Friday 24 February 2012

Cutting back perennials - The case for delay.

The dried stems and seed heads of last year’s perennials are finally getting the chop. Perhaps this may seem scandalously tardy to some, but I would rather leave the drifts of perennials to age, for the most part, gracefully through the winter than spend months looking at drab patches of bare soil waiting for spring bulbs to show.

The Upper Deck in February. Miscanthus 'Yakushima Dwarf' and Monarda 'Scorpion'. 

I leave the skeletal stems as long as I possibly can, until their ragged untidiness gets to me, which is probably way longer than those of the neat school of gardening could tolerate. Through the autumn and winter the shriveled blooms and stems are given new charm as they shimmer when caught by golden winter sunshine and sparkle fleetingly when encrusted by frost. The swathes of straw like stems, fluffy seed heads and delicate framework of umbellifers look fantastically appropriate to the season - it is second glorious bite of the cherry. The plants that provided a colourful pageant through the summer go on to deliver a quite different, muted, but no less splendid display, through the colder months. Wildlife benefit too: the deft gymnastics of a goldfinch swinging on slender stems to get at seed heads is prize enough but insects benefit too I think. 
Some plants seed heads are more attractive than others and the ghosts of some perennials and grasses are more robust. When I plant now I now try to imagine my schemes not only in the summer but how it will look in the autumn and winter too. Plants will stay in best shape in sheltered gardens. In  areas whipped by savage winds or really damp spots toughies like teasels and verbascums have the best of remaining upright.

Achillea 'Walter Funke' in February after frosts and snow.

My favourite plants which stand well:

Telekia speciosa
Perovskia (Russian sage)
Verbena bonariensis
Lunaria annua
Molinia (beautiful until early winter then flops)
Aquilegia (ladies bonnets)
Monarda (bergamot)
Nigella damascena (love-in-the-mist)
Digitalis purpurea (Foxgloves)
Papaver somniferum (opium poppies)
Echinacea pupurea
Dipsacus fullonum (teasels)
Foeniculum  (fennel)

There are practical advantages to leaving the cutting back until late winter. The first is you know where plants are. Pretty basic stuff, but if you are planting bulbs, adding new plants, weeding or applying mulch, it helps. Secondly, the old growth provides a protective tangle over new soft growth as spring approaches. Finally, you get masses of plants for nothing - no work required, no money changes hands. I love this bit, the plants set seed and these are distributed naturally through the beds and tiny plants spring up bolstering planting, replacing those perennials which have a short life. In this way the planting becomes dynamic and interesting, a self generating colony where some types of plant will thrive and others will dwindle. Those most suited to your patch will thrive. At some point you may decide to intervene to redress the balance by removing some seed heads or organise the chaos by moving plants, but allowing nature to take at least some control will reduce your workload and spend. This also saves the environmental costs of buying in plants raised in a nursery - all excellent reasons to leave seed heads alone and weed carefully preserving young seedlings. Thrift and time-saving, brilliant.

How about the downside of cutting back late? Well, if you dally too long plants will start growing apace making cutting back more challenging as you try to snip around the new growth. Seeing the beauty might be a problem for some, choosing plants that have a sturdy framework helps, as does smartening -up a bed by taking out plants as they become too tatty for you to tolerate rather than waiting for one epic session of cutting back.

The task of cutting back large tracts of planting can be back breaking and leave you with an aching hand, from which the secateurs have to be prised . The large Miscanthus like ‘Grosse Fontaine’ can be a real challenge to cut back in any number so now, after a tip from a landscaper, I fell them with a petrol hedge trimmer. There are probably lots of reasons why this is not the best method, but it works.

Having enjoyed some of these plants for seven or eight months the process of cutting them back is just about finished. Once I have cleared the old growth, I weed and spread a layer of mulch. The beds look rather bare but spick and span and ready for spring.  

