Gardening is something that you are either born to do or grow into over time, for me gardening has always been an interest so I must fall within the former category. But what makes gardening so interesting? This is a question I have often asked myself and have been asked by countless others. In this post I hope to explain my reasoning for this from the privileged position of Head Gardener on one of Scotland’s finest estates, Teasses in Fife.
So, what does make gardening so interesting? To answer that I need to clarify what I mean by ‘gardening’. To me gardening is my chosen professional interest, my profession is Head Gardener, for which I have trained for years to undertake – and as any one of my peers would tell you – the training doesn’t stop as soon as you leave the institution; whether that might be university,college or an apprenticeship. In fact it might be argued that the real training begins on that first day when you unlock the potting shed door.
The traditional idea of a Head Gardener is one befitting Mr. McGregor in The Tales of Peter Rabbit and on bad days I probably succumbed to the imagery. A head gardener will usually become grumpy for one of two things – either the machines are misbehaving or something has stumbled onto the beds and left hefty foot marks everywhere.
There are plenty of other challenges every day which the modern Head Gardener has to face, so for me what makes gardening interesting is the variety of tasks undertaken. I suspect each estate gardener has their own peculiar lists of jobs, for example; cleaning the pond circulation pump of dead bugs and half rotten plant material, turning the compost bays to let air into them, gathering leaves from the woodlands, stacking logs for the fire, taking the bins to the end of the road, pruning roses and climbers that don’t get the message the first time. Of course, these are the more challenging jobs; what estate gardeners generally undertake are the jobs most ‘amateur’ gardeners would dream of doing weekly and on a typically larger scale. One of the gardening jobs I really enjoy is planting out thousands of bulbs in the autumn in anticipation of the spring. Once the bulbs are buried safely under ground only you and the team know where they are going to re-appear in the crips bright mornings of spring. It is a grand reveal over a number of weeks for the estate owners. Another job is planting out beds of summer flowering tender bulbs and annuals. Just as in autumn with the spring bulbs, planting out summer bulbs and annuals is also a great illusion for the estate owners. In late May the large decorative pots are emptied seemingly over night, and little vibrant green plants replace the tired stems and flower heads of tulips and narcissi. Give it a few weeks, a decent amount of feed and plenty of water and before you know it you have a cacophony of hybridised antipodean plants in bloom and buzzing with butterflies and bees.
Of course the two jobs I ‘ve just mentioned are planting jobs, but what gets us there in the first place?
Cold winter mornings, frost nipping at your fingertips, a drippy nose and the seed box. Sowing seeds in a warm potting shed is in my opinion a job only a born gardener can do. You need patience, imagination and bucket loads of optimism.
Firstly, sieve the seed compost to break any larger lumps down into a fine light growing medium. This is vital. Not only does sieving break up hard blocks of soil which little roots might struggle to penetrate but it also opens up the soil texture allowing the ready movement of water and importantly air into the compost. Choose a suitable – clean! – pot or tray, this entirely depends on the size of your seed, gently fill the desired receptacle all the way to the top, firm down the soil by tapping the pot or tray on the potting bench. This step helps to settle the soil, despite just taking care to add air to the compost you don’t want big spaces of air in the compost, just lots of little ones. Use a similarly sized pot to tamp down the top of the soil so that you have a nice even sowing surface. Here is the controversy. I was taught, when studying at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, to water the seed pots/trays before applying the seed. This way the seed sticks to the damp soil and doesn’t get washed away. However, I have seen others do the exact opposite and water after the seed has been sown.
Now, wipe the dirt from your finger tips and palm, carefully pour out the tiny hard grains which you know contain the beginnings of an entire plant. It is just as well you know this because you might doubt that such a tough little thing would do anything other than sit there in the soil and do almost nothing.
Time for sowing. You either know the seed well or you’ll read the packet – some seeds like a little soil sifted over the top of them, while others benefit from being left uncovered for the light. Sow the seeds so that they are evenly spread across the surface of the compost or place your larger seed firmly on or in it. Again, the shape of the seed will determine how to place it in the pot. Large flat seeds like pumpkin or squash require to be sown on their side, so that water doesn’t gather on the flat surface of the seed and rot it. Some seeds also require a little beating, smoking, actual fire or chilling. Again, you’ll need to read the packet. If you are at all bothered with slugs, snails, fungus gnats or moss then its a good idea to cover the surface of your soil with grit (but only if the seed does not require light to germinate).
Label must include plant name and variety and vitally the date you have sown it. If after a couple of weeks there is no sign of life in the lettuce tray for example, they are most likely not going to germinate.
Seed sowing and planting are jobs which any gardener will enjoy but others prefer the meticulous implementation of stripes on lawns, weeding, laying new pathways and tying in fruit. The list of interesting things to do in the garden renews every week. The Head Gardener of an estate also gets to enjoy these jobs but the role involves something a little deeper. The Head Gardener is firstly a gardener – that seems obvious, but you’d be surprised – and secondly is the manager of the garden, all the garden related activities, garden staff, garden machinery, garden tours and events. The role obviously is specific to the requirements of the particular garden he or she is managing. At Teasses for example my role involves designing new gardens and features, and I particularly enjoy that aspect of my job here. It gives me great pleasure discussing ideas and sharing concepts with the estate owners, drawing up plans and putting together plant lists, sourcing plants and scheduling the work. At Teasses I’m involved from pencil t0 spade, and that’s one aspect of any Head Gardener’s role. The list of tasks a Head Gardener undertakes is endless I’ve summarised it as; gardener, contract manager, project manager, budget controller, HR, public face, propagationist, public speaker, floral arranger, quality controller, garden designer and events coordinator. I’m sure there are countless other jobs too minute to add.
In light of this apparent ramble both you and I are at least partially able to explain what makes gardening so interesting, it will certainly be much simpler to point your inquisitor in the direction of this post than to try to convince them otherwise, especially if you happen to be up to your waist in nettles or double digging the vegetable bed at the time. Whether your garden is sixty extensive acres or a few pots on a balcony there is always something to be done. As this is the first of many posts I’m sure I’ll cover most aspects of the garden and no doubt some will be relevant to you; whether it is what’s looking good now, how to best plant up a decorative pot or even how to preserve what you’ve grown. I hope you’ll find the time to take a couple of minutes with a cup of coffee and enjoy from afar the work we are carry-out at Teasses.
Just remember though, when asked by a less than green-fingered friend ‘what makes gardening so interesting?’ You might say…variety.