Few readers will not, by now, have been hit by the credit crunch. But I have read little, if anything, of its effect on gardens and gardening. Is it my imagination, or have the emails from certain seed, plant, bulb and rose providers multiplied in recent months? I know, from my own experience, that garden tours must be in crisis, as I cancelled going on one myself to Sicily, feeling that a cutback in travel really had to be made.
Recently, I lectured on a cruise ship of the Royal Hebridean line, Spirit, talking about South African plants and planthunters as we sailed from Cape Town to Durban. The ship was just under 50% full. A week after I got back, I was rung to be told it had been sold. In May, I was due to lead a group through Tuscan gardens, with treats including a visit to the Acton villa, La Pietra, to see how the restoration was coming on. That was cancelled a week or so ago as it lacked enough takers. Normally, there would be a waiting list.
And so I turn to my own garden, The Laskett, with its four acres of intensively cultivated land. It is a maze of pleached trees, clipped hedges, topiary, herbaceous borders, parterres and just about everything that calls for pairs of hands. To me, the garden is sacred, and everything or almost everything must be sacrificed to keep it going. Mercifully, bar dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s, I’d carried through all the great structural changes before the axe fell. A few more conifers needed to go, and the lack of drainage in one garden had to be resolved. I’ve just about scraped together the funds for those things to be done. Otherwise, it’s retrenchment.
The first move was to get my two excellent gardeners on side. Up until recently, the good times have rolled, but now they have to think in terms of cost-cutting, of how we can economise and where cheap but good plants might be obtained. I’ve had no alternative but to reduce them from four to three days a week, and we’ll have to monitor the effect of that on the quality of garden maintenance through the year.
The luxury of a pretty guest house in the garden has gone, made over to short holiday lets to garden lovers. That will meet the salary of one of the gardeners, and I’ve noted there’s been no petition from them for a pay rise so far this year. If any outside skilled labour is needed, I shop around, and the excellent tree surgeons who used to come all the way from Cirencester are now reserved for specialist work a local firm is fine for elementary chopping down.
I was keenly aware from the outset of these financial disasters inflicted upon us that a total change of lifestyle was necessary. The running of the garden demanded a radical repositioning for what will certainly be two very tough years, followed by austerity for perhaps another eight, as the mountain of debt run up by Government rises to staggering sums. I’m glad that I remember the austerity of the 1950s, but I prefer not to dwell upon the further adjustments to be called for if taxation rises. The Belle Époque has gone, never to return, not that there was much belle about it.
Inevitably, the Kitchen Garden is looked at with renewed interest. Fresh, organic produce is to be envied and the saving of household bills, thanks to a steady stream of produce into the kitchen, is to be welcomed. As the cook, I look at what is there and try, when I can, to work from it rather than reaching out for the Peruvian asparagus in the supermarket.
The tightening of belts, even in garden terms, can be invigorating. It makes you cast a critical eye over your domain and prioritise. Looking back, there was a decadent prodigality about gardening during the last years of the 20th and the opening ones of the 21st centuries. I’m not sorry to see that go. And, to end on a more cheering note, having been in the glooms for several months, I cannot tell you the effect that the arrival of spring flowers has had on my psyche. They, thank heaven, are one of the things that neither Government nor the bankers can muck up.