A Gardener’s Diary

Some time ago I visited the garden of an old and dear friend and I only wished then that everyone could see it. I walked down a magnificent avenue of Mussaenda containing almost every kind I’d ever seen. I strolled along borders of foliage plants, examined what was then a very fine orchid collection, and a not too shabby collection of hibiscus, and listened to my friend’s plans for taking over the world (horticulturally, that is). Enthusiasm for plants and for developing his garden were quite unaffected by the troubles and perils of living not too far from the city of Georgetown which affected his business. I remember coming came away refreshed in a more than a liquid sense, and wishing that our politicians could indulge themselves by growing plants instead of hurling abuse at each other and thinking how tranquil it could all get. Perhaps!

Finally a word to the unwary about the need to conserve the water you put onto your plants. In this weather plants will use many gallons of water every day. The problem is more acute on bare ground than on ground covered with grass, and also more with large-leaved plants than with those having small leaves or no leaves at all (cacti). Make sure then that when you plant into bare ground you take the trouble to water in the evening so that the water does not evaporate too quickly, and that you also make efforts to put a heavy mulch of grass cuttings or leaf rakings round the plants until they are established and their roots have started growing down in search of water. It might be a good idea to ‘sink’ an empty plastic pot by the side of the plants and pour your water into that. You must not leave your plants to fend for themselves. They need all the help you can give them.

Now many of you will have heard of Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louise XVI of France. There is an apochryphal story that she said of the starving peasants, “If you’ve no bread let them eat cake.” Lost her head in the end. Anyway, she had a favourite tree in the Palace of Versailles under which she often sat to do things that Queens do. It was an oak tree. A venerable old tree some 321years of age even then, but I made a note in my journal a few years ago that it had dropped its last leaves and was pronounced dead by the Office of National Forests. It had survived the French Revolution, several large-scale wars, and the great storms in 1999 which destroyed 10,000 trees in the park of Versailles, and which sadly laid the groundwork for its death a few years ago. Its canopy under which Marie Antoinette had spent so many pleasant hours had become much reduced, and the spread of the head at the end of its life was so great, the post mortem concluded that so many trees around it had been destroyed that the old oak had become totally exposed and dried out in this summer’s fierce heat (40C) in spite of the water given to it. It’s a sad sort of ending to an old tree don’t you think? The good news is that the gardeners at Versailles have germinated seedlings from some of its acorns. And in true romantic Gallic fashion I expect that in time one of the tree’s offspring will be planted. In the same place. It’s a great shame that the old tree died. It’s also a shame that they cut the Queen’s head off. Nowadays they would probably just make her bake bread!

The really important thing about this story is that the tree died because the roots were suddenly exposed after the canopy was reduced so much. I hinted a few weeks ago that the destruction of roots due to excessive heat was a problem even when growing normally heat resistant plants like cacti. In the Arizona desert region of the USA cactus plants are baked unmercifully and receive only a few inches of rain every year or two. They survive this by producing amazing root systems spreading over dozens of square yards (or metres). They do this is order to be able to get every drop of rain that falls and store it in their tissue. That is how they survive. When they are grown in a plant pot they are unable to spread their roots out to get water as they do naturally because they come up against a man-made wall of clay or plastic. Think about it, and may your God go with you.

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