Break the rules and you’ll be a happier grower

There’s a wonderful T-shirt I keep seeing online. In a bold font it proudly announces: “Introverted but willing to discuss plants.” Judging by the number of anxious gardening questions I get, I feel like I am already wearing one. However what surprises me about the majority of these questions is that they are from people who – whether they know it or not – are worrying not so much about their gardens, but what other people think.

Perhaps the most common question is: “Is this a weed or a flower?” This happens so often, I have a stock answer which always elicits a confused reaction: “Do you like it? If so, it’s not a weed.” It seems many gardeners, particularly those who are starting out, have an in-built fear of the hobby, especially when it comes the “rules” of horticulture. The reality is, though, that many of these rules have nothing to do with the actual health of plants or the success of your plot, but are merely quirky, cultural beliefs that largely date back to the Victorian era. The only difference between a “weed” and a “wildflower” is your cultural perception. When my Malaysian relatives come to the UK they can’t get over the fact that Mimosa pudica is sold as an exotic houseplant here when, back home, it is a roadside weed. They also marvel at the curious beauty of thistles and ask where they can buy the seed.Take a daisy out of a lawn and breed it for more petals and larger blooms and it suddenly becomes rebranded in our minds as a brilliant bedding plant, despite them being much harder to grow (and in my opinion) far less magical than a spontaneous dusting on a lawn.

There’s a lot of, “How do I get my tree to grow straight?” too, followed by pictures of the most wonderful, character-filled, wind-swept specimens that it would have taken a bonsai master years of pruning and wiring to create. If you wanted to buy a tree like that for a Chelsea show garden, you frankly couldn’t. So enjoy the marvel that nature has created for you. This perceived need to conform to regimented forms and rows is right up there with the entrenched idea that everything in the past was better than it is now. For example, “Where can I find ‘heritage’ peas?” is automatically followed by a look of disbelief when I explain that heritage peas are wonderful dried for making pottage, but a really poor choice for our modern love of eating them fresh, sweet and green. There’s also quite a bit of concern about the exact angle and position to prune roses, despite evidence showing that simply abandoning the old-school rules and snipping new growth back by half each autumn gives you the same (if not better) results. There seems to be a terror that some member of the old guard will be standing over your shoulder waiting to judge you as soon as you step outside. But things simply don’t have to be this way.

The ironic thing is that Victorians were fascinating gardeners, who came up with all sorts of horticultural wonders precisely because they were incredibly experimental. However, it’s unlikely you live life as a Victorian when it comes to food, work, travel, family or love, so why should you feel constrained by rigid rules that are outdated or no longer relevant in gardening? Not conforming to dogma means you are free to experiment and come up with exciting new ideas. Sometimes these experiments won’t be successful, but that’s how we learn. Not worrying about getting it “right” will likely make you a lot better at gardening – and you’ll have more fun doing it, too.