Arthur Parkinson: Why I spent hours among the headstones at the local churchyard with my bucket and spade

'Quite potty perhaps,' admits the brilliant Arthur Parkinson, 'but well worth it.'

I’ve just been sent jolly jam and Jerusalem-worthy news about a potted herb garden created at Cambridge University. It’s an archipelago — as all pot gardens are — created by the cheerful bases of retired Henry and Hettie hoovers. Those iconic smiles and eyes now have scented fringes of awaiting harvests. Smiles aside, there is seriousness to any potted passions, particularly to the floral power they can give to bleak urban deserts.

Earlier in the summer, I gave a talk at the Derby Book Festival that took place in a wonderful young garden called Electric Daisy, which had been co-designed by the Eden Project. At first, I was a little worried at not having the usual slide show of garden photographs with me, but, once on stage, I realised I didn’t need them anyway: the audience was surrounded by many great pots of sapling trees under which herbs billowed.

These living stage props proved hugely useful as I spoke of conserving bees, the danger of avian flu-laced milk imports and awakening one’s senses each day by simply potting about. Electric Daisy, which was the brainchild of a local group Down to Earth, is on the site of a former supermarket. Today, it has a lovely absorbing surface of sandy hoggin, on top of which raised beds are flourishing between acid-pink converted-horsebox cocktail bars. (The cocktails are flavoured with the herbs.) It reminded me a little of the yards at the Emma Bridgewater pottery that I turned over to flowerbeds and chicken runs during my early twenties.

Today, I plant most of my containers with perennials. I want the garden to nurture me when I go into it, not to feel that I have to create a Chelsea Flower Show look every two months or so. When I think back, every pot in my garden was planned to be like a mini-Keukenhof bursting with a succession of ever-changing bulbs — the stupidity of plantings that merely provided a dreadful yellowing death. There is a point in May when everything has gone over and you have a garden that looks like a stressful mess of yellowing spaghetti. I simply don’t want to face that any more.

There’s a different mood in my flower yard now, one that involves small trees such as figs and grafted apples; roses that are happy in pots, such as the beautiful Rosa ‘Mutabilis’; and bird-encouraging, privacy-granting climbers, notably honeysuckle and clematis. These long-term performers provide that essential backbone to year-long floral ballets.

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A few large pots are reserved for annual paint boxes of colour given by cosmos and dahlias and there’s still some autumnal dobbing in of bulbs. The freesia fragrance given by Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ is irresistible, but these are scatter-gunned through pots rather than crammed in; they are then over-planted with the almost endlessly flowering Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, a butter-cup relative on glorious acid.

To ensure good growth within my pots, there are two new essential rules that I apply to their preparation. Wool is a wonder of help to a container, being easily moulded to any size. I find myself saving old woolly socks in the shed — if nesting mice don’t get to them first. The garden industry is starting to realise the virtues of the shearing-shed floor. Wool insulates metal containers from the summer heat and stops terra-cotta ones from soaking up all your watering efforts.

Mole hills are another natural asset. When it comes to planting up pots, soil cannot be overlooked. There is a huge amount of bad compost on the market of late, thanks to a rush of mixes going peat-free: they aren’t worth a penny.

The rich, loamy gold that moles bring up is exactly what you need to add to your compost mix. The moles haven’t visited my nearby churchyard as they did last year. The parish council probably called in a trapper to evict them. If my suspicions are correct, then this is a huge annoyance, because I spent many hours last year dressed in a tatty old coat down among the headstones with my bucket and spade. I crouched when sieving it through to remove any roots of perennial weeds or other possible foreign bodies. Quite potty perhaps, but well worth it and, you know, I could swear it was full of ready mixed-in blood, fish and bone, judging by the growth of my ‘Little Miss Figgy’ figs this spring.

Planting a Paradise: a year of pots and pollinators by Arthur Parkinson is out now (Kyle Books)