Friday, 26 May 2017

Book review: The Deckchair Gardener

The Deckchair Gardener: an improper gardening manual, Anne Wareham.

As someone who is now trying to garden with a chronic illness (ME), I'm always on the lookout for ideas on how I might reduced what I need to do in the garden, so I can just focus my very limited energy on what I enjoy. So when I heard about Anne Wareham's new book, The Deckchair Gardener, which says that it is for:
gardening avoidance and sensible advice on your realistic chances of getting away with it
I thought it sounded like might have some useful pointers. And it does.

The introduction describes how to become a deckchair gardener, including the difficult but necessary need to unlearn the 'rules' of gardening. The rest of the book is then split up into the four seasons, 'what not to do in Spring', etc, giving examples of so-called gardening advice and truisms and then challenging them.

Anne questions the many 'gardening jobs' we are told to do, whether in garden magazines or on gardening programmes such as Gardeners World. This is a really good point. Do we really need to do all these tasks? Cleaning out pots*, aerating the lawn, deadheading daffodils, hardening plants off, raking dead leaves off the lawn, the list goes on. Oh, a special mention for the 'expert' suggestion that you should dig up your parsnips and leeks in winter, only to just to move them to a trench in another bed by a convenient path. What?! One, no. Two, plan your veg garden so that all the paths are convenient. Three, no.

Anne advocates that lazy is good. And there is a lot of smarts about being 'lazy' and cutting out unnecessary work. For instance, deadheading daffodils. Anne points out that none of the daffodil flowers in the countryside are ever deadheaded, yet they continue to flower profusely year after year. I'd not thought of it that way before, and this is well observed. It was a struggle to not deadhead my daffodils this year, as I'm so used to doing it. So I compromised and only deadheaded those in pots, not those in the ground. I hope to graduate to no deadheading of all daffodils next year.

Hardening plants off is another good example of Anne's challenges. I've never done this because I couldn't be bothered, even in my pre-ME days. But I also felt guilty about not doing it because the experts were always telling us we should. Yes, guilty even though I never had any problems with plants that went straight from the greenhouse to the soil! That's the power of experts. Anne reminds us that the weather isn't predictable, it doesn't just slowly get warm, rather is warm, cool, frosty, warm etc, and that therefore constantly moving plants outside and then back inside is a lot of work. Instead, don't grow tender plants and if you do, just have some fleece on standby for a frosty night. Much less work. No more guilt.

What made me laugh frequently when reading the book, was Anne's ongoing fervour for mulching. Basically, if in doubt, mulch. Generally with woodchip, but gravel also works. Yes, our favourite garden enemy might like to 'hide' woodchips, but I know from experience that slugs will 'hide' anywhere. Including up the walls on onto my trays of young plants, munching them down to a tiny remaining stalk. You won't stop them by not mulching. The benefits of mulching outweigh any concerns though. Because mulching reduces weeds and watering, two time and energy consuming tasks. Anne is right, mulching makes sense and is the deckchair-loving way to go.

As well as challenging conventional 'wisdom', Anne offers a couple of suggestions for specialist gardens that I think could be really useful for those who would like to garden, but are limited by an illness or disability. One was a grasses garden, limiting yourself to one variety of grass, along with adding bulbs for Spring interest, which is when grasses have been cut back and waiting to regrow. But the one I really liked was the gravel garden.

Now, anyone following my blog will know that in my previous garden, for the kitchen garden I had put in raised beds, laid down membrane and added shale to the paths, so I didn't have to do any path weed maintenance (it worked). So why was it a gravel garden that particularly caught my attention, given that's pretty much what I had been doing? Because I only thought of it in relation to paths, not in relation to a garden as a whole.

I seem to always end up with gardens that have heavy clay. The standard view is to dig and add in good compost etc. Do some more digging, add more and more compost. Repeat for 20 years. Anne spoke to Derry Watkins of Special Plants who has a gravel garden. Plants are added straight from their pots, with all the compost attached, into about 20cms deep of gravel. That's it. Now that is low energy practical lazy gardening if you ask me. If someone running a successful nursery can do it, we all can.

Anne advocates 'no dig' gardening, as does Charles Dowding who has been experimenting with dig vs no dig for several years. I've been a fan of no dig for years. Just thinking about digging is exhausting. No dig gravel gardening, it's the way to go.

This is just a few of the many examples of what not to do in the garden so you can instead enjoy your deckchair. Or how to do the least and get away with it. One of the most important points Anne makes is to 'be skeptical', including of what she says. Question everything you read or are told you are supposed to do. Is it just creating more work? From the perspective of someone with a limited energy for her garden, this has been a really useful reminder.

There are some areas where we part company. I would never use glyphosate or any weedkiller in the garden. It poisons the soil, gets into the ecosystem, rivers etc. I'd stick to Anne's mulch idea, only first put down good quality mypex (permeable membrane), mulch with something heavy like shale or gravel, then cut holes to plant through it. This is a case where a bit more work is warranted, and gravel/shale fits into Anne's gravel garden idea, so it's not far off being lazy!

This aside, I loved this book. I started reading this book about six weeks ago. It's an easy read, but because I wanted to write a review, it took me more time and energy (coz ME) to do so. What I have noticed is that since I started reading it, I've found myself questioning many gardening tasks. Quite a number have been removed from my to do list. I gained a lot from this book, but my number one take-away from the book, 'do I have to?' has become my mantra. I'm now much more bolshie about not bothering with all these so-called essential tasks. I think that's a pretty good indication on how useful I found this book.

At the beginning of the book Anne says that it isn't for 'proper gardeners'. I disagree. I think proper gardeners could learn a thing or two from Anne's wisdom. I'd add that this is a really useful book for those who would like to garden, but who have limitations such as a chronic illness. It helps you focus on what is essential, so you use your limited energy wisely.

Anne's book gives you 'permission' to be a lazy gardener. I say huzzah! Bring out the deckchairs.

*I had already been freed from this task after reading Charles Dowding's Gardening Myths and Misconceptions.

Disclaimer: I 'know' Anne via Twitter, but purchased this book myself as it appeared to cover a topic I was interested in.