When times get tough, the tough get gardening.

I heard a throwaway comment on National Radio last week that when economic times get tough, people turn to drinking, gardening and for the life of me I can no longer recall what the third activity was. I stopped listening after gardening. It is certainly true that when life was tough in the late eighties, gardening boomed. Cottage gardening, to be precise. Back in those days there was a sharp differential between prices charged for easy to grow perennials and much more difficult and slow to produce woody trees and shrubs. So perennials were perceived as cheap and good value. These days any differential has all but disappeared and you pay the same for a good perennial, most of which are just divided up and grown for a season, as you pay for many woody plants which can take considerable skill to propagate and which then have to be grown for two to four years before sale. Cottage gardening fell from popularity too, as people discovered that it is not an easy care style which looks after itself, but is in fact a great deal more labour intensive than using permanent trees and shrubs.

But I digress. We are certainly seeing a return to gardening on a scale few foresaw, although at this stage it is all about vegetables and fruit. Every man, woman, their dog and their child has a patch of potatoes and a few beans in. It is great to see and the advantage of growing vegetables is the quick turnaround with positive reinforcement. It is most satisfying to walk straight through the fruit and veg department of the supermarket without stopping because you have all you need of these at home.

However, while vegetables and fruit feed the body, I doubt that there are many gardeners who find that they feed the soul and please the aesthetic sense. And should I whisper that while I love the fresh produce that Mark obligingly provides every day, I am getting just a teensy bit bored with only reading about growing vegetables and what to do with surplus in all the gardening media. I know it is all the rage, but I have yet to see a veg garden which makes my eyes light up or which holds me in awe at its charm or beauty. I am hoping that all those people who trek into the garden centre to buy little brassica plants or carrot seed are going to cast their eyes a little wider and to consider that a garden does not have to be totally productive and utilitarian. There is a place for both and I don’t mean potagers or edging in buxus hedging (which, by the way, harbours snails and sucks the goodness from the soil with its competing strong root system). I am hoping that a whole new tribe of garden converts will come to realise that the ornamental garden (possibly interspersed with some curly leafed lettuces and parsley) can give all year round form, interest and colour for little purpose other than to bring you pleasure.

As I look out my window, I see the delightful flowers on Cyclamen hederafolium. Cabbages and carrots are not going to make me smile and look again because of their sheer fresh prettiness. While we are a little shocked here at how quickly summer beat a retreat this year, at least the change in weather gives the message to a different range of plants that now is the time to leap into flower. The earliest nerines are already flowering, moraea polystycha (lovely blue flowered form of the peacock iris) has started its long flowering season and the mats of ornamental oxalis are starting to feature.
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Mark is beginning to worry about his rock melon crop. Finally he achieved what he expected to be gardening nirvana – a large, fully producing rock melon patch where he managed the timing just right. He planted several different varieties. The earliest one set an abundance of fruit but we have juiced most of them because they do not reach the sweet and tropical sensation of a really good rock melon. The heirloom variety has all but succumbed to mildew which is a disappointment and gives lie to the theory that heirloom varieties are all healthier and more robust because the neighbouring modern hybrids have remained perfectly healthy. The later fruiting varieties (in other words, they need a longer growing season to reach maturity) have set an abundance of fruit. Our mouths were watering. Now we fear that early onset autumn may prevent them reaching perfect ripeness. Mark is threatening that his planned new veg garden may end up being a collection of covered houses – one for rock melons, another for tomatoes, a pineapple house, banana house and goodness knows what else. Come back, Sun, and warm and ripen the rock melons.
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If you want to see more of the Christchurch Ellerslie Flower Show (and Mark Sainsbury’s coverage on Close Up was extremely limited), you can catch it on TV1 tomorrow morning at 9.30am. While the little we have seen so far suggests that the supreme award may be a case of the emperor’s new clothes, Christchurch has introduced new energies to this event and it deserves to be a huge success. Early indications are that the trend in gardens is not only sustainability and productivity but also a return to the value of recreating something that is more natural than the contrived formality that has dominated in recent times. Don’t worry if you like your formal garden. These fashions seem to go in cycles of about five years duration. Remember when all we ever saw were outdoor spaces dominated by rocks, scleranthus and sanseveria or a yucca? What goes around comes around but at the moment, naturalism seems to be new flavour of our time. Not to be confused with naturism. I don’t think society is quite ready for that at Ellerslie yet.