Are the days of the Over Gardened garden nearly over?

We have never been able to afford more than day a week of garden help. So when someone referred to Great Dixter having four or five gardeners in a border I was caught and asked myself: does that inevitably improve a garden?

It may depend on what they are doing in that border.

Over planting?

Strangely Dixter is the only garden that I have had several writers write critically about on thinkingardens – along with great praise, of course. Usually along a similar sort of theme. One of my favourites is Robin White’s “I was wamblecropt with flowers”

“Wamblecropt means overcome with indigestion. Once upon a time, you might observe that your stomach was wambling a bit. If the wambles got so bad you couldn’t move, you were wamblecropt. It’s the most beautiful word in the English language to say aloud. Try it.”

Robin goes on:  “I desperately wanted space. I wanted stillness in the heart of chaos. But the pond, which could potentially provide that, was itself stuffed full of plants and the patio cluttered up with pots.”

Then I invited readers to write about ‘The Best Garden I visited this Year” and for two people that was Dixter. Valerie Lapthorne praised much, queried that plants in pots were maybe being added to borders to keep them going, mildly disliked corralling plants with low hurdles, and said ‘What I missed were view-points from one area to the next. Something that would tempt the visitor through to the next garden and avoid claustrophobia.’

Ruth Brompton-Charlesworth commented “It was then, that I realised, that even I wasn’t as full of complete adoration for the gardens as I had thoroughly expected to be….. I felt that I had overdosed a little on the vast cacophony of colours and contrasts.”

Dixter photograph copyright Robin White 2

Cacophony??? (I selected the pic – might not be quite what she was thinking of…)

Does having four or five gardeners in your border tend to lead to Over Gardening perhaps? Is Dixter growing and squishing in rather too much planting? I have not visited for over 30 years, so that is a genuine cogitate.

Do we want natural?

The growing and beneficial trend is for gardens to be as ‘natural’ as possible. Now that is clearly a problematic idea and worth a piece in its own right. (Try this) But I feel sure that many of the practices which continue to supposedly define our great gardens could be ditched with great improvement to aesthetics and the pleasure they offer both visitor and owner, while providing a more natural and relaxed look. 

Beds like this consume so much work, what with edging, mowing, pruning, weeding. Is it worth it?!

Staking is for vampires

What about staking? There are many gardens in the UK deformed by various kinds of restraints sticking up in their borders from spring, when stakes look bare and ugly, to summer when they strap plants up.

Edging and staking copyright Anne Wareham

Edging AND staking…

Curiously staking is partly the end product of the dreaded practice of composting – the business of carting off all the dying foliage to a compost heap, which gets turned and nurtured and heaved about while leaving the poor border it came from with bare soil, rain damage and a loss of habitat for vegetation loving creatures.

This is part of a preoccupation with feeding everything, as if the garden were a yowling baby, desperate for input every few hours. Manure is dragged in, chemicals poured on, much self congratulation of mega effort goes on. Where it would all be better left in peace. All this over feeding leads to big floppy overgrown plants that – yes – need staking. Better just cut and left?

I love the look of a border just cut down…

At Veddw we cut our borders down and leave the dying foliage in situ. It helps catch and contain the leaves which are also in their proper place on the beds waiting for the attentions of the worms. Bare soil is anathema to me and to most of the natural world.

Leaf mould

It’s a mystery what people generally do with leaf mould, but that’s an Over Gardening fixation. I hear of people who have plants which leaves might smother. I know naught of these, but isn’t it possible to scrape the leaves away, to surround and benefit the plants, rather than remove the wonderful organic matter. (I hope to learn from your comments here)

Mad bulb planting

Then there is mad bulb planting. Maybe there’s a machine I’m ignorant of, which plants bulbs with no-one having to bend down? Just looking at this makes my back ache…


One of my biggest conflicts with fellow gardeners (I’ve had a few) is with that horrible practice of ‘edging’. Surely a move towards more natural has to eliminate that horrid rigid line, dividing plant (usually sitting in bare soil) from grass as if they are deadly enemies. Plant something generous and floppy that will take an odd cut from a mower along the border edge (I use Alchemilla mollis and blue geraniums, for example) and let them live in peace.

Alchemilla and geranium border at Veddw Garden copyright Anne Wareham

When the alchemilla flowers go over we mow the lot off and within 10 days it’s looking good again.

Christopher Lloyd, of Great Dixter, spoke against this ugly practice many years ago. So no-one will be climbing out of the borders to do edging there….. But this – -??!





Charles Hawes ©Anne Wareham

Can’t resist a comment, can he?

Blame them Victorians? (very bad people…)

All these pernicious habits may be the result of Over Gardening in the Victorian era, when gardeners were cheap and had to be kept occupied. In winter that could be a challenge – so wash pots (and get your hands frozen and wet). Clean and oil your tools (necessary until stainless steel took over). Clean your greenhouse to keep it bug free. I’ve done none of these for over twenty years with nothing bad to show for it.

Stop digging!

And at long last digging is being recognised as damaging and a waste of effort – though I have nowhere left to dig now anyway: it’s all planted.

We’ve not had four or five gardeners in our borders, ever. I wonder if it would it have led me into bad ways if we had?  I would say that the result of under gardening tends towards a garden looking more natural, more relaxed, more friendly. And more affordable and easier to maintain. Great Dixter doesn’t need that. But most of the rest of us do.

I’ve been saying this for years and even wrote a book on the subject. (apologies for a little promotion..) And I’m happy to report that the gardening world appears to recently be catching up with me. It’s becoming the fashion. I think we may enjoy the result.

BUT – is it sometimes worth it??? Will this actually be the next big thing?

Horniman_colour_wheel_planting_RS July2018_HornimanMuseumandGardens

What do you think???