18 AUGUST 1990, Page 47


Beastly beatitude

Ursula Buchan

It is quite common for people to turn to me at parties and say: 'Of course, I'm never happier than when I'm gardening, and I think gardeners are such nice people, don't you agree?' Because I am a gardener and therefore, by this analysis, a nice person, I do not reply, as I should like to, that niceness does not make them good gardeners; in fact it is a positive disadvan- tage.

The underlying assumptions, I suppose, are that gardening, being one of the arts, both necessarily has a beneficial effect on those who do it and attracts a certain, rather wonderful, sort of person. Rudyard Kipling did nothing to nail the first lie when he wrote, 'The Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one'. As for the second, I can think of at least one appalling stinker who was absolutely devoted to the works of Wagner.

In fact, in my experience, the beastliest people find gardening comes very easily to them. It is just the job for bullies, sadists and anyone keen to impose their view on the natural world. Stamping on slugs, trapping mice, smoking out moles, spraying aphids, unnerving birds with cot- ton strung above the polyanthus, throwing unwanted but perfectly healthy plants on the compost heap, grubbing up plants which are in the wrong place: these are the tasks from which the good gardener cannot shrink.

I should not wish to go so far as to say that gardening has an actively brutalising effect on those who practise it (like game- shooting, you think it ought to but some- how it does not), simply that the more mean-spirited or, certainly, hard-hearted you are, the better you can do the job. Those of us who are uterly wets and cissies, the fotherington-tomases of the horticultu- ral world, never do as well as we might because we are simply not ruthless enough.

Take one example of many from my own depressing history. I have an unusual hoheria planted against a sheltered west wall. I put it in eight years ago to provide some 'colour' in August. (My garden is not as large as I should like, and this is a prime site, with several choice shrubs vying for a place here.) I went outside today to look at it, in the confident expectation that, as usual, it would be a dull green lump, only to discover that it had begun to flower. Two exceedingly and exceptionally mild winters and hot summers have finally shamed it into action. For an instant I congratulated myself on my restraint, which was in fact simply an ignoble mix of cowardice, idleness and parsimony (the 'I've spent good money' syndrome). Then, having taken a more considered look, I realised that the flowers were really not so spectacular as I had been led to believe: small, off-white, scentless, sparsely borne. (I bought it on the recommendation of a gardening writer, something one should always be wary of doing.) Now I have not even the excuse that I am waiting for it to flower. But I bet it will still be here next year.

What brings out the truly soppy in me is the unwanted rooted cutting. We are taught, rightly, to take more cuttings than we will need, in case there are failures. So I am nearly always left with too many and I grow them on because I cannot bring myself to throw them away. I cannot bring myself to look after them properly either, so, unless some kind friend comes round the garden, they have to wait for the garden fête, by which time they are too etiolated and starved to be acceptable.

All this is a common failing of garden owners. I wish I had an ecu for everyone who said to me: 'It [whatever it is ought to go but I have not the heart to throw it out'. The trouble is that they have got too much heart and not enough head, and the results 'are shambolic borders and overgrown, overmature plants. I know people who will only prune roses if they absolutely have to, and then never as hard as is needed. What is more, they expect the rest of us to cheer such sensitivity.

So don't listen to all this tosh about niceness; it will get you nowhere. If you are not blessed with it already, learn to culti- vate a little heartlessness: your friends may give you the cold shoulder but you will have a much better garden. And I will be glad to talk to you at parties.

'It's bad news, Mr Murday — Fido has run off with my receptionist.'