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Tree enterprise - David Wheeler on a lifetime of buying specimen trees and shrubs

Pursuits | By ​David Wheeler

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)

The free dispersal of plants and cuttings remains my one enduring New Year’s resolution. By David Wheeler

New Year’s resolutions fail me. Good intentions about diary-keeping, diets and the demon drink all evaporate before Epiphany. Except … except when it comes to garden matters.

For the past 30 years, I’ve kept an acquisitions book, logging every plant bought: its provenance, size and, most importantly, cost. Plant prices, like everything else, have escalated since my first jottings – I note particularly fine specimens of scarlet and red oaks (Quercus coccinea and Q rubra) bought in 1993 for a couple of used fivers, the five-foot tall youngsters brought home in a family car.

The equivalent today would set me back a bunch of crumpled tenners (except the new ones don’t crumple). A recent internet search shows one UK nursery selling 16-inch coccinea tiddlers for around £30 each; another wants more than £100 for a juvenile rubra no taller than 2ft 6in. Perennials – and we bought thousands – were commonly £1.50 to £2. Today? Well, you know.

Money apart, the acquisitions book can also be read as a travelogue, charting journeys to far-flung nurseries and specialist growers. I can look back on a car bootful of unfamiliar shrubs (costing little more than £30 for the lot) from two famous Cornish nurseries involving – don’t tell the COP cops – a 500-mile round trip. Journeys hauling back plants from Scotland and Ireland burnt excessive amounts of fossil fuel. Let’s not think of the air miles for imports from Italy and southern France.

But over the years I have planted something approaching 2,000 specimen trees and shrubs and another 20,000 hornbeam, beech, yew and box saplings, to create hedges and decorative enclosures. Might Greta consider that an attempt to balance the carbon ledger?

A new acquisitions book has now been inaugurated, following our move from Herefordshire to 12 wooded acres in Carmarthenshire a few months ago. Given my age, I doubt I’ll fill its 250 pages, although two are already fully inked up. As Alexander Pope, 18th-century landscaping genius (and more), famously said, ‘Hope springs eternal.’ After all, gardeners are – or should be – perpetual optimists. Mañana is my reliable mantra.

My gardening years have taught me many modest money-saving skills – the making of new no-cost plants being the most rewarding.

I don’t rate myself highly when it comes to raising plants from seed. I’m too impatient and perhaps too heavy-handed. When it comes to cuttings, though (I’m seldom happier than when slaving over a heated propagator), or the creation of new plants by division or layering, I excel in wizardry.

As a 14-year-old, I took cuttings at a time when, instead of the ‘top-shelf’ magazines my peers were beginning to explore, I bought (and hid from my mates) Amateur Gardening every week. Oh, the untold thrill of sending off for and receiving nurserymen’s catalogues in response to the small ads that choked the back pages. My passion then was for easy-to-propagate fuchsias, bought from a hugely overweight pensioner. He filled his garden with them and seemingly lived entirely for the joy of teasing newly rooted cuttings from sheltered beds of moist black compost and selling them for a penny each.

The years have also taught me to conquer my shyness about requesting cuttings, especially if the plants I crave are mature or plentiful and their owner seems kindly disposed. Similarly, I’m flattered if someone asks me for cuttings. I’ve even dug up whole young plants to give away when I’ve had duplicates and if the person making the plea is someone I respect or deem worthy of the gift.

This free dispersal of plants and cuttings remains my one enduring New Year’s resolution.

David’s Instagram account is @hortusjournal

This story was from January 2022 issue. Subscribe Now