Sandy’s Garden ... To dig or not to dig

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When I was growing up, the best-selling daily newspaper in Scotland was the Scottish Daily Express.

The best-selling Sunday newspaper was, surprise, surprise, the Sunday Express. My very conventional parents bought both; and one of the regular features of the daily paper was Adam the Gardener, a pictorial feature in which the late middle-aged Adam showed how to cultivate the vegetable garden, to make the flower garden flourish, to enhance the rock garden, to pamper the lawn and to tend the fruit trees and bushes. There was nothing Adam was not good at, beavering away tirelessly in his presumably suburban spread, for his garden seemed to be large enough to accommodate flower beds, rockeries, vegetable plots, lawns and orchards. Adam was usually depicted by the artist in his shirt sleeves … rolled up above the elbow, of course … wearing a spotted neckerchief, a waistcoat and a soft hat, often holding a tool in his right hand and his trusty pipe in his left. Come to think of it, the Eden in which Adam worked … Adam and Eve were the first tenants of the Garden of Eden, remember? … may well not have been Adam’s own property at all, for Adam’s habitual attire suggests, on reflection, that he was a professional gardener, employed to cultivate the garden of an ambitious, upper middle-class family.

The never-aging Adam was introduced to the readers of the Daily Express during the days of the Second World War, when we were being exhorted to ‘dig for victory’, to be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, to surrender our iron fence railings to be turned into the weapons of war … ploughshares into swords, forsooth … and to turn our public parks into potato fields. So Adam dug and continued to dig for something of the order of thirty years. But a glance at the shelves of my horticultural library reveals that things may not be as they used to be. ‘The Complete Herbal’, ‘Pruning& Training’, ‘Container Gardening’, ‘Successful Shrubs’, ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ and ‘Garden Plants Made Easy’ are half-a-dozen titles chosen at random. No books about digging; and if I make a conscious choice and choose, ‘The Gardening Expert’ by Dr. D. G. Hessayon … one of the few gardening books to sell more than a million copies … I discover that a mere two of its 128 pages are devoted to digging, while the characteristics of different types of spades are assigned just 5% of the page area devoted to garden tools. And a recent article in my referred daily newspaper nowadays featured a very successful amateur vegetable grower who never digs his ground at all!

I myself gave up digging my garden years ago, preferring to have what its brought-in designer described as a ‘low-maintenance’ garden, although his definition of ‘low-maintenance’ and mine seem to be somewhat different. I was, I admit, influenced in my decision by the super-fit labourer who gave his opinion on my soil while mopping his brow on a February day as he paused from the task of digging the foundations for a small extension to my house. “I’m ******* gled I’m no’ gairdening in this,” he declared. “There’s mair ******* chuckies in this airth than there is in a quarry!” I knew how he felt!

But it is certainly possible that, although farmers still religiously plough their arable land, there is less need for the unfit, occasional gardener to risk permanent back injury than there used to be. When Adam was a boy … if ever he was such … the best way to fertilise soil was to dig well-rotted compost into it at a level which the intended plants’ roots would reach. The contemporary gardener has the inestimable advantage of having access to a variety of fertilisers that can be scattered on, and then raked or watered into, the soil. It may be that digging the garden really has become a matter of choice for the average gardener.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society