The function of a plant in your garden, unless you can eat it, is to be beautiful, not useful. Nobody talks about a useful string quartet.
If you instinctively agree with this sweeping statement, you are probably, like me, a plantsman or woman as opposed to a garden design person, because at the design level plants that are not in themselves beautiful can undoubtedly be useful; box plants in edgings for example. But all too often the phrase is used of plants that have the boringly useful habit of flowering for a long period, or of being usefully easy to grow, or, for a garden centre, of being usefully available in bulk from Holland and usefully looking good on the bench far to soon to be safely planted out. Think of those horrible bedding begonias and busy lizzies (Impatiens 'Desperation' I call them), that one sees on village garden open days, all too obviously screwed into the ground on the Friday before the crucial Saturday. In our own gardens we probably have plants that are useful only because they have successfully defied neglect for years or decades without actually dying. If we look at them honestly, we will see that they give little pleasure and occupy valuable space.
Away with such things! A few years ago Bob Brown gave an excellent talk to our group in which he urged us to take a critical look at our gardens to decide where to put new plants that we might try, had we the space. A cynic will say that that is what a nurseryman would say, but it is good advice all the same. We should be critical about our plant and gardens: not necessarily disapproving but carefully assessing. Gardening too often lacks such critical appraisal as is routinely applied to the other arts, and when it is attempted it is usually at the level of garden design rather than plantsmanship. In a rather unenlightening debate about the relative importance of plants and design, in 'The Garden' magazine a few years ago, all the pictures were of whole gardens, not plants or plant associations. Most of us do not have the opportunity to operate on this scale, which is all the more reason to look carefully at individual plants and their neighbours, to achieve on a small scale that harmony that some can evoke in a grand vista: to compose, if you like, a string quartet rather than a symphony. It will not be useful, but it could be beautiful.
First published in the Rutland Group Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: John Hudson
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.