A few pounds bring years of pleasure

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Blackcurrants
Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Blackcurrants
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A GARDENING acquaintance who is also a keen galanthophile has been teased unmercifully of late in the wake of one snowdrop bulb selling at auction for £725.

It has also had several seasoned gardeners sucking their teeth in consideration of how the money could have been better spent on ‘normal plants.’ It is about value for money, and we gardeners do love a bargain.

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Gooseberries

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Gooseberries

But what makes us decide whether the plant being viewed at a garden centre is worth purchasing once the price label comes into focus? I suppose my judgement is based on several criteria but longevity, performance, propagation potential, and pleasure-from-ownership are high on the list.

Buying a fruit-producing plant tends to give this fellow the greatest pleasure because there is always the promise of a harvest and tasty treats if everything goes according to plan. Typical of this is the Victoria plum, grafted onto a dwarf Pixie root-stock, that was introduced to our garden 25 years ago for less than £10.

It is still vigorous and disease-free, but more importantly has produced a regular annual crop over that period which on occasions has reached branch-breaking proportions.

How much longer will it last? Well, there are plum trees in our area still bearing fruit 70 years after planting so this is a mere youngster. The cost has increased over 25 years so £30 is more realistic should you be interested in purchasing one now, but that still seems a bargain to me. Nor is this plant too demanding of your time. Apart from formative pruning in the first two years to define the tree shape, little else is required annually. If the need to reduce growth ever arises, this is best done in late spring when there is less risk of frost and pathogens of the dreaded silver-leaf disease gaining entry through cut wounds. Never prune your plum in winter time. The Victoria plum is self-fertile and so crops every year, this despite the floral display arriving with strong March winds which tend to leave pollinating insects grounded.

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Healthy grapes

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Healthy grapes

Apple trees are also a bargain in my book. For a £30 outlay you can buy years of cropping potential in the type of your choice (culinary or dessert) on the rootstock that best suits the size of your garden. As I explained to a garden club member last week, once you’ve located the variety of your dreams, look closer at the label to see which rootstock it is grafted onto. He wanted the tree to stay below six feet tall throughout its lifetime so the M27 was an obvious route to success.

A similar strong case can be made for purchasing pear, cherry and fig trees for outdoor cultivation. Then there are the so-called soft fruits – strawberry, raspberry, currants, et al – much less expensive to buy per plant, yet so worthwhile in terms of cropping and the potential for continuous propagation.

Strawberries are by far the quickest to offer a substantial crop from new plantings. Buy a few plants now and you could be sampling the first taste in three months or so while watching 2012 coverage of tennis at Wimbledon.

You may wait longer for a worthwhile edible result from raspberries, next summer if you plant main-crop canes now, but 2 kg of fruit for every metre run of plants is realistic if they’re in organic-rich soil. Beyond that lies the promise of strong young canes emerging every year to take on the fruit-carrying responsibility.

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Peregrine peach

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Peregrine peach

Those ever-popular soft fruits blackcurrant and gooseberry are quite capable of producing a 3kg to 4kg crop after three years. This tends to peak and start going downhill after a decade, but both plants are easily propagated by sticking stems from the current year’s growth into the autumn garden. The purchase of one bush can lead to a lifetime of fruit.

There was a time when growing blackberries in the garden was just too painful for words. But then came the development of thorn-less types, and now the breeding programme has moved on towards huge fruits. It seems that picking ‘brambles’ from the countryside has been replaced by the soft option of one vigorous garden plant providing enough for pies, jams and freezer. Look out for offers relating to these monsters in the press because they are cheap as chips to buy and root so easily when growing tips are pinned to the soil.

Two indoor fruits very dear to me were almost lost in December when high winds wrecked the old greenhouse. The vine Madeleine Angevin was raised from a cutting 25 years ago and is very productive each year. The grapes are ripened by early August.

The vine at Hampton Court Palace was planted in Lancelot Capability Brown’s time and still supports a massive annual crop. This speaks volumes in support of a modest outlay for the grape vine of your choice today.

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Victoria plums

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Victoria plums

The Peregrine peach is a mere three years old and resides in a huge pot. This made it easier to move indoors away from frost and that has been the saving of it. It is now a mass of glorious scented bloom, and well worth the initial outlay of £20 for that alone.

But there is more to come. Last year we limited the succulent fruits to 10 and each was of cricket-ball proportions. This time, because the plant has increased in growth we will go for 15.

Back to that snowdrop. When I met Joe, a gardening acquaintance, on the street last week, he wanted to discuss how much this wonder snowdrop had gone for under the hammer. So I asked him how he’d have spent that amount of money, and without hesitation he said ‘On a Merry-tiller, to save the old back and digging.’ Now there’s a thought. Imagine having a budget of £725 for garden sundries!

Do not be put off by the price of a seemingly expensive ornamental tree or shrub that you have always longed to have in your garden. It may not match a fruit tree in terms of digestive nourishment but how it can raise the spirits when they are lowest. If I were allowed only two ornamental trees in the garden they would be a betula and a prunus.

The ghostly presence of a white-barked betula (birch) (jacquemontii) would be such a miss were it to vanish from this garden overnight. It was a self-sown seedling gift from a super specimen down the lane some years ago, and although several named cultivars exist Jermyns for example, this specimen’s provenance makes it rather special. Peeling the flaky bark to reveal whiter layers below is so therapeutic. The catkin display is almost upon us, and when the leaves arrive there is always magical movement given the slightest breeze. Best of all perhaps is the constant bird presence. A group of long-tailed tits have dropped in occasionally to check it out in recent weeks.

The winter flowering prunus (cherry) is simply something else. Blooms appear on the bare stems almost immediately after leaf fall and continue well into spring. Mild periods in between frost always seem to stimulate a greater display, and we are in awe of such audacity in the middle of winter. This tree deserves every syllable of its botanical name, Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis. If you want the pink form look out for Autumnalis Rosea.

When I met Joe, a gardening acquaintance, on the street last week, he wanted to discuss how much this wonder snowdrop had gone for under the hammer. So I asked him how he’d have spent that amount of money, and without hesitation he said ‘On a Merry-tiller, to save the old back and digging.’ Now there`s a thought. Imagine having a budget of £725 for garden sundries!