During the past two weeks I have been working in the garden for the first time this year – and in fact for the first time since late summer. In autumn, when I should have been toiling, I was far too busy enjoying the fantastic weather; swimming and sitting chatting on the rocks with my pals like a manatee soaking up the sunshine (but without the singing) – I was far too distracted to do any hard graft in the garden. Influenced by many years of reading Dan Pearson and his ilk banging on about how they just leave the garden to itself in autumn – how the fallen leaves and plant litter forms a natural protective mulch and the spent stems of perennials become lovely ghostly sculptural pieces – I decided to take this tack as an experiment and leave the garden to it for once. This approach has had poor results. It makes me sad to report that the ghostly sculptural bit didn’t really work out despite having some good, hard frost. It all looked like a neglected dreadful mess really, which of course is what it was. The ‘natural mulch’ bit was a cod too. The debris just left nice spots for weeds to hide and root in peace and I found quite a few snail hotels amongst the mess. On the plus side It was fantastic fun and really invigorating to get outside again. There is nothing like clearing and weeding in the garden to concentrate the mind and getting down to soil level at this time of year is a great way to see what is going on.
First out of the traps this year were the hellebore hybrids, followed closely by snowdrops. The hybrid hellebores are an interesting bunch as unlike Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, the oriental hybrids or Lenten roses pop up at any time between January and April. Some are herbaceous and some are evergreen and the evergreens come first. I get madly excited by hellebores and am on the lookout each year for a wonderful new seedling – what I am madly after at the moment is a double yellow or double black flowered specimen; no luck so far this year, but I live in hope.
What we think of as the coloured petals on these beauties are actually the sepals, in most plants the green casing around a bloom before it opens. The hellebore’s petals are weedy little frilly things surrounding the lovely stamens. What is so great about this is that unlike true double flowers which are infertile, you can propagate double ‘flowered’ varieties (though not all seedlings will come up double – remember Brother Gregor Mendel from biology classes in school?). Also sepals are long lasting so the blooms last for weeks, even months unlike normal flowers, although the colours fade gradually.
For the best show you should cut all last year’s leaves back once the flower stems emerge.
The first big job was cutting back all the detritus from last year and weeding. I saved the good bits for composting and chucked the bad (dandelion tap roots, creeping buttercup, woody and thorny matter). How I long to have a huge bonfire, I keep trying to hatch plans for having one in the middle of the night but know I would be caught when some busy body called the fire brigade. Dividing perennials which have shown their faces is a good thing to do at this time of year too. Some I have plonked where I want them to grow and others are sitting in pots waiting for a decision on where to put them and others have been selected to give away.
Next up was checking the cold frame – some plants needed a good watering but I was delighted to see that my tender succulents all survived the frost. Of the other hundreds of pots I had scattered around the garden the results have been decidedly mixed. Matters are not helped by my omitting to label anything at all. I am devastated to have lost pretty much all my candelabra Primula – this is incredibly galling and I would love to know what went wrong. I spent a whole eighteen months from collection of the seeds, propagation and nursing the baby plants all through last summer. All of the crowns simply came away in my hand – it was as if the roots had rotted away (like what happens with vine weevil). I am flummoxed as to the cause, It can’t be damp as firstly the winter was not particularly wet and secondly the plants grow best in boggy conditions – if anyone has any ideas please do let me know.
For some daft reason I spent a lot of time potting up seedlings of the weedy Euphorbia lathyris – now I can’t decide whether to chuck them or to keep them for using , as I had planned originally, in displays in pots. Last summer I thought this was a great idea and they would look sort of interesting, now I can’t see how I ever thought they could look good in any situation but find it difficult to throw them out.
Having done a preliminary sort of the jumble of pots and tidied my grandly named nursery and potting area (about 1m by 2m) I tackled the tough jobs I had left till last: pulling down two old Clematis Montana and pruning the climbing roses. I have two top tips for you: 1. Unless you have a massive garden with wild area at the back in which to grow it, don’t bother planting Clematis montana. 2. If you do decide to go ahead and ignore tip 1, then treat it with extreme caution, be incredibly strict and chop it back REALLY HARD immediately after flowering. This plant is lovely for 3 weeks of the year max – when it is in flower. The rest of the year it is a tangled mess and particularly ugly in winter when it is a leafless tangled mess. It is incredibly difficult to cut down as it has grown right up over the roof and is entangled in gutters, pipework and has even grown into the attic through the eaves. There are lots of other lovely clematis to grow, and the viticella variety are lovely gentle, non-vigorous and easy to manage plants in gorgeous colours and lots of different flower types.
Battling the climbing roses was torture job number two. I don’t know why I am so pathetic about hard pruning. I didn’t act tough enough when these plants were younger and now trying to get them under control is extremely difficult and involves having to use a saw, a heavy duty loppers, going into my neighbours garden and getting scratched to pieces for my trouble.
The last very tricky job is trying to put manners on my neighbour’s Solanum jasminum which is encroaching on my garden and threatens to take down an entire fence. This is such a tempting plant – I was once suckered into buying it myself. On paper it is delightful, a very quick climber – will cover an unsightly wall, shed or fuel tank in no time at all. Evergreen, pretty glossy leaves and delightful white jasmine like flowers in summer which last until November. In actuality it is a bloody pest. Like the montana it insinuates its way into everything, romps out of control really quickly and destroys everything in its path. I am trying to surreptitiously cut the stems as low down as I can reach and then pull the cut bits over the fence (which is a pain as I then have to get rid of the bloody stuff).
I still have to finish pulling down one of the clematis but feel delighted to have got these horrible jobs out of the way and can now enjoy the proper bit of gardening – admiring the Narcissi and early tulips, and wandering around talking to myself and making plans for summer…. Dream on and get out there now.