I am the first to admit I’m a pain to travel with – at least if you are not interested in plants. I can’t tell you the number of friends and colleagues who have been forced to detour to garden centres, supermarkets, even out-of-town hardware stores all over the world so I can learn all I can from how local people garden.
Writing this column while on a filming trip in North America, I am reminded of how many stateside garden practices are frequently recommended for growers in the UK, sometimes with great horticultural merit, but often, in our far cooler and milder summer climate, not so much. So here is my letter home on three seemingly ingenious American gardening ideas that are perhaps best left on the other side of the Atlantic.
We often hear about a Native American agricultural technique called “The three sisters” where corn, beans and squashes are planted together to form a symbiotic bond that benefits all three plants. There is something deeply fascinating about this multi-layered approach which, among other benefits, helps capture more effectively the energy from the intense summer sunshine in the US.
Sadly, however, the lower light levels caused by the almost perpetual blanket of cloud in Britain’s maritime climate mean that if you use this technique, the plants will simply shade each other out, causing them to perform worse together than if planted apart.
A similar thing can be said for the tomato cages that I see being used with increasing frequency here in Britain. This clever US way of training these sprawling plants ditches all the fussy pruning and tying to stakes and simply places the vines inside a cylinder of metal mesh to support and contain their growth.
It sounds like a great way to slash your workload and, indeed, in America it may well do that, but in soggy old Britain, this bushy, congested growth method will foster the humid conditions and poor airflow that trigger the dreaded tomato blight. This will decimate a crop in a matter of days over here, but it’s almost unknown across most of North America.
Finally, my ultimate bugbear: will seed catalogues and websites please stop selling soya bean seeds in Britain? They are forever claiming them to be a new variety that will thrive in our cool summers. Having tried at least five cultivars over the decades, each proclaiming to be the gamechanger that allows this heat-loving veg to grow a bumper harvest in our climate, I have yet to get a single bean in return for sowing dozens.
There is so much to learn from horticulture beyond our borders, but trust me when I say I have failed enough times at these three American gardening practices in Britain to tell you that you can learn from my mistakes.