Anna Pavord: A natural-born-hoarder’s guide to getting rid of all those plants that really must go

Harvesting plants is not for the faint of heart, but Anna Pavord shares her hard-won advice.

I have a drawer full of different socks in my bedroom. But why? This does not mean that their partners are suddenly going to dance over the washing machine for a joyful reunion. And behind the mahogany wardrobe doors is a cavalcade of 30-year-old fashions, including flared trousers from the first appearance. It’s very hard for me to get rid of things.

The same is true in the garden. I can justify Pisa’s plant pot towers in a shed. Plastic, yes, but recycled. Endlessly. From time to time some of them sail away to the festival planted with cymbidiums and Spuria irises, though not often enough to be of real importance. Luckily, these days the plants are more likely to be exchanged with friends, wrapped in newspaper rather than plastic. The towers may not shrink much, but at least they have stopped growing.

In one corner of the shed, a pile of hoes of various sizes leaned against the wall, a hoe, a pitchfork… all with heavy wooden handles. They belonged to my father’s uncle, a schoolmaster of a type that probably doesn’t exist today: tall, lonely, ascetic, highlander, amazingly well-read. He kept a beautiful orchard, a huge vegetable garden and grew magnificent auricles. In addition to his tools, I have his detailed garden diaries, which cover the period from his retirement in March 1945 to his death in June 1962. I don’t use his tools – they are too heavy for me – but knowing his diaries so well, how could I throw them away?

“Some pretty decent plants end up in the compost heap. Yes, this is a waste of time, but there are not enough hours in the day to eat all the leftovers of brunners or pulmonaria.

Sometimes there is a very clear message: “This must go”, but it most likely refers to things that the person had nothing to do with in the first place. This happened to me 20 years ago when we left the parish house and came to our current garden. A purple plum grew between the house and the view of the steep valley (Prunus cerasifera “Pissardi”). Ever since I started gardening, I’ve harbored an irrational hatred for purple-leaved plums. So even before the movers had finished unpacking their wagons, the nimble son-in-law found the tools I’d brought the day before and single-handedly dumped and cut the plum. Joy, undiluted joy.

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In the decades since that first day, it has become much harder for me to get rid of things. The new garden had plants that I didn’t grow in the old one, so they needed time to show me what they could do. Some like Clematis armandidid too much. My RHS Encyclopedia gave its spread as 6–10 feet, but this specimen has already covered 50 feet of the front of the house. For every day when the young foliage looked shiny and polished, there were at least 20 days when the leaves looked shabby and ugly.

I almost forgave him when, in the first spring, curtains of vanilla-scented flowers swayed over the windows. But, and this is a big but, this is a bully, and he completely flooded the wisteria, vine, honeysuckle and everything else that we inherited here on the long south front of the house. In the autumn we cut out its huge tentacles among other climbing plants and then dug up the root, the guilt largely alleviated by the knowledge that its companion plants would now have a much better chance of surviving.

We have also inherited some rather fearsome daffodils, double-flowered around this time of year, with orange bits hidden between bright yellow petals. I never got around to digging them out of the grass, but as soon as they bud out, I pluck them and, visually at least, they cease to exist.

Some perfectly decent plants end up in the compost heap. Yes, this is a waste of time, but there are not enough hours in the day to eat all the leftovers of brunners or pulmonaria. And we need a lot of compost in our garden, so the surplus plants are used, although in a different way. The best solution to the problem of getting rid of things came in the form of our two daughters. They both have large gardens to fill in and have become insane gardeners. Are hazel seedlings self-sowing? Gone. Holly seedling? Gone. Yellow Archangel (Lamia galeobdolon)? Gone – albeit with a health warning. And in return, I have grown beautiful kobes from seeds in my greenhouse. Ideal.

Gardener and writer Anna Pavrod about the joy of the new discovery of spring.

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