Plantsmanship: tool of social belligerence or vital skill?

As you gain expertise in gardening you begin to understand the enormous range of plants available to gardeners. Explorers over the last few centuries, including modern day explorers like Dan Hinkley, Chris Chadwell, Keith Rushforth and Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, have brought back a wealth of species from across the globe, while professional plant breeders have worked away on improving the traits of sometimes lacklustre plants to create desirable garden plants. Amateur breeders have also contributed greatly to the range of plants that we can grow, either by deliberately making crosses or by simply having a keen eye for a promising seedling. It’s no wonder then that gardening has attracted that most curious of person, ‘the collector’.

I should mention here that I am something of a collector myself. I have a modest collection of temperate plants in my small garden in Devon and, space allowing, I will add to their number as circumstances allow. There’s nothing inherently wrong with owning a diverse range of plants, but I do wonder if there is an element of unpleasantness around some of the people who collect plants? It’s commonly thought that gardening brings out the very best of already fantastic people, but over the years I’ve come to doubt this idea somewhat.

I’ve noticed two types of plant enthusiasts who, for the sake of argument, I’ll refer to as ‘collectors’ and ‘plantspeople’.

There is an enormous amount of competition between collectors. There’s a need to own as many plants as possible, to have large numbers of particularly rare and seldom-encountered plants. There’s nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with this; any collectable commodity, such as coins or stamps to take two classic examples, will attract those who wish to collect large numbers of the things that make them happy. For me the issue is the level of belligerence that some of these people seem to exude. Visit a plant fair and you’ll sooner or later encounter the type of person I mean, darting from table to table and snatching a strange assortment of plants so that they can add to their collections. Providing this is all they do I keep my disdain to myself.

But, and here’s the problem for me, then you get ‘the attitude’. Having a fairly decent plant knowledge myself I seem to attract these people, who waft over like a bad smell. “I’m a plantsman/plantswoman” they introduce themselves….

As they usually insist on starting a conversation or, worse still, are introduced to me, they then proceed to waffle on about how many plants they have, the various things they consider themselves to specialise in. There’s little more irritating on a day off when I’m trying to buy plants for my own garden than to have someone I’ve never met before in my life telling me that they have a big collection of X, Y, or Z, implying that this gives them some sort of status. Having 50 different Geraniums doesn’t make you a someone, if just means that you’ve spent money on 50 different Geraniums. Here, for me, is the difference between a ‘collector’ and a ‘plantsperson’, a collector collects for status while a plantsperson earns status by sharing knowledge.

Great plantspeople usually do have excellent collections of plants; if you’re passionate about plants and have some room to grow them then it’s rather inevitable. Usually the gardens of plantspeople are homes to the most precious plants they can grow. Each is a plant that has a specific point of interest, is a plant studied by its owner, or has been chosen out of the range of species and/or cultivars specifically because its owner considers it to be particularly excellent. There’s no boasting, there’s no one-upmanship; the collection reflects the personal interests of the plantsperson themselves.

When you get to meet a truly great plantsperson you’ll find an abundance of knowledge and insight, usually freely shared without hesitation. Hoarding knowledge without sharing it or using it only serves to make the person with the knowledge feel superior, at which point that person becomes no better than the collector who boasts to other people how many rare plants they own.

Making others feel inferior doesn’t make you a ‘someone’, it makes you an ass.

I guess I’m rambling a little and should address the question of whether plantsmanship is a sign of horticultural belligerence or is a vital skill.

For me ‘plantsmanship’ is about knowledge and insight, and the desire to know more about plants and how to grow them. It’s about having enough interest to look at plants in depth, aiming to learn about them and try to understand the best way to grow them. As a professional gardener I see plantsmanship summed up in the immortal words ‘right plant, right place’, using knowledge to choose plants that will perform well and make the best effect in a garden. You’d think this would be fairly common practice, yet it doesn’t seem to be!

I don’t believe that plantsmanship is solely about collecting only rare plants either. Yes there are many rare and wonderful plants being grown by plantspeople, but do they limit themselves? Not in my experience. One of the great skills of plantsmanship is the ability to recognise the scope and potential of a plant, so the ability to choose the best fruit and vegetables to grow in your garden, the best tree to provide shelter, or even the bedding plants that will best cope with the the conditions in your windowboxes all counts as ‘plantsmanship’. Whether you choose a rare Photinia from the mountains of China’s Hupeh Province or the common P. ‘Red Robin’ doesn’t matter; choosing the plant that will best achieve the desired result is the aim.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Veitchii’ is a lovely old cultivar and is popular with collectors.
It has historical significance but is it a particularly ‘good’ plant?

This won’t go down well with the legions of people collectors who have granted themselves status because they have a big collection, but I’m beyong caring. I’m struggling to muster the energy to deal with those who proudly show me a stick with a couple of leaves on it that is some oddity from a far-off hillside, or who struggle endlessly to keep a plant that is needy and never flowers because it’s rare. I’m interested in plants that grow well and perform, plants that are or might great garden plants.

If you grow plants solely to massage your ego that’s fine, but please leave me to do my plant shopping in peace.