At the beginning of this year I made several resolutions in a post titled 9 ways I’ll improve my gardening in 2018. At the top of my list was to be tidier in the garden, something that has always challenged me. Shortly before writing that post, I had read a famous book called ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ by Marie Kondo and subsequently enacted fierce decimation of my wardrobe, kitchen equipment and paperwork. Fired up by the refreshing results, I began to think about applying the same principles to the garden. I wanted every plant and every object in my garden to be a joy to behold.
I went outside and surveyed the patio. It was littered with pots of every kind, many of them containing dead or visibly suffering plants. The first target for my garden decluttering was obvious: the pots had to go.
First it was useful to re-establish in my mind the reason for a plant pot’s existence. From my point of view, a pot (by which I mean any container that holds plants) has one or more of the following three interrelated functions:
- Control of the root environment: plants that would otherwise do poorly in your native soil are best grown in pots. If you love camellias but live on the chalky South Downs, you’ll need pots of ericaceous compost. If you wish to grow alpines in sharp drainage, you’ll need troughs of clean, gritty soil.
- Flexibility: pots allow gardeners to move bulbs into view while they’re blooming and out of it again while the foliage dies down; or to move tender plants into the greenhouse for winter. Also in this category is the ability to grow plants where there is no soil, for example on balconies and terraces.
- Aesthetics: a large pot or urn can make a striking focal point, or a pleasing variation among the perennials in a herbaceous border.
But having considered the benefits of pots, we must look at the other side of the coin. The biggest disadvantage of pots must be obvious to any gardener struggling through drought this summer: the endless watering and feeding of potted plants. Unlike plants in the soil, a potted plant is entirely reliant on the nutrients and water that it receives from its attentive, or not so attentive, owner. I really dislike watering: it’s inconvenient and time-sucking. Hosepipes are never long enough, and inevitably you turn around to find that the stupid thing has trailed across one of your precious plants, squashing it flat. Lugging heavy watering cans about is an even more oppressive activity, and terrible for your back. And unless you have been clever enough to have set up a rainwater collection system (I haven’t) it’s hardly necessary to mention the overwhelming sense of guilt as you pour good drinking water onto your plants. Our household even taken to showering over a bucket to collect grey water for our garden, although there’s never quite enough of it to go round.
Besides, almost none of your plants prefer being in a pot to being in the ground, where they can get their roots right down to feed and hydrate for themselves. I admit that there are some plants that do prefer the dryness and root restriction of a pot — fig trees spring to mind — but the number of plants that enjoy being in a pot is infinitely smaller than the number that don’t. If you are like most ordinary members of the population (myself included) it is highly likely that you water your plants in an ineffective and wasteful manner, in the wrong quantities and at the wrong time of day, and either feed them too little or too much. Then at the height of summer when our potted plants need us most, what do we go and do? Head off to Europe for a fortnight’s holiday, leaving the poor things at the mercy of our neighbours, who are probably even less skilled at watering than we are. This is why the potted plants in the front gardens of so many ordinary houses look peely-wally and sad. Watering and feeding pots is really, really hard to get right, and that’s a very good reason to have as few of them as possible.
Then there’s the expense. Potting compost is not cheap, and neither are the pots themselves unless you buy cheap plastic ones, which look awful. This brings me neatly back to the function of aesthetics — ‘the right pot in the right place’. There is nothing worse than a row of meanly proportioned little pots that are labouring beyond their capabilities in an attempt to decorate an oversized space. Far better to have one large, well chosen pot than five insignificant ones: the cost ends up the same anyway, and a large pot looks more confident and intentional.
So my pots (or most of them at any rate) had to go. The collection had accumulated over the years with very little care or consideration on my part for what I was doing. I stood outside and assessed each one in turn. Was the pot performing one of the three functions of control, flexibility or aesthetics? Could the plant it contained be successfully transferred into one of the borders? Was the pot itself pleasing to behold?
In answering these questions I found that many of the pots outside our back door existed for no obvious purpose at all. Why was my poor Skimmia japonica languishing in a dry, terracotta prison? Why had I kept a woody, bedraggled Osteospermum in a borgeouis little half-barrel? What was this small octagonal pot of black mondo grass doing in pride of place on the terrace? I didn’t really like the octagonal pot, and had kept it only because other people had admired it. I also realised that I didn’t even like black mondo grass that much either, certainly not enough to have a whole pot of it.
I began to clear the pots. The skimmia, three box plants and a heuchera went into the ground, as did a very grateful pear tree. The woody osteospermum, an equally woody penstemon, and some very dead pelargoniums went into the compost. Several pots contained refugees from the redesigned front garden, including some drumstick primulas and Jacob’s ladder, and I worked hard to re-home them where they belonged. I confess I still haven’t emptied the octagonal pot of black mondo grass, and it continues to annoy me every time I see it. But with many of the pots emptied, cleaned and stowed away, the terrace became a less cluttered and altogether calmer place.
I wish I could conclude by saying that the garden eventually became pot-free. But unfortunately there were several sticking points. I was unwilling to release a beautiful but pot-bound Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ from its container as it had been a wedding gift from some dear friends and I want to take it with me if we move away. Some pots also crept back into existence when I wavered in my resolve to discard some excess annuals that I’d grown from seed. Into pots they went, and very nice they look too. And some pots I just haven’t got round to emptying yet because I haven’t found space for whatever’s in them. Finding garden space will involve another big decluttering session in applying Marie Kondo’s principles to the plants in my beds and borders — but that’s a subject for a future post.