Late winter grooming

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Seedpods of my vast Liquidambar tree, which litter my garden beds in late winter!

Late winter is such a busy time of year in my garden. It is when I cut back most (but not all) of my summer- and autumn-flowering shrubby perennials (I leave the very cold-sensitive ones till early September); toss an organic pelleted fertiliser around the whole garden; then spread a layer of compost and cow manure over the beds. Finally, cane mulch is put on top to conserve moisture and keep weeds down over the growing season. However, this week I remembered there is an important step that needs to be done before the fertiliser spreading: clearing old mulch and leaf litter from the soil so the fertiliser can get in contact with the soil!

So the past week has seen me feverishly scraping clumps of semi-decomposed cane mulch from last year, leaves, sticks, Liquidambar seedpods (of which I have thousands!) and other debris that had accumulated on all my garden beds. Those beds beneath deciduous trees fare the worst. The amount of material is quite startling - it has all (except sticks and the seedpods) been put onto the compost heap. I wanted to get the fertiliser on before the big rain event that was predicted (correctly) for last Wednesday.

Bags of cane mulch and cow manure, delivered by our local Scout group as a fundraiser, to go on the beds after they are fertilised!

Where it was chiefly the remains of old cane mulch on the surface, I started to simply push the debris to the back of the garden beds, if there was plenty of space, telling myself I would put it back on as part of the mulch once the fertiliser and compost/manure had been laid. It seemed a bit sad that all the natural mulch of dead leaves was being taken away: in a perfect ecosystem it would break down and become humus in the soil. But it just doesn't happen quickly enough in my garden. And it will go back onto the garden in the form of compost later on, so it is not wasted. It will add a slow trickle of nutrients and valuable humus to improve the organic content of the soil, so vital for the existence of the billions of microbes that make up the 'life' of the soil and perform so many essential functions for and with plants.

Erysimum mutabile, one of my few late winter/early spring blooms!

As I cleared each bed, I tried to look upon the exercise as allowing me to check each individual plant to see how it was going, getting up close and personal with each one in a way that doesn't happen very often during the year. I groomed each plant where necessary, removing shabby leaves or errant stems. As I went along, all sorts of thoughts passed through my head about each plant I encountered. Was it thriving and thus in the right spot, or struggling and therefore needing to be moved? Did I still like the plant - did it still 'spark joy'? If not, maybe it should be pulled out. Did the plant look as if it needed to be divided or was it too crowded with its neighbours? Were some of the groundcovers too vigorous and need reining in? I jotted many of these thoughts down in a garden journal after each bed was complete (or else did the task straight away); otherwise, those ideas would be gone as surely as yesterday's rainbow! The clearing work was also a chance to remove any weeds that had appeared over winter, including some really pernicious ones, such as oxalis and onion weed, which need careful, meticulous extrication - and which will probably haunt me for the rest of my days, so tenacious are they.

My Deutzia bush looks bare and forlorn now but will soon be covered in fresh leaves, and will flower in late spring

I resolved (and wrote down in the journal!) that I would start this clearing/grooming job much sooner next year - in the depths of winter when there isn't a lot to do outdoors, and when it is too soon to do the pruning yet my fingers itch to improve the garden. Whilst at times I cursed the job, I reminded myself that it is a small thing to do for my garden, when I consider what I am asking of my garden to do for me: to regrow and be filled with lush leaves and flowers, pleasing me greatly all summer and autumn. I do very little very physical gardening in the summer months, beyond watering and deadheading.

One of my main borders as it is now. It will soon fill in and no earth will be visible then!

At this time of year, my garden is quite bare. Apart from a few small areas devoted to winter and early spring flowers, it is pruned back severely. The stark outlines of deciduous trees and shrubs, and the cut-back forms of my shrubby perennials with lots of bare earth visible between them, probably would seem quite ugly to an objective observer (though I don't let anyone actually see at this time of year if I can help it!). Whilst I envy those with permanent evergreen gardens of shrubs, and know I need more of that in my plot, I still can't yet forgo the joy of watching my garden fill in completely as spring progresses, with eventually not a skerrick of bare earth to be seen. My sparse late-winter garden allows me to experience that magical transformation. For me, the anticipation of spring is akin to the excitement of a child awaiting Christmas morning!