As they say on so many occasions “don’t try this at home”. We know why. For it’s not just these litigious times, it’s also how easy it is for someone to suffer a calamity if they are totally unaware of what might just happen if they get it wrong. Now gardening has a veneer of natural or safe greenness yet it can be every bit as dangerous as doing almost anything else. Mowers, rotary cultivators and hedge trimmers relentlessly exact their revenge each year. However gardening has another set of unforeseen consequences, those fickle ways of nature. I’m sure you know and already avoid much of what I am to write on. But remember, not every one else does, believe me.
Very early on we learn that it’s hard to grow a good crop of clean straight carrots in a stony or heavy soil, and that brassicas and leeks conversely do poorly in light ones. We can improve our soil and make it more favourable to either but it is much harder when you wish to concentrate on a naturally unsuited crop. The old adage is to grow what does well next door. And also to grow what you know. When starting off it is easy to be too enthusiastic and to try too many new things all at the same time. The workload is not only much heavier it is also new and unknown. When you have grown the same crop several years running in a garden you know what wrinkles to do and when for success. Taking on too many new ventures means some will not receive appropriate treatment and fail to flourish. I strongly recommend the new gardener only grows a handful of crops the first season, and then tries adding a few more each year. (And older hands could conversely sometimes do with trying something new).
But whereas you can improve your soil and technique you can not change your climate. Most of us know how some crops are easier or harder as you move about the country. Swedes do not do so well in the drier south, and they are also oddly happier when grown as field not garden crops. Long season crops such as sweet potatoes, grapes and tomatoes are harder in the north more from the shorter frost free period than the probably slightly cooler summer. It’s also said berries (save strawberries) do better in the north and currants to the south. Certainly Tayberries find arid East Anglia too hot and dry and only thrive for me when on a shady north facing fence. Cherries are notoriously difficult in showery areas as the flowers rot and the fruits split and rot, as do grapes. Conversely gooseberries suffer more mildew in such places. Indeed a saying goes “God gave us gooseberries for where the grape won’t grow”.
But many fruits are also handicapped in the milder regions and this goes unrecognised. The cooler wetter western summers do make most fruits more prone to rot but it is the milder wetter autumns and winters that stop the plants doing well. First growth continues too long and becomes soft and weak in the mild autumns. Then most fruit trees and bushes require a minimum number of days of really cold weather to go fully dormant and then wake up in spring. Without this chill period they fade away.
On the other side it is hard to do well with unprotected foliage crops in the windy arid east, it’s not just the cold but the dryness of the air, it sucks the moisture from the leaves which are thus far less succulent if not actually burnt. Many confuse the blackened leaves on pear trees with disease when it is just windburn, likewise pepper fruits develop a sort of blackish shading.
An easily spotted and now less common mistake is planting too strong a fruit tree stock, few of us can use all the production from a fully dwarfed tree or cordon and planting full standards is only for those with ample space and a means of converting the surpluses, say cider or pigs.
Plums are notorious over-croppers and do you really want a larder over-flowing with prunes? Similarly why take on a Bramley’s Seedling, it always outgrows every other apple and although excellent is to be found almost everywhere for free and the asking. Cherries on a strong stock anywhere near foundations or paths are a folly as their surface running roots soon break into them or push them up. (And without a cage you’ll never get a ripe one!!!)
Peaches trained against a wall or along a fence are another folly, an apricot can be fairly simply fan trained but a peach, or nectarine really needs a form of renewal pruning, more complicated and much more work. To say little of the spraying versus the leaf curl.
One way of avoiding many of the fruit problems is container growing. This is remarkably successful in so many ways- but fatal (well for the fruit) if you are time trapped and cannot be sure you can methodically and regularly water at least twice a day, every day, throughout the growing season.
But another thing most kitchen gardeners will not really want to take on is an automatic watering system for the greenhouse. We have numbers of seedlings and plants, growing up, potting on and planting out, each crop with differing requirements, varying again with it’s stage of growth to say little of daily weather variation. All the setting up and adjusting of most automatic systems is more time consuming than manually watering. Of course they are a fine aid where you have many plants all exactly the same.
A classic mistake you really do not want to take on is that of making many beds divided up by wee grass paths. The amount of work keeping them mowed is nothing but the edging takes far too much work, and if left undone weeds and grass grow into the bed and many pests lurk in the overhang. A similar fault exists more often in the ornamental garden where beds are given convoluted or scalloped edges. These not only have all the drawbacks of too much edging anyway but can do your back in when mowing the grass along them. A particularly odd subset of this is the permaculture concept of keyhole beds. That’s right, keyhole shaped; to maximise the interactions between the inhabitants of the beds and their surrounding plants and wildlife. As much as I approve of many of permaculture ideals this one seems perverse; surely we are more often trying to reduce their impact not improve it?
Another radical point of view is the idea of combining livestock with the garden. Now I will grant that on larger holdings some livestock with movable secure runs can be combined effectively. However poultry does considerable damage if it can gain access and particularly to young succulent salads, vegetables and fruits! Ducks are slightly less damaging (but destroy the wildlife content of every pool they can get into) rabbits are risky and goats…. Come on, think about it, not only will a goat do much longer term damage to more plants than anything other than a firestorm but it will surely escape sooner or later and do so. It will, they always have done.
Surprisingly bees are another thing you might not want to take on. Now they have many plus points, the honey obviously, the wax also, the pollination, even their fertility (lots of dead bodies, thousands a week). Trendy too, and eco- friendly in all sorts of ways, But, they must be tended carefully and regularly if they are to succeed. And this is not terribly time consuming but is very time critical. Every nine days you need to evict queen cells or they will swarm, and this is best done on a warm sunny dry afternoon throughout spring and early summer. Just when you have every other job screaming for attention. Bees are thus better for the retired, the working from home and the gardener with not enough land to keep them busy.
Indeed taking on too many different areas also makes it harder. With bees, poultry, pigs, pets, greenhouse, veg. plot and orchard already to keep up with is there time to take on bread or cheese making, or even pickling and preserving the produce.
Similar is the mixed blessing of too much hardware and shedware- yes cloches, cold frames, sheds, stores, and your own repair shop all have their value and place but there is the maintenance issue. It is easy to create or take on too many repair and renewal tasks from cleaning the glass and emptying gutters to painting and re-felting.
Finally there are the potential gardens from hell- it does not mean these cannot be gardened in some way ornamentally but they are likely to be too difficult to manage productively. Frost pockets are an obvious difficulty for anyone wanting many types of fruit or the tenderer crops. Likewise who would want to grow food in an area prone to floods, but being near water has another unseen danger. High air humidity, especially if combined with dryish soil, makes many crops highly prone to rusts, rots and mildews. A windblown site can at least be given a windbreak, a dank place is very hard to alleviate. No-one wants a garden already full of bindweed, equisetum or Japanese Knotweed but huge trees and Leylandi (or similar hedges) also compete, create dry soil and can cast heavy shade, even from quite far away. These, and tall buildings and walls, can make a garden most difficult for most crops. Indeed as eccentric as it may seem a kitchen garden with a dual carriageway or car park on it’s sunny side is far preferable to one with a beautiful wood! To say nothing of the pigeons, badgers and squirrels……