Friday 17 February 2012

Out of hibernation straight into spring panic and last minute bareroot ordering

I have been roused abruptly from a comfortable hibernation and inactivity induced by the nasty cold snap and it has been quickly replaced by a familiar, seasonal panic. An alarming email from a nursery proclaiming ‘time is running out for bareroot planting’ and ‘spring is just around the corner’ was given more weight as I worked in the garden yesterday in the company of singing birds and swelling buds. The nursery were right; though there were patches of snow on the ground just last weekend, here at least, spring is definitely on the starting blocks, ready to sprint away at any moment. How will I ever keep up? No matter how much I plan and prepare the spring panic always strikes.
Top of my to do list was ordering the last few bareroot plants I need. I ordered some trees and a stretch of hedging as soon as bareroot plants became available at the end of last year, but I have decided to fill a space I was saving for an asparagus bed with more soft fruit: Autumn raspberries because they are a complete luxury requiring bargain basement care. When all the other soft fruits are over and incredibly expensive in the shops autumn raspberries reward minimum effort with a fantastic, delicious crop. A layer of mulch and chop them to the ground about now and they provide fruit from August to the frosts. Blackcurrants because they are a favourite for jam making and with few more bushes I can avoid considered, careful pruning (to which I am not naturally suited!) and stool the bushes in rotation every three years. As they have most fruit on one and two year old growth this regime works well. Tart Blackcurrants also have the advantage of being one of the fruits that actually make it to the kitchen in great volume- sweeter fruits get grazed as people pass by. I also fancy trying flavouring vodka with blackcurrants, my previous winter warmers, bramble brandy, raspberry vodka and sloe gin proved very popular in the cold snap!
I have chosen the blackcurrant ‘Ebony’ an early cultivar with extra large, sweet berries and the autumn raspberry ‘Joan J’, new to me but the nursery write up claims it is bigger and tastier than ‘Autumn Bliss’, an old favourite, so it has to be worth a try.

Autumn fruiting yellow raspberry  'Fall Gold' in the garden last year. Prolific and flavoursome.

Choosing bareroot plants has huge advantages, there is normally a far greater choice of varieties and the cost savings are considerable plus less water, fertilizers and fuel are used in their growing and delivery. Admittedly what arrives in the post can look a little alarming to the uninitiated, dead sticks with a tangle of roots but I don’t think I have ever had a bareroot tree or shrub fail and I am not the type to lavish them with care! The stock friendly hedge I planted over Christmas is already budding-up nicely. Thanks to a faulty electric fence the stock, (the wily equines Frank, Stan and Sillas) have already sampled it and are still standing. Their diligent nipping out of the tops should mean they shoot nicely further down. The hedge includes hawthorn, crab apple, dog rose, dogwood, field maple, guelder rose, hazel and the wayfaring tree and so it should be a haven for wildlife as well as stock proof once it is established.

A barrow load of bareroot stock friendly hedging

 Running from November until March, the bareroot season is actually a very wide window of opportunity, all the more galling that I am only getting my act together now, as planting earlier, before the very cold weather gives plants the best start and you the best chance of getting the varieties you want. Stocks do run out, having said this the tardy can sometimes pick up a bargain or at least cut price delivery as nurseries try to shift stock before it is all too late. This is where I came in: my plants are now ordered and should arrive in the nick of time. Now there is just the seed box to sort, plug plants to order, the perennials to chop, mulch to spread...
Some tips for bareroot planting:

v Get the plants in the ground as soon as possible after they arrive if the soil is not water logged or frozen.
v The plants look lifeless but can still be damaged by frost and drying winds so if the ground is frozen when they arrive plunge the roots in a sack of compost or pot stuffed with straw and stash them in a cool shed. This can be tough with larger trees, last year I was caught out by weeks of freezing temperatures and kept a clutch of bareroot fruit trees alive by wrapping their roots in layers of newspapers, old duvets and carpets.
v If the weather is reasonable but you are just not quite ready heel the plants in. Dig a trench large enough to accommodate the roots of the plants, lay the plants in the trench at an angle and cover the roots with soil. The plants should be fine for a few weeks but should be planted properly before spring.
v Buy from a good nursery - the way your plant is grown, lifted, stored and transported will all affect how well it gets away in the spring.
v Most bareroot plants should be planted at the same level they were growing at the nursery, look for the soil mark on the stem. Blackcurrants can be planted a couple of inches lower to encourage them to shoot while raspberries will fail if planted too deeply.
v When planting fruit trees ensure the graft, this looks like a swelling or raised ridge around the trunk where the fruiting tree has been cleverly ‘welded’ onto the roots of another to control its growth and vigour, is above ground level.
v Soak the roots in a bucket of water for a while before planting.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Some introductions, the story so far and things to come.

