Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Dona and I recently went to Great Dixter autumn plant fair to meet our friends Jean, Henry and John.
We arrive about half an hour after opening, hoping to catch the proverbial worm. Jean is already there. What’s more she’s been shopping and is weighed down with plants.
I remark that she must have started early, to which she replies that this is nothing, that she’s already filled the boot, that this is second helpings.
Jean catches my eye, registers my expression – which is part admiration, part empathy, part envy – and exclaims: ‘I know, Max, it’s an illness, it really is!’
And she’s right, it is. Jean is a plant addict. No two ways about it. And so am I. There, I’ve said it.
Dona's theory is that Jean's plant profligacy stems from the fact that she has no one reining her in. I have Dona to help me cool my boots. Henry has John. But Jean is a free agent and a rogue one at that.
And Dona has a point. Unlike Jean, my plant bingeing is tempered to some degree by what I can get away with. Not that this stops me: I can hoard plants with the best of them, and I do, it’s just that I've learned to do it on the sly.
I don’t know when I started gardening by stealth; it just kind of crept up on me. A sneaky little pelargonium here. A covert aeonium there. But one thing led to another and before I knew it what had begun as a harmless (and relatively affordable) habit had turned into full-blown plant dependence.
You know how it goes. You're tripping along quite happily then all of a sudden you find yourself nipping into a convenient nursery on the way back from work and buying a boot-full of nepetas for no fathomable reason. (I mean it’s not as if you’ve got anywhere to put the wretched things!)
When I say you, of course I mean me! Me tiptoeing along the side of the house and depositing my ill-gotten gains at the back gate. Then, after checking the coast is clear, me sneaking round and popping them in the cold frame, hoping that no one will notice.
No? Definitely just me then…
Of course, it doesn’t take long to be rumbled and I must develop a more sophisticated ruse. So, instead of leaving the offending items in the cold frame, I plant them. There and then. Get them in the ground. Preferably under the cover of darkness. And then, when Dona eventually notices a new aster or thalictrum or oak tree in the garden I just pretend it’s always been there. Simple. And I think you’ll agree, very creative.
And, of course, if this doesn’t wash and I find myself outed for the duplicitous fiend I am I simply say, ‘Jean gave it to me’ or ‘It self-seeded: it’s a particularly vigorous kind of oak!’
It’s shameful really and I know that honesty would be the best policy. And trust me: I’m working on it, really I am. But sometimes, aware that we ought to be spending our hard-earned money on some of life’s other little luxuries, like food or electricity for instance; that Dona might need a new winter coat more than I need yet another salvia cultivar, I begin to feel ever so slightly guilty about it. At which point I do what any self-respecting junkie would do: I resort to subterfuge.
I wonder if there might be a rehab programme out there for people like me and Jean. For a moment I think I’ve found the answer, but it turns out that horticultural therapy is something altogether different. Something far nobler in fact. I could go cold turkey, but I’m not sure I’ve got the constitution for it. Or isn’t there some form of aversion treatment? Like smoking 300 cigarettes in one sitting. Or watching everything on Netflix over one particularly grubby weekend to shake the habit.
Or perhaps, when all is said and done, I should say, To hell with it! and embrace my intemperance, learn to love myself for the weak-willed, easily swayed little magpie I am. Because, after all, where’s the harm in it really? It’s not like I’m an arms dealer or member of the Cabinet or anything sinister like that. And there’s all those pollinators that need attracting, and all that carbon to be sequestered, which isn’t going to happen all by itself...
In fact, you could argue I’m doing the world a service by dint of my compulsion. And so is Jean. And so are you – all of you inveterate plant addicts out there. And we should be commended for it. Rewarded even. We should be out and proud. Primed and ready. To grasp the nettle, to fill our boots, to take heed of our better angels and holler proudly from the rooftops: ‘I am a plantaholic!’