Recently published in the April newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society ( IGPS)
I met a fellow gardener recently and as we chatted she referred to someone who’d helped her out as her ‘ guardian angel. ‘I was immediately struck by the thought that I’m lucky enough to have one of those too. Then I thought to myself she really she should be known as my’ garden angel’ for throughout my life she has guided me, encouraged me, supported me and been generous to a fault with all the plants she has given me. When you’re starting out on your gardening journey it can be a little overwhelming. Too often people are put off by failures and they give up feeling inadequate and useless. I’ve met so many people who say “ oh I’m not really a gardener” though I’d love to learn more. This I think is a shame as with a little encouragement and guidance we can all be better gardeners. I think I’m somewhere in the middle now between beginner and expert and I’m eager to continue learning. For example I’m not great on remembering latin names but have recently been inspired to at least try.
For someone starting out on their gardening journey there’s a long and daunting list of things to be aware of. First you’ve to pick your site, plan your beds, get rid of weeds, improve the soil and pick your plants. Do you want trees, shrubs, perennials, a veg patch or the lot. Then there’s the soil type whether you’ve acid, alkaline or neutral ,do you have damp or dry conditions, is your site sheltered or exposed , is it shady or baking in full sun. The list is endless and if you’re hit with all this before you start you might just give up and concrete over the lot. All of this can be a bit intimidating for a new gardener who while enthusiastic might throw in the trowel ( if you pardon the pun ) without a little guidance. Nowadays we’re lucky to have all that information at our fingertips and we can google to our hearts content . I however remember the days when my greatest gift was a copy of the RHS encyclopedia of garden plants and flowers and its sister the RHS encyclopedia of gardening.
I would pore over these at night time and it was an enjoyable if rather laborious process as I’d much prefer to be out in the actual garden digging and planting. I often tell the story of being handed graph paper to plan my dream garden. Ideally I should have taken all the pointers I’ve mentioned into consideration carefully planning it all in advance. Instead the graph paper went into a drawer and I started random planting. Enter my “ garden angel” Margaret a dear friend of my mother’s and a gardener who has probably forgotten more than I’ll ever learn.
When we moved to our dream house complete with a large garden she would arrive with a veritable treasure trove of slips, divisions or plants grown from seed. To me it was a bewildering collection of sad dejected looking plants all with labels and a passionate description about its eventual size and all the information relevant to helping it settle in. She was hands on too and would roll up her sleeves and wander about with me looking for a suitable location in our absolute wilderness of 3 acres. She planted slips of snake bark maples about a foot high assuring me they would be magnificent in time, a tiny cutting of viburnum, a division of Solomon’s seal, huge dinner plate corms of Cyclamen hederifolium, small seedlings of Japanese wineberry, and countless perennials all from her garden .
She waded into our newly discovered natural pond and thrust a few divisions of water lilies into its muddy bottom, she arrived with flag iris and marsh marigolds to colonise a rather ugly ditch. Another visit and pheasant berry and dogwoods were planted on the bank behind my pond. Rose cuttings, some of which she had taken from my mother’s garden were extra special and one year she accompanied me to my Uncle’s home before it was sold to dig up a very precious red rose. On that particular occasion the rose’s root snapped in half leaving a very dejected looking specimen which made me want to burst into tears and stamp my foot. Undeterred by both my tantrum and the broken root she inspected it and airily declared “oh don’t worry it’ll still grow.” She then uttered what has become my mantra which I now quote to others “ just remember everything WANTS to live dear.” We lovingly planted that rose with all the right conditions and it has totally rewarded her belief in it and blooms with its heady scent and velvety red perfection every year.
Over the past 17 years we’ve planted hedges, trees, shrubs, put in paths, new borders, patios and a veg patch. I’ve learned as I’ve gardened encouraged by those earlier successes. I’ve talked to many other experienced gardeners, visited open gardens, joined gardening clubs, googled plants and how to videos and read as much as I can. Nothing however really compares to that earlier instruction, generously given and her belief in me as a novice gardener. My garden is now maturing nicely and I’m finally in a position to do what Margaret has done for me which is to divide plants, take cuttings and save seed and pass them on to encourage and nurture other budding gardeners. I’ve a few friends and neighbours in whom I recognize the gardening bug .I now in my turn am giving them some of my fairly sad looking pots assuring them that in 2 years you won’t recognize it if you do x,y and z .
I know the slips and cuttings don’t have the instant impact of buying a plant from a garden centre but I like to think that in the long run it will have the edge when it reminds people where they came from . An experienced gardener I met recently told me they had a similar mentor. To quote her “ a rather irascible man who decided I had to be educated and encouraged. “ I simply loved to hear that and hear about her gardening journey. We all learn about gardening in different ways but to have a mentor, someone who believes in you and encourages you and in my case watches with a keen interest and pride is a priceless gift. So take a budding gardener under your wing. Encourage them in any way you can and you’ll enjoy the giving as much as they will enjoy the receiving. So go on, encourage and inspire them and be someone’s “ Garden Angel .“