In this, my inaugural post, I would like to introduce myself, my garden and my plans for this blog, all good, solid stuff so far.
Starting with me, a quick rundown: I am a garden designer, the author of 10 gardening books and I have written for a number of gardening publications. My design style has been described as quirky and imaginative and my books as hardworking, innovative and packed with no-nonsense, practical advice -I am happy with that. A passion for plants renders me unable to leave a nursery without a bulging car boot and leaves me shamefully vulnerable to impulse buying plants. I have a love of growing my own and the decorated garden. I try to be good to wildlife and refuse to use pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Upcycling, reuse and thrifty solutions give me a kick but I believe quality is worth paying for. I think each person’s garden should be their own, a space that lifts their spirits and as such is beyond the comment of the arbiters of taste. In case that all sounds a tad earnest I should add my ideal garden is one devoted to relaxation, entertaining, play and escape as well as plants.
My garden: My garden is very much ‘in progress’, it has been under my care for just two years and as it stands it has islands of my creating adrift in someone else’s grand plan. Gradually the original is being nibbled away and one day my grand plan will be complete and the garden will be mine. There is a list, an incredibly long list, of projects and problems to be tackled to complete the transformation and then, I suspect, it will be time to start again. Thankfully a good garden is never finished.
The garden is in Devon and covers about an acre. It is looped around the house and set on the side of a hill so changes of level offer interesting design opportunities. I don’t have a gardener, the business of gardening is more important to me than a pristine garden, though on grim days when everything is getting out of hand, I see this is in fact complete madness. My husband pushes the mower, joyfully wields a chainsaw and lifts things and when big stuff needs doing I have a gang of colourful local builders to call upon.

My first project was to build a simple veg patch and fruit garden on a swathe of perfect lawn. I have little time to devote to this enterprise and my approach is shamelessly relaxed, at times unorthodox, but the garden is still amazingly bountiful. I take every short cut available and things, (mostly weeds) get a little out of control but there is still plenty of tasty organic produce and apparently I am a much ‘nicer person’ when I have been ‘pottering’ in the veg patch for 20 minutes. 

When we arrived there was no real link between house and garden, no place to wander out barefoot with a cup of coffee and slump in a chair, nowhere to eat and cook outdoors  and so the second big change  was to create a terrace of deliciously worn and horrendously heavy York stone flags. This took massive machines, robust builders and serious earth moving.  At the same time a large seat designed with a playful nod to the gothic character of the house and known as The Throne was built into one of the banks.

Next came the Top Deck, completed early last summer by the same intrepid crew, much recovered from hefting York Stone. Set at the highest point of the garden this is a place to take in the view across the valley and relax amongst swathes of flowering perennials alive with bees and grasses. The bees are mine by the way; the planting around the deck is designed to look fantastic and provide plenty of bee fodder too. Sadly I can’t find a picture of it at its fabulous, flowery peak...something for this year.

As well as all that there have been loads of trees planted, a small deck for two built near the back door, containers purchased planted, moved, replanted and moved again, new hedges and innumerable plants removed, replanted or re-homed.
 That is the story so far and plenty more is planned : a rose/herb garden, an area dedicated to cut flowers, I can never bring myself to cut them from the garden, a wild flower bank around my bees ( it is pretty wild now, but a tangle of brambles is not quite the same), the transformation of some sad concrete paving into something marvellous ( as yet unknown) and a thorough revamp of the driveway and area at the front of the house plus the long overdue tidy up and replanting of a long bed backed by gargantuan laurels. There are also numerous small fixes needed: something to hide pipes on the wall by the terrace, a spot to be found for a pizza oven, hedges to sort out, an asparagus bed to build, an idea for low maintenance container planting to try and some tree seats to design and build. On top of that there is the rest of the garden to keep chugging along.
This is where the blog comes in, there is going to be an awful lot going on and I hope some of it will be worth sharing. There will be the routine chores in the veg and fruit gardens, the new varieties and tactics I try to report on, successes and failures alike. There will be plenty of talk about plants, plants I love, plants that disappoint (I have no time for prima donnas) and advice on how to create planting schemes. I hope to include practical step by step instructions on how to create decorative features I include in the garden and to show how to carry out practical tasks, like the much feared pruning. While exciting larger construction projects should yield an abundance of inspiring ideas and helpful information to share.  I will add in give-aways of my new books and I reserve the right to a very occasional, cathartic garden rant.
In short I am inviting anyone who cares to join me on a gardening journey, a journey which I hope will provide solid, practical information and small sparks of inspiration to ignite the imagination of those along for the ride.    

My thanks to Clive Nichols for the fabulous images.