FEATURE: Sudbury horticulturalist sheds light on new book demystifying art of growing plants
You spot a stunning-looking plant in a garden centre, hand over your cash, find it a choice spot in your garden, lavish it with care ... and watch it slowly die.
A common story, especially since lockdown gave thousands more people the time to gaze at the patch of tatty grass behind their house and wonder “what if...?”
Gardening has surged in popularity since the pandemic, but for novices - and plenty of others who have muddled through for years - it can be fraught with difficulty and disappointment.
But Suffolk horticulturalist Catherine McMillan has come to the rescue with a book that demystifies the art of growing plants for those who are, well, green, at being green-fingered.
Gardening for the Uncommitted is a lighthearted read with a serious aim. It sieves out the complicated stuff and gets down to the basics.
Catherine says gardening is a huge topic, which is why “proper” books on the subject are so big. But she promises to tell you only what you really need to know.
Her target audience is beginners, and anyone with no wish to spend hours manicuring the lawn or finding ever more bizarre ways to keep slugs off hostas.
The book covers issues like choosing plants, why soil, even if you find it boring, really matters, and why scattering mixed wildflower seed can be a seriously bad idea.
She decided to write it a couple of years ago, because so many people told her she should.
“I was always very clear that it was going to be lighthearted,” said Catherine, who also did the cartoon illustrations herself. “I hope people have fun with it and enjoy it.”
She grew up in Sudbury and lives in the town with her partner Barry Spencer, who also works in horticulture. Her her dad John is president of Sudbury Chamber of Commerce. Brother James is a gardening contractor.
Mum Bridget was a school librarian in Bury, Great Cornard and Haverhill before retiring. She now works alongside her daughter at Bridge Farm Plants.
“My dad’s the only one of us not involved in gardening,” said Catherine, 39.
She never set out to work in horticulture. Her career grew out of a Saturday job at a local nursery while she was in sixth form at Sudbury Upper School.
Her mother suggested she should get a proper weekend job, and she found one just up the road at Chilton Quality Plants.
When she left school - with no real idea what she wanted to do - they offered to take her on and she thought “why not?”
“I’ve always been outdoorsy. They specialised in climbers so a lot of time was spent tying plants to sticks. I also learned to drive a tractor before I could drive a car.
“When I started I didn’t have a clue - I didn’t even know what a pansy was. My mum, who’s quite a keen gardener, used to despair.
“I liked the idea of gardening but I was scared of worms so that didn’t help. I’ve pretty much got over it now, but I still can’t pick one up with my bare hands.”
She thinks the lighthearted tone of the book could stem from early experience working on a market stall.
“It was a wholesale nursery, but later on they got a stall. That started me learning more about plants because customers asked things like how tall will this grow, or will it survive the winter.
“On the market people expect banter and they would start joking with me - that’s probably why I’m more jokey around plants.
“I do think in horticulture people can sometimes be a bit precious.”
The nursery was also where she met Barry - who is always known as Spence.
Chilton Quality Plants closed down in 2009, and Catherine went to work for Susie Davis, owner of Katie’s Garden nursery near Ipswich and Bridge Farm Plants at Monks Eleigh.
Her job involves growing and tending plants, dealing with customers, and designing and planting up gardens for clients.
“I had to really look around because there aren’t a huge number of growing nurseries in this area, and a lot are just family businesses,” she said.
“I didn’t want to be in a garden centre. I like to get dirt under my fingernails. We just do plants, not nick-nacks, weed spray or even tools.”
She has seen first hand how interest in gardening has mushroomed this year.
“We were mobbed at Katie’s Garden when we reopened to the public and had to quickly set up appointment system,” she said.
“We’ve always been very conscious that we’ve been in a privileged position recently as one of the few businesses which have done OK.
“Our boss has family in Italy so she was very clued up about coronavirus early on and said “it’s coming. We switched to home delivery almost immediately, whereas a lot of garden centres got stuck with a lot of plants.”
Sometimes she wishes that TV gardening shows would not make everything sound so easy.
“Alan Titchmarsh has been a bit of a bane of my professional life. People say ‘we don’t know about gardening, but we watched him last night and he did this brilliant thing ...
“We’re going to have banana trees, lemon trees. I ask them do you realise how hard that is?’” As she says in her book, there is a reason your Suffolk farm shop does not sell locally-grown lemons.
“New gardeners always go for the most unusual plant, but there’s probably a reason why it’s unusual ... because it’s difficult to grow.”
Letting someone else do the hard work is a good plan for beginners, she advises. She does not recommend growing your own seedlings ... unless you really want something to occupy your time. Pricking out seedlings is her least favourite job.
Catherine says many people are first drawn to the garden by the desire to grow fruit and vegetables - but the pitfalls are many and she suggests starting out with flowers.
“They think growing their own is going to put them at one with nature. Actually it can put you at war with nature. You spend all your time banging on the window scaring off pigeons.
“It’s best to try to grow things that are not going to be eaten immediately by something else.
“We planted a cherry tree in our last garden, and never had a single cherry from it because the birds always got there first.”
She winces to recall how the buds on a long-nurtured lily were replaced overnight at the top of the stem by a fat, self-satisfied snail.
So she well understands how marauding wildlife of all shapes and sizes can provoke a furious reaction, but does not want to sound too negative.
“One of the privileges of gardening, particularly doing it professionally, is getting to spend time with the creatures that live in our little corner of the world,” she says.
“At the moment we have wagtails nesting on the ferns table, a frog living in the perennials, grasshoppers bouncing about the polytunnel, and bees, butterflies and dragonflies flitting about the place.”
She enjoys helping customers make the right selections. “We’re growing the plants and I’d rather lose a sale than send it to certain death,” she says.
“Often at this time of year people say, we’re going on holiday for three weeks tomorrow and thought we’d just get these plants in before we go. Please, no ... come back later.”
Like many couples, she and Spence disagree about gardening style. “I like a wilder look with plants spilling over the edges of the borders. Spence likes straight edges,” says Catherine, who also volunteers for Sudbury in Bloom.
They currently live in a flat with no garden - but she still gets the pleasure of choosing plants for customers who want a themed garden or an order up to a certain value.
Her book is available on Amazon, at Katie’s Garden and Bridge Farm Plants. See more online at www.uncommittedgardener.co.uk.