winter either teach you sharp lessons or lead to interesting discoveries – so a little ignorance can be bliss, especially when starting out as a professional gardener as in my early days at Whichford. The trick is not to let fear of making mistakes paralyse you. Anyway, now we all have google in our pockets it’s hard to make really awful mistakes.’
Crowned champion journalist, prolific writer of savvy books and gardener
‘Most of my gardening disasters are a result of getting distracted half way through a job. A particular embarrassment was when, having recently brought out a book on dahlias, I decided to water some rather thirsty pots using the submerge in a bucket and drain well method. So I popped a couple of pots of dahlias in a bucket to soak through. While I was waiting I wandered off to do something else…and by the time I remembered them a couple of days later they were gonners! But I’ve not done it again!’
Ah,.. that’s not a weed
Peter van Duuren
Father of the Oxonian Gardener, all round good egg
‘When you are asked to lend a helping hand, don’t presume that you know a weed from a plant and thereby proudly pull out a prized fern from the terrace steps that has been carefully coaxed to maturity by your daughter. I did not get any cake that day….’
Horses for courses
Quick witted twitterer, gardener and blogger
‘The most recent horror that springs to mind is when we moved here and had a lot of work done on the house and garden, the big thing for me was to lose the horrible sloping lawn [I hate lawns] forming our upper garden and turn it into stepped terraces and raised beds which was already partially done. A lot of the soil was heavy compacted clay so I asked the builder to dig it over in places with his mini digger to loosen it. When I next turned up to view the work the whole thing was flattened back into a compacted slope and the builder proudly said “Look it’s so flat you can put a lawn on it”! Which proves that old adage ‘Never get a builder to do a landscaper’s job!’‘
Magnanimous champion NGS gardener & Empress of Ulting Wick Garden in Essex
‘Here goes. Potting up what I thought was a Stipa Gigantia seedling for my plant stall years ago only to realise months later it was actually couch grass.’
Tall-ish gardener, writer & Oxonian Gardener
‘I have made several blunders, from stubbornly ignoring planting advice because I simply wanted that plant there; subsequently presuming I could keep it alive if only I just ‘kept it watered‘; not staking as expecting neighbouring plants to provide support; buying more plants than you have room for; not labelling seedlings because ‘of course I will know what that is come spring‘; pruning out that one prized branch you have been growing for years,… but the majority of flounders tend to centre on overexcitement and thereby misreading plant labels. Classic problem, one that I haven’t managed to shake since my school and university days. My inability to control nerves and overexcitement during exams, translated to my simply not reading the question, worse still, I assumed what was being asked. I’d bleat on for hours, sometimes beautifully even, but sadly about an irrelevant topic. I have the same problem with plant labels. Worse now, as over the years I have developed a good knowledge of plants, and thereby make excitable assumptions as to the plant and what it will do/look like… My first ever alliums, I bought as potted plants (obviously too late to plant the bulbs) and I was somewhat taken by surprise that they didn’t produce the wondrous purple, eye-level-height bobbing beauties that I was expecting. I had ignored the label and planted Allium karataviense, which is so short, it couldn’t even tickle your toes. Nor in fact, were they purple….’
I leave you with the wise words of the late Dame Olivia Newton-John, who said, ‘My biggest mistake was my best lesson… you don’t learn anything when everything is going perfectly‘.