Alan Titchmarsh: Forget what the neighbours might think — it’s time to end gardening’s strangest taboo

We love to see flowers, to smell fresh blooms and to listen to the wind in the trees — but far too many of us shy away from touching the flowers we grow. It's time to end that, says Alan Titchmarsh.

Perhaps it’s because, since we were children, we’ve been told ‘Don’t touch’ that tactility is the least used of our senses in the garden.

We admire the view of beds and borders, sweeping lawns, towering cedars and individual blooms. We listen to the susurration of the trees when their foliage is disturbed by a passing breeze. We inhale the perfume of roses and sweet peas and turn up our noses at the aromatic fermentation of a compost heap and we revel in the taste of home-grown fruit and vegetables.

However, the fifth sense — that of touch — is rarely celebrated. I mean, how often do you take hold of your garden plants simply for pleasure?

Oh, we haul them about when we’re digging up and moving them, we chop them about when taking cuttings and handle prunings that we snip from them. But do we ever… stroke them?

Lest you should think I’ve completely lost the plot, go out into your garden and gently pat the rounded inflorescence of a mop-headed hydrangea. Admire its surprising coolness, regardless of the heat of the sun, and the firmness of its construction — except for Annabelle, whose blooms have a delicate softness.

Recommended videos for you

Lowering one’s hand onto a series of hydrangea panicles, as if bestowing an ecclesiastical blessing, is every bit as pleasurable as simply gazing upon them.

Children are rightly encouraged to stroke the furry leaves of Stachys lanata — commonly known as lamb’s ear — but grown-ups rarely bother. I bemoan the fact that the non-flowering form Silver Carpet has, to a great extent, usurped the straight species, whose towering minarets of cotton-wool-coated flower spikes are so much easier to reach and less prone to mildew than the ground-hugging ‘improvement’.

Stachys lanata — aka lambs ear — is one that we’re encouraged to stroke. But why is that so unusual with plants?

Only with leaves that are aromatic — such as those of the scented-leafed pelargoniums — do we regularly rub them between our fingers. We detect, then, the rough hairiness of their leaves, but only before we raise our fingers to our nostrils to take in the fragrance of lemons, attar of roses or chocolate peppermint. Our prime reason for growing them is for their perfume, not their tactility.

The stem of a young ash tree simply cries out to be hugged and caressed. When it’s reached the thickness of a sturdy pony’s fetlock, wrap your arms around it, pull it towards you and admire its sinuous rigidity and the smoothness of the silvery bark.

Tap the bark of a giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and marvel at the softness and lightness of its fibres, wrapped around this monster of the American forests. Is it really there as a kind of fireproofing as insulation against wildfires that would otherwise bring about its demise?

That a tree so robust and so tall should be clad in a coating so light and delicate is one of the marvels of Nature, as its bark has about it none of the roughness of oak or cedar — but you’d only know that if you’d taken the trouble to touch it.

Giant Sequoias are as soft and tactile as they are tall and graceful.

Eucalyptus, with its mottled python skin, Acer griseum (the paperbark maple, with its amber peelings), and Prunus serrula, whose mahogany bark is so dark and shiny that it gave rise to a race known as the ‘Sheraton cherries’, all demand to be caressed. Be a tree hugger and hang the consequences.

Hosta leaves are cool and rubbery, blanket-weed is slithery and slimy and the yucca will knock you back on your heels if you make the mistake of walking into the tips of its leaves. Not for nothing is it known as Adam’s needle.

Thorny plants such as holly and pyracantha (the firethorn) have made us wary of touching them (although young holly foliage is soft and supple despite its sharp appearance) and childhood encounters with nettles and thistles breed into us wise caution when it comes to handling our native flora. With the giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), such contact is extremely inadvisable, as the poisonous hairs will raise painful blisters on the skin.

However, these are exceptions and nothing will stop me from running my hands up the fresh-green foliage of a yew hedge just after its flush of spring growth has emerged or removing my shoes and socks and walking across a dew-drenched lawn early on a summer morning.

Worry not what the neighbours think — get to grips with your garden in the truest sense and start appreciating the tactility of your garden plants as well as their visual beauty and their fragrances. The experience is surprisingly enriching.